ICRC in WWI: overview of activities


During World War I, the ICRC faced the biggest challenges of its 50-year history; it visited prisoners of war, strived to help civilians for the first time, led a campaign against chemical weapons and, at the end, visited political prisoners during the Hungarian revolution.

The First World War led to a considerable expansion of the ICRC’s activities. The ICRC realized from the outset that this would be the case and, in a circular dated 15 August 1914, called upon the national Red Cross societies to support it in its new tasks to assist the millions of people who were falling victim to the conflict.

In addition to its traditional work in aid of wounded or si ck soldiers, the ICRC was to extend the scope of its action to include prisoners of war, although no convention specifically mandated it to do so. To this end, it set up a special body, the International Prisoners-of-War Agency , to collect and pass on information about prisoners.

ICRC delegates also visited many POW camps in order to check that   prisoners were being held in acceptable conditions of detention.

During the 1914-18 war the ICRC monitored compliance with the 1906 Geneva Convention (a revised version of the Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field which was in force at the time). In accordance with its characteristic principle of neutrality, it passed on to the States concerned complaints and allegations of violations of the 1906 Geneva Convention and of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, with particular regard to the 1907 Hague Convention for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention and the basic humanitarian rules applicable in the event of conflict. It also worked on behalf of civilians, in particular those living in enemy-occupied territory. Throughout the conflict, the ICRC was to protest against the inhumane treatment to which both combatants and civilians were subjected. In particular, it led a vigorous campaign against the use of chemical weapons . These were used for the first time during the First World War, causing devastation on a scale that had never been seen before.

After the war, the ICRC also carried out major operations to repatriate prisoners of war.   In addition, its delegates carried out specific humanitarian operations during the Russian and Hungarian revolutions .

Activities for prisoners of war  

At the time of the First World War, the international conventions made no explicit reference to action by the ICRC in aid of prisoners of war. From a legal perspective, the ICRC could nonetheless base its work on the Hague Convention of 1907 respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Regulations annexed thereto, which contain a number of provisions relating to prisoners of war and dealing with matters such as the exchange of information, visits to internment camps and the treatment of prisoners. The ICRC also based its work on a resolution passed by the International Red Cross Conference held in Washington in 1912, which entrusted it with the task of distributing collective relief to captured servicemen.

These texts however, were very theoretical and there were many deficiencies in their provisions. The ICRC endeavoured to make up for these shortcomings by taking several practical initiatives. On 27 August 1914, at the start of the conflict, it set up the International Prisoners-of-War Agency, which had the task of collecting and passing on information on captured servicemen and forwarding relief parcels to them.

From December 1914 ICRC delegates obtained permission from the different belligerent States to visit POW camps. These visits allowed the ICRC to check on conditions of detention and to let the prisoners know that they had not been forgotten by the outside world.

The delegates checked the same aspects of the conditions of detention during each visit – in particular, food, hygiene and the state of the prisoners'quarters. After each visit they drew up a report containing their findings and comments. Th ese reports were then sent to the detaining power of the prisoners of war – so that it could take steps to improve the conditions of detention – and to the captives’ power of origin.

POW reports published  

The ICRC never imposed its conclusions on warring States (the Convention that specifically afforded protection to prisoners of war was adopted only in 1929); it informed them of its wishes or recommendations. Nonetheless, the ICRC had ways of making its voice heard. Throughout the war, it published and sold its reports on visits to POW camps, thus providing the general public with information on the conditions of detention of those prisoners to whom its delegates had been given access.

When circumstances dictated, the ICRC also addressed appeals to the belligerent States in the form of circulars concerning the treatment of prisoners or denouncing the most flagrant violations and abuses. On 12 July 1917, for example, the ICRC launched an appeal to States condemning acts of reprisal, and on 21 January 1918 it issued a circular calling for the abolition of propaganda camps, the aim of which was to win prisoners over to the enemy cause. The ICRC also tried to bring about improvements in the conditions in which prisoners of war were held and to secure the release of those who had spent long periods in captivity. However, no releases took place until the last two years of the war, following the signing of bilateral agreements between the belligerent States.

From the outbreak of war, the ICRC also tried to secure the release of wounded or sick prisoners, as provided for in the Geneva Convention.
In November 1914 the ICRC asked the Swiss President to look into the possibility of interning, in neutral Switzerland, a large number of men who were too severely wounded to be able to cope with the conditions of detention in the camps. For the first time, on 31 December 1914, the ICRC used its good offices to convince the belligerents of the need to reach agreement on this matter. However, it did not intervene directly, leaving the Swiss authorities to persuade the warring States to sign agreements among themselves. In 1916, as a result of these efforts, Switzerland took in up to 30,000 internees at one time.

Similarly, the ICRC approached the parties to the conflict directly to propose ways of assisting wounded or sick prisoners, depending on their condition. On 26 April 1917 it also launched an appeal inviting the belligerent States to repatriate able-bodied prisoners who had been held captive for a long time or who were suffering from serious psychological disturbances (“barbed-wire psychosis”)   .

