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1914-18: when the ICRC learned about protecting civilians…

11-08-2003 Article, Le Temps, by Sylvie Arsever

Original title: "En 1914, le CICR apprend à protéger les civils" – Article published in the Swiss daily "Le Temps" on 11 August 2003. How the ICRC began its work for civilians under enemy control in time of war.

 Read the complete article in French.  


When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the International Committee made it a priority to organize an International Prisoners of War Agency. Its job would be to receive lists of soldiers captured by the various countries at war and thus be in a position to inform anxious families and to organize relief shipments. 


© CICR - ref. hist-01816-13 
At the Rath Museum in Geneva: volunteers and Committee employees get on with the job of copying lists of prisoners and opening files. 


Along with the lists of prisoners – and the urgent pleas by their families for news of their fate – the Committee began to receive requests for information about civilians who had gone missing in the chaos of war. Some had fled to escape the fighting, others had been detained – and in certain cases deported. With parts of Europe under military occupation, hostilities raging on numerous fronts and normal communications disrupted, there was no way of knowing what might have happened to them.
The Committee already faced a daunting task: by the end of 1914 the initial team of ten (the eight members of the Committee, its secretary and a student volunteer) had grown to 1,200, including volunteers and paid staff. Every day they had to go through thousands of requests for information, search through the names of prisoners provided by the warring states and, where possible, respond to the families.

One Committee member, Frédéric Ferrière, persuaded his colleagues to create a special section at the Agency to deal with the problem of civilians – an historic step for the Committee, one that would pave the way for its work in the years and wars to come.

While the Committee’s activities for civilians never achieved the same success as its work for prisoners of war, its delegates did visit some camps and in certain cases negotiated a degree of protection similar to that accorded to captured soldiers.

What this fledgling undertaking did achieve was to highlight the urgent need for rules that would ensure specific protection for civilians under enemy control. The International Conference of the Red Cross in 1921 mandated the ICRC to propose a new law. It was Dr. Ferrière himself who produced a draft shortly afterwards – but getting it accepted by governments was quite a different matter: by 1939, no such treaty had been adopted, with disastrous consequences…

  Article reproduced with kind permission of Le Temps; no reproduction in any form without the prior permission of Le Temps. The article’s editorial content and style are those of Le Temps and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ICRC, which has provided the summary as an informative guide to the article.