‘A Humane and Intimate Administration’: The Red Cross’ World War Two Wounded, Missing and Prisoner of War Cards
Senior Archivist, University of Melbourne Archives
Private Rawson’s mother first contacted the Red Cross in early April 1942, six weeks after her son was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. For her, and thousands of other Australian mothers, fathers, wives, sisters and brothers, this began three and half years of longing and fear, and above all, silence. For the duration of the war, Mrs Rawson’s only news of her son’s fate were the snippets received and sent on to her by the Red Cross Bureau for Wounded, Missing and Prisoners of War.
In the Spring Street premises made available to the Red Cross by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, volunteers received Mrs Rawson’s enquiry, made a file for her son and added a card to a rapidly growing system:
Reg No. VX43216
Unit: 2/29th. Btn. H.Q. COY.
9/4/42 Enq. From Vic. – Unof. Msg. [unofficially missing] MALAYA
Over the next eighteen months they retrieved and updated the card as further news of Private Rawson was received:
19-8-42: Cas. List V.319 rep. Missing.
27-5-43: List AC 494 adv. Tokio cables interned Malai Camp.
21-6-43: Cas list V467 prev. rept. Missing now rpt. P.O.W.
10-9-43: List WC 13 adv. Card rec. Washington POW Jap. Hands.
28-10-43: List JB. 213 adv. Singapore Radio Allege POW.
Then the reports cease. Nothing more, for two years.
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Private Rawson’s card is now the first one in box 45 of the archival records series ‘Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards’ This series was transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives in 2016 as part of the Red Cross’ ‘Gift to the Nation’ – the records of its first one hundred years in Australia. Digitised copies of cards from World War Two are now available to researchers online.
In an era before vision statements and key performance indicators, the Red Cross Enquiry Bureau expressed its ethos as a ‘Golden Rule’:
No definite information that would be of solace to relatives should be allowed to remain in the office over-night.
Speed and accuracy were the essence of this “humane and intimate administration” which during World War Two helped over 58,000 Australian families to learn the fate of loved ones displaced by the war. The vast majority of these enquiries concerned AIF personnel. Typically families received missing, wounded, killed or captured notification from the armed services then turned to the Red Cross to learn more about their loved one’s fate. However the Red Cross also attempted to trace the whereabouts of civilians – both Australian and foreign citizens – living overseas who were caught up in the war in Europe or the Pacific.
The index cards were the administrative cornerstone of the Bureau’s enquiry service. For such a harrowing and solemn business, the cards are a marvel of clerical efficiency and precision. Entries are heavily abbreviated and the volunteer typists rarely missed a capital letter or full stop. There are no back-stories, no narrative, in most cases not even first names, just the barest facts about a missing person’s fate, ultimately summarised in one word at the top of each card; ‘repatriated’, ‘safe’, ‘recovered’, ‘liberated’, ‘located’, ‘missing’, ‘POW’, ‘deceased’.
Yet the staccato shorthand belies both the complexity and compassion of this wartime service. Most of the Bureau volunteers were themselves next-of-kin of POWs who somehow managed to channel their anxiety into the myriad of clerical tasks which enabled information to flow between state, national and overseas Red Cross bureaux, searchers in military hospitals and the armed services. Cards, files, lists, letters and cables in the face of fearful waiting.
Bureaucracy and heartbreak often make for peculiar companions in the Red Cross archive. Within the Red Cross’ administrative file titled ‘Bureau 1943’ we find a few stray copies of letters to family members, laden with sympathy and sadness:
Dear Mrs Bould
We have, as you know, been making enquiries to try and obtain news of your son…and we have now had an unofficial report from a member of the Battalion who has returned to Australia.
His account of what happened when the Japanese attacked Kokoda toward the end of July is a sad one… According to our witness, Pte Bould was busy on a job, ahead of the Unit’s defence position, when he was hit by a bullet which killed him instantly. The witness spoke as though he had known your son well… and added: “He was a particularly well-liked chap and a game soldier”. This is a tribute of which any soldier might be very proud, and we trust that it may bring you some slight comfort in your distress.
