The British Red Cross was formed in 1870, seven years after the international Red Cross movement was started in Switzerland, following the outbreak of war between France and Prussia. It was originally called the ‘British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War’ and assisted the two warring fronts in the Franco-Prussian war, subsequent 19th century conflicts. In 1905, 35 years after it was formed, it became the British Red Cross Society and was granted a royal charter in 1908 by HM King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, who became its first president.
Following the start of the ‘Great War’ in 1914, the British Red Cross joined forces with the Order of St. John Ambulance to form the Joint War Committee (JWA). Pooling their resources brought about Voluntary Aid Detachments (or VADs). Members were trained in First Aid, Nursing, Hygiene and Sanitation. The VADs worked under Red Cross protection in hospitals, work parties, rest stations and supply centres. The JWA assisted on the front line, supplying the first mobile ambulances to battlefields, replacing horse-drawn vehicles with a more efficient alternative . The JWA was also active in setting up recording centres. This formed the basis of the international Message and Tracing service to help family members find out what had happened to their relatives, which is still running today.
The British Red Cross required a huge number of skilled volunteers if it was to be prepared for its wartime role. In 1907 a permanent structure of local Branches was adopted and extended the presence of the British Red Cross to communities around the country. The Voluntary Aid Scheme was introduced in 1909 and ensured that Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) were formed in every county in England whose members would provide aid to the territorial medical forces in times of war.