ICRC delegates were not the only ones to visit t he POW camps. Representatives of the Protecting Powers – States responsible for defending the interests of one of the parties within the framework of its relations with the other party to the conflict – and those of national Red Cross societies of neutral countries also carried out this kind of activity. However, during the 1914-18 war the ICRC was the only organization to visit camps belonging to all the warring States, consistently applying the same inspection criteria. Moreover, its neutral status and its role within the Red Cross movement allowed it to contact all the States and national societies to draw their attention to the plight of prisoners of war.

From 1914 until all prisoners had been released in 1923, a total of 41 ICRC delegates visited 524 camps throughout Europe (France, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Poland and Bohemia), in Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt) and in Asia (India, Burma, Japan).


Activities for civilians  

Making use of its right of initiative, from the start of the war the ICRC also took steps to help civilians. On 17 October 1914 it sent a letter   to the central committees of the national Red Cross societies of the warring States – rather than to the States themselves – to ask them whether they would be prepared to grant civilian internees of enemy countries the same status as prisoners of war, although neither the Geneva Convention nor the Hague Regulations applied directly to civilians.

To remedy this deficiency, the ICRC opened a civilian section at the International Prisoners-of-War Agency. This section provided services for all civilians considered to be victims of conflict, in both enemy and occupied territory.

Among its main activities, the section forwarded correspondence addressed to civilians in enemy or occupied territory, and contacted the authorities to obtain official documents or to request the evacuation from enemy or occupied territory of civilians who were seriously ill or badly wounded. It also sent civilians parcels and helped them with appeals for clemency. In response to requests from families, it traced the missing and forwarded death certificates of civilians who had died in enemy or occupied territory. In addition, ICRC delegates were sometimes able to visit civilians who were detained in specific camps or military detention centres.

After the war the civilian section continued its work, forwarding the vast number of messages which had accumulated between 1914 and 1918 to their addressees.

The postwar period: the challenge of the repatriations and the Russian and Hungarian revolutions  

While the prisoners of war who were nationals of the Entente Powers (France, the United Kingdom and their allies) were liberated swiftly at the end of the war – as stipulated in the armistice agreements – it took much longer to organize the release of prisoners who were nationals of the former Central Empires (in particular Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). In fact the Allies decided that, in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907, these prisoners would be released only after peace had been concluded with the various Central Powers by the treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Neuilly and Sèvres (replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne).
In 1919 the ICRC approached the Allied Supreme Council on several occasions requesting the repatriation of prisoners of war from the Central Powers who were held by the Allies or in Russia.
On 23 March 1920 the Council authorized the repatriation of prisoners of war detained in Siberia . Then, on 11 April 1920, the League of Nations entrus ted Dr Nansen with the task of organizing the repatriation of all prisoners in cooperation with the ICRC, which was responsible for the practical arrangements. More than 425,000 people were subsequently repatriated under ICRC auspices.
In the immediate postwar period, the Red Cross also brought aid to the victims of the revolutions that erupted in Russia and Hungary. In both countries revolution represented a new challenge for the ICRC and the national societies concerned, which for the first time in their history found themselves having to deal with civil war. 

Birth of the Soviet Red Cross

A Russian Red Cross Society had been in existence in Russia since 1867. This was transformed by a government decree of 6 January 1918 into the Soviet Red Cross, which was recognized by the ICRC in 1921.
From 1914 onwards the ICRC had a delegate in Russia, Edouard Frick, who worked in close cooperation with the national society. In 1918, despite the events, the ICRC delegate was instructed to continue his activities, which he did by bringing together, on his own initiative, the Red Cross societies of neutral countries remaining in Petrograd. When Frick returned to Geneva in 1918 he had done a great deal of work, in particular helping people imprisoned for political reasons. However, the ICRC was not authorized to return to Russia until 1921, when it was involved in major repatriation operations for prisoners of the Central Powers who had been detained in Siberia.
In March 1919 revolution broke out in Hungary. On 28 April 1918, ICRC delegate Rodolphe Haccius visited a prison near Budapest in which political prisoners were being held. It was the first time that the ICRC had carried out this kind of visit, which was outside its usual sphere of activity. Haccius secured the release of prison ers who were sick or over 60 years of age. Subsequently, steps taken by the ICRC delegation in Budapest led to the release of 280 foreign political prisoners. Working in cooperation with the Hungarian Red Cross, the delegation also aided the civilian population.
The First World War made huge demands on the Red Cross movement, and the ICRC in particular. Some of the major tasks carried out by the ICRC between 1914 and 1918 were subsequently developed or had significant implications not only during but also after the war. This was especially true of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency and the ICRC's efforts to prohibit chemical warfare.



Morocco, January 1916. An ICRC delegate visiting a camp for German POWs.  

Morocco, January 1916. An ICRC delegate visiting a camp for German POWs.
© ICRC / hist-00617-14.jpg

Switzerland. Arrival in Geneva of a convoy of seriously wounded French soldiers.  

Switzerland. Arrival in Geneva of a convoy of seriously wounded French soldiers.
© ICRC / R. Gilli / hist-03005-33

Riga, Latvia, 1920-22. Transit camp for Russian and Latvian POWs being repatriated from Germany (Stettin) and for German POWs being repatriated from Russia.  

Riga, Latvia, 1920-22. Transit camp for Russian and Latvian POWs being repatriated from Germany (Stettin) and for German POWs being repatriated from Russia.
© ICRC / hist-03064-35