Please believe that our heartfelt sympathy goes out to you and that we will continue to do our utmost to find further witnesses who may be able to confirm or deny what we have so far learned.
Only a few pages further into the same file, however, we read of the protracted battle of wills between the New South Wales Divisional Bureau and Melbourne headquarters over the design of Form B5, the Bureau’s message service form. From the Honorary Director of the Sydney Bureau:
I was astonished to read today that the Bureau Committee had decided on 27th May “that in any further printing of B.5 it be reduced to the same size as B6.”……. What astonishes me is not that Form B5 is considered needlessly large, but that anyone experienced in its utilisation could have been found to support the idea that no greater amount of space is required by the majority of senders for their sprawling handwriting and block lettering than is needed by us for our neatly type-written reproductions.
Indignant correspondence on this topic continues for several months in 1942 and 1943, with the Sydney office refusing to accept that their locally printed alternative should not prevail over Form B5.
Also from this file is evidence of the challenge for the Red Cross of building good relations with the armed services – crucial to the Bureau’s information gathering task – whilst maintaining its impartiality. More than once in 1943 Army Records threatened to withdraw cooperation with the Bureau when, in the Army’s opinion, the Bureau was too hasty in providing information to next of kin. From the Army:
It is not the policy of this Department to declare the death of a soldier as the result of hearsay information…
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Rachel Buchanan, Curator of the Germaine Greer Archive at the University of Melbourne Archives, has written about the index cards Greer created whilst preparing to write The Female Eunuch in 1969. She describes Greer’s ‘anti-system’ use of cards to capture not only her research but also the ‘explosion of radical ideas’ which became The Female Eunuch. Cards – and ideas – rearranged, discarded, revised and expanded. “…they are evidence of speed, fervour, the reckless stunt. Energy still fizzes from them”. Greer’s index cards come in several colours. Some are typed and some are handwritten. There are languages other than English and annotations of outrage and humour. They occupy only half an archive box; so little for a work of such significance.
What a contrast to these Red Cross Enquiry Cards. The sheer volume of them is hard to fathom; fifty-nine archive boxes each containing around one thousand cards, each card bearing witness to a family’s trauma and tragedy. They are uniform, ordered and monochrome. The lack of colour suits them. Emotions are supressed beneath precision and procedure. There is no nuance or commentary, just the cold, hard, abbreviated facts of war. Seventy years on, the sombre silence of these cards is a testament to the lives of those who went to war, and those who waited at home, longing for their return.
For Mrs Rawson, the silence about her son ended in October 1945 after the Red Cross volunteers updated her son’s card one more time:
Army Cas. 5231 adv. a/n [above named] died of disease whilst POW Siam Dysentry 31-10-43.
 University of Melbourne Archives Series 2016.0049: Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards will be available online to researchers from May 2017. Further information, and a name-based search option is available from the University of Melbourne’s digitised items catalogue accessible from archives.unimelb.edu.au. Private Rawson’s card is item 2016.0049.44698.
 See the Red Cross’ own account of Bureau operations within item 2016.0054.00004: ‘Outline of War Service During World War II’, held by the University of Melbourne Archives.
 The Bureau also generated a file for each missing person, continuing the practice established by the Red Cross during World War One. Enquiry files from World War One are held by the Australian War Memorial. Red Cross Central Bureau missing person files from World War Two are no longer extant.
 This and following extracts are from item 2015.0033.00657 ‘Bureau 1943’, part of the Red Cross National Office Correspondence Series, held by the University of Melbourne Archives.
 Rachel Buchanan’s blog post: Mindswap: The Female Eunuch Index Cards, is accessible from https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/archives/mindswap-the-female-eunuch-index-cards/