1914-1918: How charities helped to win WW1

The First World War prompted a new wave of voluntary activity and the foundation of many charities that provided for servicemen and their families - and some are still active today. Feature by Carol Harris

Lady Hanbury Williams and Mrs Schlater selling flags for Soldiers Day, 1917
Lady Hanbury Williams and Mrs Schlater selling flags for Soldiers Day, 1917

As the First World War began in the early days of August 1914, a stream of wealthy and well-connected people visited Whitehall and volunteered to put their substantial resources at the disposal of the War Office.

Typical among them were Almeric Paget, Conservative MP for Cambridge, and his wife Pauline, who proposed funding a corps of 50 trained volunteer masseuses or "medical rubbers" - the forerunners of today's physiotherapists - to treat injured men. Paget's Massage Corps was established within days and run from his London home.

The Pagets had long campaigned for remedial massage to be established as a legitimate therapy, practised by trained and respectable women. Demand for the work of the new corps' volunteers increased rapidly as the number of war casualties escalated. In early 1915, the government asked the Pagets to fund more services, including an outpatient clinic, which they provided in another of their London properties.

Volunteering of this kind became essential to the war effort, at home and in battle areas. The sheer scale of help required was unprecedented; so too was the impact on the way charities were run. Commentators argue now that the work of civilian volunteers and charities helped create a social cohesion that bolstered morale among British troops. But the millions of donations and thousands of new charities also exposed the limitations in the law and the work of the Charity Commission, forcing the government to introduce legislation to regulate the sector along lines that are familiar today.

Nearly 18,000 charities were established during the four years of the war. The most popular causes were "comforts" - including clothing, books and food - for British and Empire troops, medical services, support for disabled servicemen, organisations for relieving distress at home, post-war remembrance and celebration, aid for refugees and countries overseas, and assistance to prisoners of war. Donations to war and other charities rose between 1914 and 1918, and continued to do so into the 1920s. From the start, as reservists were called up, the loss of the main wage-earner created severe hardship for many families. At first, the war exacerbated unemployment, because the markets for some goods collapsed. The government quickly realised men would not volunteer to fight if they did not believe that their homes and families would be looked after.

A National Relief Fund was set up with Edward, Prince of Wales, as treasurer, to help the families of serving men and those suffering from "industrial distress". In a message in national newspapers, he said: " At such a moment we all stand by one another, and it is to the heart of the British people that I confidently make this earnest appeal." Within a week, donations to the fund had reached £1m.

Belgian refugees were the focus of early voluntary action. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett, provided 150 interpreters to meet them. In the first 10 months of the war, 265,000 Belgian refugees arrived and the government looked to volunteers to offer all the necessary services.

The War Refugees Committee coordinated the relief efforts - not always effectively. Donations of money and goods poured in, as did thousands of offers of accommodation. The committee established a network of local charities, growing to 2,000 at its peak, almost all of which were staffed and run by volunteers.

Belgian refugees were also the subject of the first fundraising flag day in Glasgow on 3 October 1914. The Aberdeen Press and Journal said it was a great success, raising £5,874 6s 10d: "Of this amount, £169 10s was in gold and £2,724 in silver. Boxes of chocolates sold in the streets brought in £54 and over £10 was received from the sale of grapes. A number of Belgian refugees took part in the collection, including a child of three years, who comes from the Louvain district."

Newspapers ran appeals for everything from sports equipment to tinned food and hard cash. The aims of the Daily Express's Cheery Fund were "to oblige everybody at the front who asks for things, and cheer up those who do not want anything". Men on active service received an extraordinary range of gifts from the fund, including footballs and cricket equipment, gramophones and records, books, banjos, violins and games.

Tobacco and cigarettes were among the most popular causes: one of the largest charities, the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers And Sailors Society – known popularly as the SSS – distributed more than a billion cigarettes to wounded men bought with funds raised through events such as "Fag Day".

The British royal family transformed its image through its wartime charity work, developing a more personal relationship with the British public and distancing itself from its European relations - Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was Queen Victoria's grandson. Royal visitors boosted the morale of charity workers and encouraged public donations by meeting troops and volunteers, making personal appeals and lending their names as patrons. Crucially, royal visits featured in cinema newsreels - the new form of mass entertainment - and in the newspapers, which were read by almost all of the adult population.

