View Full Version : Update on Red Cross Records in Geneva

Steve Brew
13th March 2009, 07:54
Ladies and Gents

I thought the below may interest many of you, though I don't understand the statement made by the researcher that he doesn't understand why no-one's ever appreciated the significance of the information - I've personally written to ICRC twice and was told to 'foxtrot oscar' until 2014, I couldn't search the records myself, but could pay CHF80.00 (ca. £50) per hour for someone to search on my behalf, payable regardless of results (I think I may have posted info on this on the old board) - a tad too much for no promise of results!

In any case, it looks like a programme is afoot to digitise the WWI records, which will be a good new source available to us in due course. The downside is that the ICRC's 100-year rule means that we still have another 30 years to wait for the WWII records....

In any case, for those wot's interested in WWI records, the following appears on the BBC website today at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7940540.stm



Piecing together the past

By Robert Hall
BBC News

Detective work by a British historian has unearthed information that could enable thousands to piece together their family histories. Peter Barton was commissioned to carry out research into the identities of World War I casualties discovered in a mass grave at Fromelles in France. He was given access to the basement of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva. There, he was allowed to examine records that have lain virtually untouched since 1918. He estimates that there could be 20 million sets of details, carefully entered on card indexes, or written into ledgers.

'Tutankhamen's tomb'

They deal with the capture, death, or burial of servicemen from over 30 nations drawn into the conflict; personal effects, home addresses and grave sites cover page after page. All were passed to the Red Cross by the combatants; volunteers logging the information by hand before sending it on to the soldiers' home countries. According to Peter Barton, the UK's copies no longer exist, but the originals are still here and are immensely important. "To a military historian, this was like finding Tutankhamen's tomb and the terracotta warriors on the same day," he told me.

"I still can't understand why no-one has ever realised the significance of this archive - but the Red Cross tell me I'm the first researcher who has asked to see it." The records could potentially reveal the whereabouts of individuals whose remains were never found, or never identified. Grave after grave in the World War I cemeteries mark the last resting place of an unknown soldier.

Unprecedented challenge

But that presents the Red Cross with an unprecedented challenge; the paper records must now be conserved, and digitised. More than £2m has already been set aside for a project that will begin this autumn, and which is likely to involve experts from all over Europe. The Red Cross hope to have the archive online by 2014, 100 years after the start of World War I. They believe that the care and patience of their volunteers during the conflict coupled with today's technology will provide a key to unlock the past.

The Red Cross headquarters high above Lake Geneva is one of the best known buildings in the city, at the centre of a web of humanitarian aid stretching around the globe. But this site is also home to one of the word's most remarkable historic archives; personal details which have lain virtually untouched for decades. Their significance only came to light after Peter Barton had been commissioned by the Australian government to carry out research, following the discovery of a mass grave on World War I battlefield at Fromelles in France.

That trail led him to the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, and to the card indexes and registers compiled between 1914 and 1918; during that period the Red Cross had acted as a go-between, logging, and passing on information to 30 countries drawn into the conflict. Those details included whereabouts of prisoners, their condition or injuries at the time of capture, and the location of field burials.

Details which no longer exist in the UK, but here, in dusty cardboard boxes Peter Barton found the original indexes; thousands upon thousands of cards; dozens of registers.
Some of the records refer to other mass graves, with exact directions as to where they were dug, and the identities of the soldiers who were buried. Where possible, the registers include home addresses and next of kin.

Completing jigsaws

In the World War I cemeteries, headstone after headstone marks the last resting place of an unknown soldier. The names of the missing line the walls of memorials across France and Belgium, and until now, the trails followed by new generations ended with family histories still incomplete.

The fragile documents now being examined could provide the missing pieces of a jigsaw, and the Red Cross are already working to bring the archive into the computer age. The organisation's head of press, Florian Westphal, admitted they had never faced a challenge quite like this: "First we have to make sure that we preserve the original records," he told me.

"Then, this autumn, we will begin the process of digitising the World War I section of the archive - we expect that phase of the project to cost around four million Swiss Francs." The Red Cross say they'll need expert help from other countries, and will almost certainly ask for volunteers to join their own archivists. They aim to have the archive available on the web by 2014, a century after World War I began.

