Geneva Bureau

‘A Humane and Intimate Administration’: The Red Cross’ World War Two Wounded, Missing and Prisoner of War Cards

Fiona Ross

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:

Surname: RAWSON

Rank: PTE.

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.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.

Enquiry cards
Soldiers and civilians, Australian nationals and foreigners. In keeping with its charter of neutrality and its global focus, the Enquiry Bureau endeavoured to respond to all enquiries, although Australian armed services personnel accounted for over ninety percent of its activity. MISSING, WOUNDED AND PRISONER OF WAR ENQUIRY CARDS, Australian Red Cross Society, National Office, 2916.0049, University of Melbourne Archives

The index cards were the administrative cornerstone of the Bureau’s enquiry service.[3] 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.[4]

Geneva Bureau
This glass lantern slide is of the Central Prisoners of War Agency, Geneva, Switzerland, c. 1940. We hope to unearth a photograph of the Melbourne Bureau in operation as the transfer of records from the Red Cross to the University of Melbourne Archives continues. Australian Red Cross National Office Photographs Series, 2016.0081.00004. University of Melbourne Archives

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…

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

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.[5]

Fifty-nine archive boxes each containing around one thousand cards
Fifty-nine archive boxes each containing around one thousand cards. MISSING, WOUNDED AND PRISONER OF WAR ENQUIRY CARDS, Australian Red Cross Society, National Office, 2916.0049, University of Melbourne Archives

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.

[1] 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 Private Rawson’s card is item 2016.0049.44698.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Rachel Buchanan’s blog post: Mindswap: The Female Eunuch Index Cards, is accessible from

13 Responses to “‘A Humane and Intimate Administration’: The Red Cross’ World War Two Wounded, Missing and Prisoner of War Cards”

  1. Colleen Passfield says:

    My father, Walter John Thompson, (20/3/1913 – 25/4/1968), NX7229, 2/1 Field Ambulance, was reported missing, believed dead, after the fall of Crete. I still have the telegram from the International Red Cross, Geneva, dated Febr.26th 1942, referring to my mother’s enquiry of October 10th 1941, and informing that my father was a POW at Stalag XX A. In November, 1943, as protected personnel, he was repatriated through Barcelona to Alexandria where, on 30 December, he embarked on HS Wanganella for return to Sydney. Returned to his unit, he served in New Guinea. Frequently hospitalized, he was discharged on compassionate grounds on 9 August, 1945. I would be interested to know any further information is available.
    Colleen Passfield

    1. University of Melbourne Archives says:

      Hi Colleen, thanks for the comment. All of the WW2 cards are available online. We believe your father’s card is this one:
      It seems to be the only card for a WJ Thompson at Stalag XXA. To search the other cards, go to our caralogue ( and in the detailed search put w j thompson in the title field and 2016.0049 in the reference code to limit the search, as Thompson is a common name!
      I hope that helps, please feel free to get in touch with us at if you have further questions.

  2. Colleen Passfield says:

    Apologies for not replying sooner. Thank you for the Red Cross information re my father- NX7229 Walter John Thompson. As I recall, my mother received notification that my father was missing believed dead. The telegram I previously referred to, dated 26 February 1942, was confirmation that he was a POW in Stalag XXA. I don’t think there was ever any reference to Kokina Hospital. I have found his signature on the flag from that hospital 2/5 AGH which is in the AWM collection. I have a collection of several photos from Stalag XXA which Dad brought back.

  3. Robin Jowit says:

    I am very grateful to the Australian Red Cross for retaining the record about my Father

  4. Ros Lauder says:

    What a wonderful article on the Red Cross Missing Cards. It is concise, informative , well written – an absolute pleasure to read.

    I have used the cards to research my husband’s grandfather a civilian who died in Hong Kong in WW11 and also to assist in researching a family from the Atherton Tablelands whose role in women’s organisations has slipped into obscurity.

    Congratulations to the author and also to the University of Melbourne Archives for the work you have done in collecting, preserving and making available such a wonderful set of records.

    Kind regards

    Ros Lauder

  5. Donna Needham Yancy says:

    I am trying to find information about my father being wounded. He was captured by the Germans in Cassino, Italy on February 1, 1944. A telegram was sent to his mother March 1, 1944 informing her he was missing in action. We know he was held prisoner for two weeks somewhere near there and later send to camp Florence, Italy. Finally he was sent to Stalag II B prison camp. He was rescued on May 3, 1945 by US forces. I am very interest in anything you might be able to share with me.

    Sincerely, Donna Needham Yancy

    1. University of Melbourne Archives says:

      Hi Donna,
      If you run a search on your father’s surname in our online digitised items catalogue a scan of the original card should come up in the results. These cards are from the missing persons service, as described in the article above. They are the only record we hold of missing soldiers in WW2. for other online resources, please check your local genealogical society for suggested resources, for instance the Genealogical society of Victoria:
      All the best,
      University of Melbourne Archives

  6. Arnold & Jo Rupkalvis says:

    How do we obtain access to Red Cross/International Refugee Organization records for Lithuanian displaced persons who were in Dragsbaek Camp, Thisted, Denmark April 1945 to October 1949?
    My husband’s Father & Mother (August Rupkalvis & Ema Klainaite) met & married there. My husband (Arnold Vidas Rupkalvis) was born there. We are trying to find documentation of Arnold’s birth and his parents marriage. Arnold was born July 1947 prior to his parent’s marriage Nov 1947 and may have been registered as Arnold Vidas Klainaite/Kleinaite. Arnold’s Father had to adopt Arnold for him to receive the Rupkalvis surname.
    Thank you for your help… Arnold & Jo

    1. University of Melbourne Archives says:

      Our reference team is always happy to help. You can contact for assistance.

  7. Roland Nicholson says:

    My query is seeking the location point Italy/ Switzerland border when he and fellow POW crossed following 32 days on the run from Campo 106/2. Key details are:
    -entered Switzerland 13 Oct 1943
    – my dad AJV NICHOLSON #VX31699 2-24 AIF Battalion
    – David Todd #QX6922 2-15 AIF Battalion
    They had rowed across Lake Como then walked thru the alps.
    Thanking you
    Roland Nicholson

    1. University of Melbourne Archives says:

      Hi Roland,
      Our reference team is always happy to help if possible. You can contact for assistance.

  8. […] try this page from the UMA exhibition of their Australian Red Cross collection. It links to an informative blog post about the background to the collection and the content of the cards and to the record in the repository for the entire card collection. To search the cards I’ve […]

  9. […] there is an an informative blog post about the collection and the content of the cards […]

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