Canadian Red Cross Origin’s and First World War Contribution.

While the history of the Canadian Red Cross Society proper dates from 1896, that of the Quebec Provincial Branch, having its headquarters in Montreal, can boast of no records prior to the year 1913.

This does not imply, however, that Montreal was backward in assisting the sick .and wounded in war; on the contrary, our city contributed either directly or indirectly its quota in money or material for invalided soldiers in the Franco-Prussian, Greco-Turkish, Matabele, Egyptian, and Turco-Russian wars but these contributions were not from the Quebec Provincial Branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society as such, but from an association from which the present organization was gradually evolved. Long before 1900 the ladies of Montreal had worked nobly whenever occasion required, for “The National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War,” which was to all intents and purposes nothing more or less than a partially developed form of the Red Cross Society under another name. The following extract from a pamphlet issued by Headquarters sums up the history of the Society as at present constituted. “The Canadian Red Cross Society was organized in 1896 by Colonel George Sterling Ryerson, with the consent of and approval of the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War, as by Letter of Authority, dated at London, December 2nd, 1896.” It was the first Colonial Branch established in any country. It tendered its services to the belligerents in the Spanish-American War, but owing to the short duration and climatic conditions it was not able to accomplish very much in this war.” The Society was in the proud position of being ready for active work when the call came to Canada to assist in supporting the Empire in the war in South Africa, and it first solicited subscriptions from the people on October 5th, 1899. During the war fifty-three Local Branches were established throughout the Dominion of Canada, and the Society was the medium, through Red Cross channels, of contributing in kind to the amount of $23,552.75, while the cash receipts were $58,826.64.”

For many years after the Red Cross movement had been initiated in Canada the history of the Montreal work is inseparable from the annals of the parent Society throughout the Dominion; but on May 2nd, 1900, there was formed in Montreal an independent branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society having its own administrative officers and possessing control over its own funds. The following extract from the report of the main Canadian Society after the South African War is interesting:



  • Patron: Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.
  • President: Lieut. -Col. Henshaw.

Vice-Presidents: His Worship the Mayor of Montreal, Sir Melbourne Tait, Dr. R. Craik, Dr. E. P. Lachapelle, Lady Tait, Lady Hickson, Lady Kingston, Mrs. Geo. Drummond, Mme. Thibaudeau, Mrs. Peterson, Mrs. Yates, Miss Roddick.
The Council: Bishop Bond, R. Mackay, Principal Peterson, Jas. Ross, Rev. Dr. Barclay, E. S. Clouston, Lt.-Col. Whitehead, A. Sinclair.
During the winter of 1900, a number of ladies, called the Red Cross Committee, under the direction of Dr. Roddick*, vice-president for the Province of Quebec, of the Red Cross Society, collected money, purchased materials, manufactured garments, and hospital supplies (bandages and surgical dressings being sterilized by the Royal Victoria Hospital) to be forwarded to Lieut. -Col. Ryerson in Africa. Contributions were also received from Richmond, Stanstead, South Durham, Laviner, Cooperville and Porter, P.Q., the total cash value being about $4,000.00. On May the 2nd, 1900, the Montreal Branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society was organized; Dr. Roddick presiding. On December the 6th, 1900, a second committee meeting was held, and it was moved by Dr. Roddick and seconded by Sir Wm. Hingston that Lieut. -Coi. Henshaw be elected president. Dr. Ryerson being present acknowledged the receipt of supplies sent from Montreal and Westmount and testified as to the good work done by the branch. The supplies on hand when the notice to discontinue work was received, were sent to Dr. Grenfell’s deep sea mission and any balance of funds is required for local management.

Note. Subsequently a draft for $135.65 was received with the request that it be forwarded to Lieut. -Colonel Steele, which request was complied with. The Montreal Branch, however, was still only a ”branch,” and not a provincial centre, and for many years after the South African war it was practically in abeyance. Its President, the late Lt.-Col. Henshaw, died in 1907, and for some time his place was not filled.
The Red Cross Society of to-day resembles the temple of Janus in ancient Rome, since, during the piping times of peace, from the close of the South African war until the present strife of nations, the doors of the Society’s offices were closed. This, however, is a mere figure of speech, as the Red Cross here for a long time could boast of no offices whatever.

