1914-1918: baptism of fire and innovation

13-05-2010 Overview

August 1914: The world has been turned upside down by the insanity of war, and the ICRC is about to experience a real baptism of fire. This small institution would become a truly international organization, in terms not only of its size but also its field of action. It must adapt its procedures, already devised but never tested on such a large scale. Above all, it would be confronted by new humanitarian problems caused by a war without precedent.

Protected by the political neutrality of its host country, Switzerland, the ICRC began work following the first major clashes (the Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Tannenberg). In accordance with the mandate it received from the 4th International Conference of the Red Cross in 1887, its first step was to create an International Prisoners-of-War Agency, responsible for collecting information about prisoners and passing it on to their families. This facility was to expand in a spectacular fashion, reflecting the extent of military operations, and eventually employed around 1,200 members of staff to deal with hundreds of thousands of requests.

In a move to help the prisoners further, the ICRC asked for and was granted permission to visit prisoner-of-war camps for the duration of the war. This also enabled the organization to conduct activities outside Europe for the first time. The ICRC's neutrality, as well as the nationality of its delegates (all of whom were Swiss), were undoubtedly contributory factors in the success of its humanitarian initiative.

Improvising in emergencies

However, other victims – civilians this time – were also in need of help. While those not participating in hostilities had always suffered greatly as a result of decisions taken by military personnel, the First World War took this suffering to new levels that the ICRC was unable to ignore. As the organization had no specific mandate in this respect and these categories of people were not yet covered by international humanitarian law, the ICRC had no choice but to improvise, given the urgency of the situation. This laid the foundations for a policy of assisting civilians caught up in the violence of war, a policy that would develop over the years and become the cornerstone of the organization’s humanitarian activities.  

The ICRC had concerns about the way in which war was being waged in other respects. The brutality of the conflict led belligerents to go back on their earlier commitments in humanitarian matters and to try out newly developed weapons. One of these, poison gas, in use from 1915, was a hazard against which the ICRC was to take a stand. The organization would similarly condemn the numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions committed intentionally by combatants.

Visits to political detainees

In contrast to previous conflicts, the sheer scale of the war meant that the post-war period presented as many humanitarian challenges as the years of violence themselves (repatriating prisoners of war, making the first visits to political detainees in Hungary in 1919, helping civilians cope with social disorganization and economic hardship). The ICRC was unable to ignore these needs, and its activities continued long after hostilities had ceased.


Battle of Estaire: soldiers blinded by gas standing in line at a first-aid post near B├ęthune, 10 April 1918. 

Battle of Estaire: soldiers blinded by gas standing in line at a first-aid post near B├ęthune, 10 April 1918.
© Imperial War Museum London / V-P-HIST-03088-25