The Red Cross

Within its small population, hardly a household in the Macarthur region was without a family member or friend in war service. Through letters, footage and the increasing death toll, the horrors and poor conditions of what these loved ones were facing were ever present in the minds of the public. It is therefore, not surprising that so many locals came together to help those who were serving overseas. Just days after war was declared, Red Cross Branches developed across the region. They consisted primarily of high society ladies, many with political influence and prominence in the community. In August 1914, the Camden Red Cross was initiated, under the presidency of Mrs Young and later Mrs Furner, Mayoresses of Camden. On the 17th of August, a Menangle Branch was formed, with Sibella Macarthur Onslow, President, and Mary Cummins as Secretary. Several of these ladies had previously been put to work during the Boer War under the guidance of Sibella.46 The Menangle Branch became the biggest, numbering  members in 1918. They were highly influential with the company of the Macarthur Onslows, notably Sibella and Helen. Campbelltown also produced its own chapter, with members Rose Payten, Elizabeth Sedgwick, Leah Gentry, Ms Bursill and Mary Ann Kershler. Smaller Branches developed in Narellan under leadership of Mrs E. Barker, and in The Oaks.

The Red Cross perpetuated the war effort agenda, staunchly supporting Britain and its endeavours. However, their main concern was taking care of the troops, prisoners of war, and civilians affected by the conflict. So active were the Macarthur affiliates, that they were honoured by a visit of the President of Australian Red Cross, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, on April 2nd 1917. Members laboured to collect donations and organise fundraisers in order to buy and manufacture goods. Items such as, flannel shirts, pyjamas, bandages, soap, socks, towels, handkerchiefs, assorted food, tobacco and cigarettes were sent to troops and disenfranchised civilians in Belgium, France and Italy. Some of these products were hand made by members of the Committees during long sewing and knitting sessions. Generous members of the public helped them with these tasks, donating the use of their businesses and their time. These knitting circles became an important social occasion for women of Macarthur. Exchanging ideas and stories, it allowed mothers and wives a chance to talk about their serving sons or husbands, and in some cases share their grief. The Camden group also organised gift items and volunteers to pack Christmas billies throughout the war. In 1916, Mrs Street, through the Camden Commercial Bank, organised billy tins to be divvied out and filled by volunteers. They were veraciously supplied with boiled lollies, plum puddings, chocolate, fruit, writing pads and pencils. There was also a men’s branch of the Camden Red Cross with 10 active members. Most used their trade skills to build furniture, crutches, folding chairs, hot water bottles and completed book covering and metal work.54 These goods were donated to the Menangle Park Light Horse Camp, returned troops and to those serving overseas. The Men’s Club also provided frontline soldiers with sandbags, through the Menangle Sandbag Club.

The vital work of the Red Cross Society in helping those affected by the war is demonstrated with its support for other branches. In the early days of the conflict, a Belgian Relief Fund was established to aid the citizens impacted by bombardments and conquered territory. In Sydney on 28th of June 1918, the Red Cross Society and the public celebrated Italy’s Day. These celebrations called upon all “patriotic Australians” to make donations to help the Italian Red Cross.

The war was particularly hard on Italy. Huge losses and harsh fighting conditions in the mountains against Austrian- Hungarian and German troops caused general disillusionment. The Italian government struggled to feed and supply its army, let alone the civilian population. Consequently, the Red Cross had its hands full supplying basic needs to its citizens. The Red Cross also worked closer to home. They provided nurses, such as Minto local Dora Ohlfsen for hospitals in France, Belgium and Italy. They also staffed hospitals within Australia.

By 1916, the Red Cross had organised a Light Horse Field Tent Hospital at Menangle Park Camp. Many of its members worked closely with the hospital, providing patients and staff with eggs, cakes and other sweets.

Red Cross services were also vital in providing information to family and friends concerning servicemen. Sadly, due to severe fighting conditions and heavy firepower, troops were often lost in the chaos of battle. During large attacks, casualty stations and hospitals became overrun with sick and wounded men from many units and countries. Keeping track of who was treated, died, transferred, or returned to the front was an insurmountable task. Understandably, names and serial numbers were easily lost, accidentally read or written down. As a result, families and friends received conflicting information or none at all.

Thousands of families around Australia were informed that their loved ones were missing in action. They suffered in agony as months and even years passed by with no news. Many turned to their local Red Cross Branches for help. Using their connections overseas, they wrote to Army and Command Officials, units and hospitals for news, and checked enemy death and POW lists. Sibella worked diligently to provide some closure for many anxious families in Macarthur. Confirmation that they were killed in action was better than never knowing what happened to their beloved boys. Unfortunately, answers could not always be found. Heavy fighting, continuing bombardments and lost identity discs meant that men simply vanished. The Red Cross also provided a platform for communication between prisoners of war and wounded soldiers and their families. For humanitarian reasons, the Red Cross were given lists of internees by enemy commands, allowing the exchange of mail and Red Cross parcels.