On January 15th, 1913, the first meeting of a newly constituted Quebec Provincial Branch, with Montreal as its centre, was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The late Lt.-Col. Jeffrey H. Burland was in the chair, and among others present were the Hon. James Guerin, M.D., Dr. Kingston, Dr. E. J. C. Kennedy, Messrs. J. W. McConnell, Lansing Lewis and H. C. Blake, M.V.O. Colonel Burland was unanimously elected President, and Vice-Presidents, members of committees and officers were duly appointed. The Hon. Treasurer’s report showed that there was a credit balance of $183.20 in the bank. In view of the present stirring times these details may appear unimportant, but it must be remembered that they are records of the earlier history of what is now a huge and magnificently organised undertaking. At the second annual meeting, held at 2 Place d’Armes, on January 6th, 1914, the President was in the chair and Messrs. Lansing Lewis, H. Pillow and H. C. Blake, M.V.O. , were present. The Treasurer reported a credit balance of $214.75 in the bank. This sum total of assets should be remembered when the figure of to-day are dealt with later on. Upon the outbreak of war in August, 1914, Colonel Burland immediately supplied premises free of charge to the Society, for Offices and workers, also a large warehouse in which to collect and store supplies, moreover he gave the services of his secretary and enlisted the sympathies of many tradesmen, transport companies, business houses, etc., all of whom gave material, time, labour or assistance, gratis, to “facilitate the objects of the Society. Shortly afterwards Colonel Burland had to leave suddenly for England to take up his duties there as Commissioner for the Canadian Red Cross, his secretary also went to assist him. Unfortunately, Colonel Burland died soon after reaching the British Isles, and the Society had to mourn a real friend and benefactor.


Help the Red Cross, Funds Wanted for Hospital Supplies, Montreal.

Help the Red Cross, Funds Wanted for Hospital Supplies, Montreal.


The Committee of the Quebec Provincial Branch of the Red Cross was thus left without either president or secretary and their places had to be filled. The pressure of clerical and administrative work never before had been heavier than at this time, but Major H. B. Yates, who had made himself conversant with the necessary details of management and the general ideas of campaign in fact had organised personally the motive forces of the Society’s activities since the first days of hostilities came to the rescue. Under his guidance the organisation of the business and clerical departments was immediately completed and perfected. The various ladies’ committees already had got themselves into working order within a few days of the outbreak of war, and owing to the administrative capabilities of those superintending the different sub-divisions of the work, everything has run smoothly and without a hitch ever since.


People of all creeds, nationalities, political opinions, and grades of society are to-day working together amicably at Belmont Park and at the various local centres, and each member of the Red Cross vies with his or her fellow workers to produce the best results in the shortest time and at the lowest cost to the Society. Care has’ been taken that the influx of voluntary workers within the fringe of the labour market should not affect adversely the earnings of those normally engaged in the clothing industries of Canada (perhaps the term “labour market” in connection with the Red Cross is a misnomer, as but for the efforts of the Society there would be no “supply” of the articles required in spite of the pressing, demand for them) . Large orders have been given to various houses, which, it if were not for the existence of the Red Cross Society, might have had to dismiss employees. Not a few of our ladies have engaged seamstresses out of work in consequence of war conditions and found them employment. The sewing on of buttons, tapes and markings is securing a living wage for many who otherwise would now be starving. Wherever possible, when extra work has to be given out, preference is given by the Society to the unemployed.
Those interested in labour problems must realise that in time of war the Red Cross Society creates a market for certain goods which is non-existent in normal circumstances; cholera belts, Balaclava helmets, nightingales, etc., are not supplied in thousands by the War Office, or stocked in large quantities by wholesale houses. Unorganised efforts of individuals to donate the fore going and other necessaries would be futile; the co-operation, however, of units, associations, branches and centres creates the supply that responds to the demand and at the same time provides work for many who, otherwise, would be out of employment. And now as regards the current expenses of the Society some $36,000 have been collected since the beginning of the war, of which only about $11,000 is unspent and at the present rate of expenditure this balance will have nearly disappeared by Christmas time. The net cost entailed by staff expenses, stationery, postage, etc., in the collection and administration of this $36,000 has been in the neighborhood of $600 only or at the cost of If per cent, of the sum total. Economy has been studied in every department and expenditure reduced to a minimum. In addition to the money collected, many tons of material and garments, both finished and unfinished, have been donated; and when the value of the goods is taken into consideration and added to the amount contributed in hard cash, the actual total approximates some $50,000. The sum of $600 for administration therefore does not err on the side of prodigality.