But that's only the start; the careful record-keeping extended through World War II, and on to more recent conflicts.

I was shown the rows of metal shelves which contain millions more personal stories; more index cards neatly packed into boxes. Public access here would require significantly more effort, and more cash which is simply not available at this stage.

Back in the World War I archive, Peter Barton was leafing through page after page of handwritten names - all men who had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme - lives ended far from home, but, thanks to the patience and care of Red Cross staff all those years ago, their stories may soon be told.

13th March 2009, 09:30

Just the other day I watched a programme on United States personnel 'Missing In Action' (2007 Military History Channel) which concentrated on American personnel taken by the Russians after WW2. The researchers shown on the programme were trying to access the Red Cross archives in Geneva, the Red Cross were not allowing any access to anyone !

Interesting !


13th March 2009, 11:51
Hi Steve,
Thanks for that information.
My great uncle Cyril Spencer Luke 1st was killed at Fromelles 20 July 1916. His body was never found and his name is on the wall at VC Corner Australian cemetery Fromelles. It is not thought he was buried in the mass grave.
The Red Cross wounded and missing files consisting of approximately 32,000 individual case files of Australian personnel reported as wounded or missing during the First World War are available on the Australian War Memorial web site: awm.gov.au Click on biographical databases then Red Cross wounded and missing files and type in name of soldier. Also all WWI personnel records have been digitised and can be seen naa.gov.au
Of interest my uncle Cyril Spencer Luke 2nd was a pilot with 43 Squadron in WWII. He was shot down and killed in Italy 5 February 1944.

Steve Brew
14th March 2009, 11:38
Hi guys, thanks for your responses.

Mark - I saw the same documentary. Fascinating, wasn't it?! I knew that the Russians held onto many Allied POWs they'd liberated as a bargaining chip for Russian POWs that the Allies had liberated, and the problem the British and American governments had, as it was apparent that the Russian government wanted to punish their own countrymen on their return for having allowed themselves to be taken prisoner in the first place! Strange, though, was that the documentary pointed out that 25,000 Americans were held by the Russians, and moved east, but they did not mention the Russian POW issue.

What I didn't know, though, was that a similar thing had happened after WWI and during Korea and Vietnam, that the Americans never brought home. I was quite shocked that Korea and Vietnam POWs were left in Russian Gulags and their existence denied, 'left to rot' was the term they used, if I remember correctly. I didn't know that. A very interesting doc indeed, so I hope our fellow forumites in other parts of the world also get to see it.

Lorraine - I also have a great uncle buried on the Somme, Major John G. Brew, Royal Irish Fusiliers, who was shot after he became a POW in March 1918, although the circumstances appear to have been accidental (they were being led back behind German lines in the darkness by a guard, but were speaking English to each other, so several shots rang out from unsuspecting German soldiers, and he was hit). We only have this info as one of the men he was with wrote to his widow three years after his death to tell her what had happened. Still, the circumstances around his capture and hospitalisation would interest me, if the Red Cross records hold such info (he survived a week before dying of his wounds).

However, family aside, I would be interested in finding records of 41 Squadron pilots from WWI who became POWs, for my history of the Squadron. As a fellow Australian, I am aware of the files at the AWM (and on their website), but unfortunately they don't help me with 41 Squadron. Although there were Australians on the Squadron, none became POWs.


14th March 2009, 12:08
Hi Steve,
Have you tried the ReQuest reference service at AWM?
Click on ‘A reference question’ and fill in the form.
They may have information on WWI 41 Sqn Australians.
I had good results with this service some time ago.

Stewart McLoughlin
15th March 2009, 02:45
Steve. Many thanks for the information. Must admit, never thought of their records. Looking forward to 2014 even though it will probably be a pay-per-view.
Lorraine. Again many thanks. Went straight into the AIF records and instantly found the file on one of our casualties who I had been updating only today. Have more than doubled what I already knew about him, even to the extent that he was admitted into a Cairo hospital with mumps en-route to France.