However, it was not all plain sailing, as the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild demonstrated. Many women in the textile and clothing industry had lost their jobs as export markets closed, and the guild posed a direct threat to their job prospects. The War Emergency Workers' National Committee, which included leading figures from the labour movement, opposed it. Representatives of working women were called to the palace and the Queen's Work for Women Fund was created. Contracts to supply clothing and other items for the Army Supply Department were issued and the Queen placed a personal order for 75,000 woollen body belts as part of her Christmas gift to the troops.

For most of the population, fundraising became part of daily life. Local newspapers carried details of money and goods collected through dances, fetes and sales of produce and work. In the streets, posters advertised wartime charities, and women sold lapel-pin flags from trays. Picture postcards were sold to raise funds.

Children played a significant role in the war effort. Their activities were built into the school week and they were encouraged to donate their breakfasts to "Egg Day", on which eggs were collected for wounded soldiers. Even small children were often used in fundraising, dressed as soldiers and nurses. Jennie Jackson, aged seven at the start of the war, was one of the best-known: wearing a replica uniform, she toured pubs, clubs and factories, and raised a total of £4,000.

Help for marginal groups came from people such as Dr Alfred Salter, a Quaker, pacifist and GP in Bermondsey, south London. He bought Fairby Grange in Hartley, Kent, as a free convalescent home for the people of Bermondsey. Soon he also admitted conscientious objectors, whose health had been broken by their prison experiences, and, after the war, Austrian refugees.

Concern about animals in war work prompted the formation or expansion of several welfare organisations. The Blue Cross Fund aimed to be the equivalent of the Red Cross for animals and became known especially for its work with horses. The War Office initially rejected its services as unnecessary, but the fund soon established horse hospitals and provided treatments, equipment, vets and ambulances in battlefield areas. Public donations to its war activities soared, but the fund found it more difficult to raise money for its other work.

As so many new and disparate organisations were established, with so few rules to regulate them, concern grew about the management of funds. Many organisations, including the National Relief Fund, were slow to distribute money and marshal their volunteers. Some disillusioned regular contributors withdrew their support. A few charities were exposed as fraudulent and many more were poorly managed and had high running costs.

Flag days were a particular problem and were totally unregulated until 1915, when local authorities were given the powers to license them. Donated items were of variable quality and the distribution was chaotic; in the same year, the government appointed Sir Edward Ward, a retired soldier, to the post of Director General of Voluntary Organisations. Ward had no connection with the Charity Commission and no role in policing charities - his job was to deal with the distribution of donations to military hospitals and comforts to troops.

Ward issued leaflets giving instructions for making items, set up systems for matching supply with demand and organised transport. This coordinated approach was a great success and the scheme supplied more than 322 million items to troops during its existence. But the press, the Charity Organisation Society and leading UK charities continued to campaign for compulsory licensing for war relief charities. This, they believed, would prevent corruption and fraud, and increase public confidence. A parliamentary War Charities Committee investigated and agreed that legislation was needed.

The War Charities Act 1916 made registration for public appeals compulsory and gave local authorities the power to decide which organisations would be registered or exempt. This local emphasis meant that there were wide variations in the way the act was applied, especially in relation to defining a war charity, and to what constituted a public appeal.

The Charity Commission was heavily criticised throughout the war, although even its sternest critics conceded that it had nothing like the resources required to do its job. The 1916 legislation was an eloquent expression of its failure. In a debate in 1917, MPs complained that the commission had not yet acted on legislation passed during the first year of the war and had done nothing about the large number of charities sitting on funds that might be distributed to wartime causes. Joseph King, Liberal MP for North Somerset, described the commission as "defunct".

Conscription of the male population was introduced in the same year as the act. The consequent massive increase in the numbers of men going to fight forced the government to take a more direct part in some activities previously left to volunteers and enthusiasts.

Almeric Paget's masseuses, for example, were effective, but now the government needed hundreds more for military hospitals in the UK and abroad. The professional body, the Incorporated Society of Trained Masseuses, held an emergency meeting. The government thereafter took a more active role in the corps, which it expanded by hiring male masseuses trained by St Dunstan's, the charity for soldiers blinded on war service.