On Thursday, November 12th, the annual general meeting of the Quebec Provincial Branch was held at Belmont Park. Major Yates was elected President. The following report culled from the Montreal Gazette of November 13th, gives an excellent resume of the proceedings.
“The Canadian contingent will soon be on the firing line, and we must be ready for our own roll of casualties. It is therefore the duty of every member of the society to put out still greater efforts and to enlist further support so that we may meet the larger demand when it comes, as come it must,” said Major H. B. Yates, M.D., who presided at the annual meeting of the Quebec Provincial Branch Red Cross Society, held at 45 Belmont Park yesterday afternoon. In his report of the work for the year, Major Yates, after reading the resolution of condolence on the death of Colonel Jeffrey H. Burland, passed by the executive committee on October 26th, and published at that time, remarked that he felt sure it expressed the feelings of every member of the Branch. Major Yates then gave an outline of the work of the Quebec Provincial Branch during the last three months, saying in part as follows:


“At the outbreak of war strong committees were formed and the organization of working groups, sub-committees, etc., taken actively in hand.” Since the bulk of our work, I might almost say the entire work, is performed by ladies, the credit for the splendid results already achieved is due to them. The president of the Ladies’ Executive Committee of the English section, Mrs. Yates; the convenors of the sub-committees, Mrs. Stuart, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Birkett, Mrs. Tooke and Mrs. C. M. Holt; the secretaries, Miss Phillips, Miss Mabel Hickson and Miss C. Holt; Mme. Huguenin, president of the Ladies’ Executive Committee of the French section; members of her committee, Mme. Thibeaudeau, Mme. F. L. B&que, Mme. Grin-Lajoie; the honorary treasurer, Mme. Desaulniers -indeed all the ladies assisting whose names appear in the list of committees have been indefatigable in the work they undertook. When it is realized that from this province alone 39,255 articles of clothing have been despatched for the sick and wounded soldiers, apart from innumerable cases of drugs, bandages, biscuits, and other articles of general utility, you will get some slight idea of the energy that these ladies have shown. There are in hand awaiting despatch some 2,000 additional garments. Every article requires marking, sorting, counting and packing. “Each case sent out has a list nailed on the outside showing the contents, in addition to a similar list enclosed. Material has been purchased, patterns distributed and garments cut out by the hundred. One could go on almost indefinitely referring to the details of the work, but from what I have said you will get some idea of the tasks which have been voluntarily undertaken and the devotion with which they have been performed. The men who are fighting our battles in Europe cannot claim a monopoly of self-sacrifice and heroism. The work of the women of the Empire, although done quietly and unostentatiously, is none the less meritorious and deserving of record.” We have in Montreal 125 life members, who have given $25 or over 590 members paying annually $224 associates subscribing $1 each year.


There are to-day fourteen branches in the Province of Quebec, each selfsupporting and contributing its quota to the ever-increasing supply of garments which literally pours into our headquarters every day. “In addition to the organized branches, there are 295 groups working throughout the province. Those are composed of workers who have been unable to form themselves into regular branches, but who nevertheless have sent in large contributions of clothing to our Montreal receiving and packing committees. No small measure of praise is due to all these groups for their valuable co-operation.”
The Montreal French section, under the presidency of Mme. Huguenin, is deserving of special mention. Apart from the innumerable contributions of clothing received from this enthusiastic body of workers, it has collected in cash a considerable’ sum of money.

During the Tag Days of October 9th and 10th the magnificent co-operation of the French ladies was largely responsible for the result obtained, and very special thanks are due to Mme. Huguenin and all her supporters for their invaluable assistance. While on this subject, I would like to refer to the splendid work of the Boy Scouts and Laval students, whose offer to undertake the collecting made the enterprise possible. Hearty thanks are also due to the ladies and others who assisted at the different bases.

“The total collected in the two days amounted to $13,768.63. When the boxes were opened they were found to contain some 170,000 coins. The task of counting this huge collection was most kindly undertaken by Mr. Forget, of the St. Catherine street east branch of the City and District Savings Bank, assisted by a number of his staff, and many others who all gave their time and services. Through the courtesy of the Rev. C. A. Williams, a special gathering was held on Thursday, October 29th, in St. James Methodist Church, on behalf of our society. Addresses were given by Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor and Mr. Rowell, of Toronto. A collection which followed resulted in $225 being handed over to the Red Cross.

‘Very special thanks are due to Messrs. Dobell, Beckett, Uream, Price, and Judge, of Quebec, who, as a receiving and despatching committee, took personal charge of all Red Cross shipments from that port. Their duties have been by no means light, involving re-packing, listing, etc., and we are greatly indebted to these gentlemen for the work they have done.
“The wonderful support rendered the society by firms, tradesmen, transport companies, and others would take too long to recount. Acknowledgments have appeared from time to time in the press. We have received gifts of material, loans of furniture, free transport for Red Cross supplies, besides liberal rebates and special quotations have been granted us. The premises were occupy are lent by the Burland estate rent free through the generosity of our late president, and practically all the contents of this house, such as tables, chairs, telephones etc., have been donated or loaned.” I must not forget to allude to the help given to this society by several gentlemen who have been here day after day for hours at a time carrying heavy loads down stairs, packing, shifting and nailing down boxes, or assisting with the huge volume of clerical work that has to be dealt with in connection with or receiving and despatching departments.
“There has been a noble response to our appeal for assistance. Those who have helped with donations have given us a splendid incentive to further efforts. The war has only just begun and we are warned to be prepared for still greater sacrifices in the months ahead of us. We cannot therefore afford to slacken our efforts. More funds must be collected, more hospitals equipped, clothing and necessaries must be sent in still larger quantities, but the Society feels assured that whatever work is in store will be performed in the same selfdenying spirit displayed during the opening months of the campaign.”

