ICRC in WWI: the International Prisoners-of-War Agency
In October 1914, after the opening battles of the war in which many prisoners were taken, the ICRC opened its International Agency in Geneva; during the conflict it listed almost five million POWs, visited many of them and enabled families to send relief parcels.
The first major offensives of 1914 were marked by the battles in northern and eastern France and by fierce fighting in Russia. A large number of prisoners were taken and all sides suffered heavy losses.
The ICRC took vigorous measures to deal with this dramatic situation. On 15 August 1914 it sent a circular to the National Societies asking them to give the composition of their special prisoner-of-war commi ssions and proposing the establishment of a central office to assist prisoners of war, in accordance with the mandate conferred upon it by the International Red Cross Conference in Washington in 1912.
On 27 August the President of the ICRC, Gustave Ador, issued a circular announcing the establishment of the International Agency, whose task was to centralize information and organize the dispatch of gifts to prisoners of war. The circular also stated that the Agency would classify incoming tracing requests and send copies to the National Societies of the Detaining Powers so as to ascertain where the individuals sought were being held.
On 12 October 1914 the Agency began operations in the Rath Museum in Geneva, setting up a system for processing information which allowed it to deal quickly and efficiently with the 5,000 requests it received daily.
Using the lists of prisoners of war provided by the warring States as a basis, the Agency made out an index card for each prisoner. These cards were classified by nationality, in files which also contained requests for information. As soon as a piece of information was matched with a request, the Agency was able to send a reply to the family or the place of origin of the prisoner of war concerned.
In order to obtain even more precise information about prisoners of war, the Agency set up two further files: a topographical file showing the grave sites of dead soldiers and a regimental file.
In addition, at the start of the war the Agency handled the correspondence, gifts and money orders sent to prisoners of war. These activities were subsequently taken over by the postal services of the neutral countries, i.e. Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.
During the war the Agency made out 4,805,000 index cards and dispatched 1,854,914 parcels and consignments of collective relief.
The armistice in November 1918 did not signal the closure of the Agency, which continued its activities in the context of the major operations to repatriate prisoners held by the Central Powers or in Russia.
On 31 December 1919, after the peace treaties had been signed, the ICRC closed the Agency down. In the period between the two World Wars it was replaced by a special department at the ICRC which was responsible for handling individual inquiries, making representations concerning missing persons and providing former prisoners with certificates enabling them to cl aim benefits.
In 1916 the Danish Red Cross set up an agency in Copenhagen similar to the one in Geneva. It dealt with information about prisoners of war on the German-Russian front and continued its activities until 1 April 1919. During the war another agency was established in Vienna, under the auspices of the Austrian government, primarily to process requests about Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war.