As the war continued, donations of cash and goods were maintained. Peter Grant, lecturer in voluntary sector management at the Cass Business School and author of Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War, argues that worsening casualty figures did not deter people and that volunteering increased after defeats and setbacks. "At the start of the war, the middle class were the contributors to charities because they had money in the bank," he says. "But as time went on, it was the working-class people, earning more through being in work, who made the donations." Grant says volunteers, often working alongside soldiers on the front line and supporting families at home, were crucial to the success of the war because they created a cohesion that cut across social classes.

The work of charities did not end with the Armistice in November 1918. Ex-servicemen faced hardship as war production gave way to a peacetime economy of high prices made worse by high unemployment. Ex-servicemen begging was a common sight, and wartime charities focused on providing for the millions disabled in the war.

Public contributions continued to flow in and national charities, such as the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, became critical of the government, which, fearful of what had happened in Russia in 1917, spied on it and similar organisations it suspected of plotting revolution in the UK. Charities made up of ex-servicemen took on a campaigning role, representing a new attitude to voluntary action shaped by wartime experience. They focused on self-help and the demand to be treated as equals. When Luton Borough Council excluded the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers Federation from its victory celebrations, disabled ex-servicemen lined the route, displaying a banner that said "Don't pity us, give us work".'

Charities became better coordinated as a result of the First World War and were in better shape by the time the Second World War loomed in the 1930s. In 1919, for instance, the National Council of Social Services, the forerunner of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, was set up through a legacy from Edward Birchall, a soldier who had died in France. As for the masseuses, they won their fight for recognition, receiving a royal charter shortly after the war, establishing the modern Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

Flag Days

Flag Days were the idea of Agnes Morrison, who started the Our Day collections in September 1914. In 1900, her first event had raised money for the Fund for Sufferers in the South African War and she was for many years president of the Glasgow Branch of the Scottish Children's League of Pity.

Our Day events proved to be so successful in raising funds that they were taken up overseas. They were organised mainly by the Red Cross and volunteer collectors to raise funds for wounded soldiers, war widows and prisoners of war. Supporters were encouraged to buy pin-flag badges and, on days dedicated to the corresponding funds of the allies, women sold flags wearing appropriate national dress.

One of the most lucrative was Our Day in India. In December 1917, it was declared a public holiday. Posters promised: "Every anna collected will be devoted to: 1. The men fighting for us in Mesopotamia. 2. The sick and wounded. 3. The families of those who have fallen in the great war for India and for Empire."

By the end of the war, Our Day collections had raised more than £25m, equivalent to £1.75bn today.

The Times Fund

The Times Fund, set up at the start of the war by The Times newspaper, collected for the joint war committee established by the British Red Cross Society and the St John Ambulance.

Donations listed in the 12 September 1914 edition range from £250 from Messrs Pilkington Brothers to £2 8s 8d from Rev FC Barham. It reports that Mrs Courage gave £26 for the "upkeep of Crawley Bed, in the Netley Red Cross Hut".

In 1921, the report on the activities of the wartime joint committee of the British Red Cross Society and the St John Ambulance said that the Times Fund contributed £16,510,023 6s 5d to the total of £21,885,035 received by the joint committee. The report added: "Of the paid staff at headquarters, we are told only 40 received salaries exceeding £250 a year but no one ever supposed that the Red Cross salary list was a heavy one.

"One of the most striking features of the story, and one which it is impossible to particularise here, was the steady flow of voluntary labour - in posts of danger, in tasks requiring exceptional initiative and ability, or in dogged drudgery - which persons of all classes - Royal, noble, plebeian, eminent and obscure - combined to pour into the needs of the Red Cross."

Elsie Inglis

The War Office did not welcome all its visitors. Elsie Inglis (left), one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in Britain, was among those offering help in the early days of the war. But her proposal for a group of women doctors to support the Royal Army Medical Corps or to establish hospitals, was summarily dismissed. "My good lady, go home and sit still," a ministry official advised her.

Women doctors such as Inglis were already well known in government circles as suffragists and were not trusted. Undeterred, Inglis set up the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee and raised tens of thousands of pounds to provide field hospitals for the allied forces.

The French and Serbian governments accepted her offer of help with enthusiasm and, over the course of the war, Scottish Women's Hospitals organised 14 medical units in France, Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. They provided the all-female staff for the hospitals, including nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks and orderlies. Inglis herself ran several of the hospitals, improving hygiene and reducing epidemics of typhus and cholera. She fell ill with cancer, but worked until the very end, dying at the age of 53 in 1917.

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