The British Red Cross established offices to deal with enquiries for the missing in Paris, Boulogne and London in the early stages of the War. An office was set up in London before the end of 1914. It began on a small scale at 83 Pall Mall and then the London office of the Wounded and Missing Department was opened at 20 Arlington Street, lent by Lord Salisbury, in April 1915 with a staff of about twenty voluntary workers, besides typists and this became the clearing-house for all enquiries received from the public and also for all reports collected by the searchers in hospitals at home and abroad.
All incoming enquiries were registered in the office and included in the printed monthly enquiry list, which was distributed to all searchers and the searchers’ reports, as they were received, were communicated to the enquirers.
The department continued to grow and moved to Norfolk House, St James Square in July 1915 and then to 18 Carlton House Terrace in November 1915, lent by Lord Astor, where it remained until the end of the war. Sir Louis Mallet was the Director of the Department from April 1915 to September 1916 succeeded by the Earl of Lucan from September 1916 to the close of work in March 1919.
In October 1916, the section of the department which dealt with prisoners of war was removed to form part of the newly-constituted Central prisoners of War committee and from that time onwards, all matters referring to prisoners of war was handed over to that committee.
The War Office largely regulated the scope of the work from the beginning. Facilities were given to the Wounded and Missing department for visiting the hospitals and consulting the War Office records, but it was not officially recognised until July 1915, when it was stated that we should be the only organisation permitted to make such enquiries for the missing and the work carried on in close liaison with the Casualty department of the War Office.
In July 1916 the Department started to make enquiries for all the missing, whether or not friends or relatives had made a special application. It was judged best to begin enquiring for every missing man as soon as he was so reported. The War Office supplied the Department with an annotated copy of the daily communiqué of casualties, giving the details essential for search (but omitted from the published casualty lists) of the missing man’s battalion and company, with the date of the casualty. The Wounded and Missing included all these names in their enquiry list and therefore often had information to hand when the family of the missing man made an enquiry. The War Office, in letting the next-of-kin about a casualty, they automatically referred them to us for further information.
The searching of hospitals at home started in 1915 and was gradually developed all over the country. The different districts were placed under the charge of a head searcher. That person, usually a local volunteer, was responsible for seeing that the first-line hospitals, which were those receiving wounded direct from France, were searched and every new draft of wounded were questioned with regard to the missing of the list.
Regular searches in the base hospitals and army rest camps abroad and hospitals at home, about 1200 searchers were employed in the UK, meant a very wide circulation of the monthly enquiry list. After the Armistice, searching was carried out with very good results at the various reception camps in France and England, to which repatriated prisoners of war were first sent.
‘Wounded’ enquiries were referred to the War office or to the regimental record offices and reports on the wounded man’s condition, where the hospital was known, were obtained by telegram from the hospital searcher. ‘Missing’ enquiries were classified according to the front on which the man was missing and passed to the section that prepared the monthly list for printing.
Another section of the office checked the periodical lists received direct from Germany through the Frankfurt Red Cross, of those reported prisoners of war, in order that their names be removed from the next enquiry list. All enquiries relating to men in the forces in Italy and the East were dealt with in a separate section, as were all enquiries for officers in France.
It soon became established in writing to relatives waiting for information about the ‘missing’ that official forms and methods should be discarded, so that each enquirer might feel that a certain personal interest was taken in his or her case. During the War the Department received 342,248 enquiries.