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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 11:40 GMT
Red Cross files reveal WWI cost
The Red Cross archives in Geneva contain poignant details in the many files listing those lost, killed or captured in World War I, the BBC's Imogen Foulkes reports.

Europe honours its war dead on Armistice Day, 11 November.

The World War I archives look at first glance like little more than a series of glass cases, containing some very dusty and dilapidated file cards.

The Red Cross archive's worth has been recognised by the UN
But look closer, and the true terrible scale of World War I is revealed.

There are rows of boxes, from floor to ceiling, whole shelves with the same surname: Smith, Smith, Smith, Smith. Muller, Muller, Muller, Gautier, Gautier, Gautier, Gautier... and on it goes.

Each box contains thousands of file cards, and each card refers to an individual human being, a soldier missing, imprisoned or killed during the war.

At the start of hostilities in August 1914, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) set up its International Prisoners of War Agency. The aim was to restore contact between all those separated by the conflict.

The agency began with just 10 employees, but by 1918 it had hundreds, and the agency was dealing with millions of inquiries.

Famous prisoners

A total of 65 million men from 44 countries fought in the war, and the files in the museum today reflect the global scale of the conflict.

One document lists a group of Afghan prisoners, captured by the Germans fighting on the Western Front in 1914.

Then there is the file of Private Brahma Camara from Senegal, fighting in a French battalion, and taken prisoner by the Germans.

British soldier on the Somme
Lives were lost in World War I on a scale not previously known

There are also famous names in the archive. Charles de Gaulle was captured by the Germans at the battle of Verdun, and his prisoner-of-war card is on display.

French singer Maurice Chevalier was seized too, and the ICRC has several letters from his friends and family, inquiring about his whereabouts.

But the most poignant parts of the archive are not the famous or unusual files, but the simple requests from ordinary families trying to find out what had happened to their loved ones.

A French woman, for example, writes via the Red Cross to her son's regiment, asking for news.

A letter comes back from one of his fellow soldiers: "Madam, I am very sorry. I did not see him die, the battle was fierce and we had to move on. But I was there when he received a very serious shrapnel wound to the head, he could not have survived."

And there is the file of one Christopher Bradford, a private in the Royal West Kent Regiment.

He was taken prisoner by Turkish forces after the siege of Kut al Amara, then in Mesopotamia, now Iraq.

Six months later, he died of dysentery in a Turkish prison camp.

"He made no declaration," reads his file. "No relics" - meaning he had no personal items with him.

World significance

The United Nations considers the Red Cross archive so important that it has incorporated it into Unesco's Memory of the World programme, declaring it the archive equivalent of a World Heritage Site.

"These archives testify to the suffering of war. It's evidence of the fate of millions of people, not just those directly affected, but the relatives and friends as well," says Unesco's Ingeborg Breines.

Rows of boxes testify to the immense suffering

"And it's a huge resource for historical researchers, and for people tracing their genealogy," she says.

In fact, the ICRC still receives hundreds of inquiries each year from relatives of soldiers who fought in WWI.

"Mostly it's from people who know already whether their grandfather or father survived or not," explains archivist Claire Bonnelie. "But they would like more information about what actually happened."

"I have a letter here from a Mr Lovell, for example. He writes: 'My father Joseph Lovell was taken prisoner, but [after the war] he never said much about it. We don't even know where he was located."

With the help of Joseph Lovell's army registration number, provided by his son, Claire can look in the ICRC lists of British prisoners.

"And in fact he is here," she says, pointing to a name. "Joseph Lovell from Wakefield. He was in the German camp of Sangan - that's in Poland now."

"The Red Cross visited that camp, and we still have the reports, so we can even tell Mr Lovell's son about the conditions."

Tracing victims

Tracing and caring for the victims of war remains a huge part of ICRC work.

The archives also include records of those missing in recent wars

Just a few steps from the World War I archive in the museum, there is a room lined with photographs of African children, each holding a card with a number on it.

"These are just some of the children we cared for in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide," explains ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal.

"We used these photos to try and trace their parents and families. Really, we are just following on from our colleagues in WWI, they used file cards and typewriters, we use photos and the internet these days.

"The work really addresses a very elementary need of all victims of war, apart from basic needs like food and water - what you want most is to find out what happened to your loved ones," he says.



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