Red Cross answers the call

Junior Red Cross
Young Australian volunteers were keen to support the Junior Red Cross movement in the post-world war periods, as seen in this 1923 photo taken on the steps of Sydney Town Hall.

Red Cross has been on the forefront of almost every significant event in recent history, from wars to natural disasters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross formed in 1863, with the first Geneva Convention signed the following year.

The movement gained momentum from 1919 with the formation of the League of Red Cross Societies, now known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), that today represents the 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world.

Australian Red Cross historian, Flinders University Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, says Australia was quick to rally behind the Red Cross during World War One.

“Formed on 13 August 1914 upon the outbreak of war, the speed which it developed in Australia was very impressive,” Professor Oppenheimer says. “It was a huge volunteer effort. Very few people were paid for their work with Red Cross in the First World War.”

Flinders University this week (9-11 September) is hosting a conference, Histories of the Red Cross Movement: Continuity and Change, the first time such an event has been held in Australia.

It includes a special screening of historic Red Cross films which will be open to the public at the Capri Cinema on Saturday 10 September.

The conference recognises the growing number of historians and researchers around the world working on aspects of the international Red Cross movement.

International keynote speakers will be among 46 leading authorities to speak at the conference, including:

  • Professor Michael Barnett, George Washington University, School of International Affairs, USA
  • Professor Davide Rodogno, University of Geneva, Institute of International Studies, Switzerland
  • Professor Emerita Margaret Tennant, Massey University, New Zealand
  • Professor Neville Wylie, University of Nottingham, UK

Professor Oppenheimer, who wrote The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 (HarperCollins Publishers), will speak on the foundation of the League of Red Cross Societies in 1919 and how Australian Red Cross engaged internationally in the 1920s.

“The Red Cross idea – to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need – goes to the very heart of what makes us human,” Professor Oppenheimer says.

“The creation of an organisation of volunteers to assist victims of war was one of the grandest and most ambitious ideas of the nineteenth century. It is an idea that has managed to survive and flourish into the twenty-first century.”

Professor Oppenheimer says Australia’s role in the foundation and development of Junior Red Cross was very innovative.

“Along with America and Canada, Australian Red Cross was a leader in developing this global network of children which encouraged friendship and awareness of different cultures and nationalities and was so important in the years after the catastrophe of that war,” she says.

“Hundreds of thousands of Australian children, including former Governor-General Quentin Bryce, were members of Junior Red Cross. It was a huge nursery for the senior Red Cross and contributed to its success through World War Two and into the 1950s and 1960s.”

The Movie Night at the Capri (see online at will include 1957 footage from inside a Hungarian refugee camp (‘Humanity’s Crusade’), a 1967 Red Cross program to distribute milk to children during a drought in India (‘Fighting Hunger’) and a 1985 blood donor promotion (‘This is your blood’).

Sponsors of the conference include Australian Red Cross, Flinders University’s School of History and International Relations and Nottingham University, England.

Follow the event on twitter @flindersredx and on Facebook at redcrosshistoryconference

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