A contribution of $12,000 was sent by this province to the central funds of the Society. This sum represents our share of the $50,000 voted by the Canadian Red Cross to the British Red Cross Society in London. “Our operations are limited only by the funds at our disposal. Money is the sinews of war and although the war being waged by the Red Cross Society is against sickness and suffering yet we require funds to carry it on to a successful conclusion.” “The balance now in hand will last until about the first of January. We are doing our best with the resources at our disposal, but the wounded, in spite of the efforts being made, are still lying neglected, sometimes for days, on the battlefield.”

In the absence of Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, Sir Montagu Allan presented the financial statement, showing that with a balance on hand at the beginning of the year of $214.75, the total revenue amounted to $36,233.45, of which $12,000 had been contributed to the central fund and over that amount for materials. After the deduction of other expenses there remained a balance of nearly S11,500. This amount would, however, be required before the end of the year for more materials. It would be, he claimed, a disgrace to the community if more money were not forthcoming, in order that the society might go on supplying Red Cross necessities as long as the need continued. Col. Fages, in moving the adoption of the report, emphasized the stimulus to the moral courage of an army knowing that real interest, help and sympathy were following their efforts instead of selfish curiosity; while Mr. Lansing Lewis, seconder, asked that special attention be called to the fact that while the balance on hand seemed a large one, things would have been in a far different condition had it not been for the efforts of the Boy Scouts and Laval students, whose two-day collection had netted over $13,000 for the funds.

Lady Drummond, in supporting Mr. W. R. Miller’s slate of officers for the coming year, paid special tribute to the proposed president, Major Yates, and to his valuable aid, conscientiously and unassumingly given in many good causes, and especially in connection with the Red Cross movement. His Lordship, Bishop Farthing, in answer to an invitation from the chair, expressed his appreciation of the marvellous instance of the sympathy of the people and the unity of action of the whole Empire as seen on all sides, an instance of absolute unanimity, with everybody ready to lend a helping hand, unparalleled in history. He thought one of the great results of the war would be the development of a greater spirit of self-sacrifice, and in Canada, especially, a breaking down of the spirit of materialism which had been gaining so strong a hold in our country. The fact of putting life into work for the Empire, not only by the men who had gone to the front, but by the women, who, many of them for the first time, were performing personal services, was doing everybody good.


The officers as elected were:

  • Patron Sir Francis Langelier, K.C.M.G.
  • President Major H. B. Yates, M.D.
  • Vice- Presidents Sir Montagu Allan, C.V.O.;
  • Hon. Louis Beaubien; Lieut. -Col. H. S. Birkett, M.D.; Hon. Dr. J. J. Guerin; Bartlett McLennan; Hugh Paton; Hon. Richard Turner (Quebec); J. W. McConnell; Sir AlexandreLacoste.
  • Executive committee Major H. B. Yates, M.D., chairman; Sir Montagu Allan, C.V.O.; C. C. Ballantyne; Lansing Lewis; Col. R. E. W. Turner, V.C., D.S.O. (Quebec); George H. Montgomery, K.C. (honorary legal adviser);
  • Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, hon. treasurer; J. M. Coote, hon. secretary;
  1. M. Scott, assistant secretary; H. Meredith Smith, hon. auditor; Robert Archer; Dr. E. J. C. Kennedy; Dr. D. A. Kingston; W. M. Dobell (Quebec);
  2. M. Beckett (Quebec); Lieut. -Col. W. Price (Quebec).

Finance committee (appointed on declaration of war) Chairman, Sir.H. Montagu Allan, C.V.O.; Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor; Tancrede Bienvenu;

  1. R. Drummond; A. E. Holt; Hugh Paton; R. B. Angus; M. Chevalier;
  2. B. Gordon; H. S. Holt.

Representative to Central Council Sir H. Montagu Allan.


Precursors: 1885-1896
Canadians first put the symbol and humanitarian ideals of the Red Cross to work in 1885, during the North West Rebellion in present-day Saskatchewan. Although there was no official Red Cross organization in Canada at the time, certain individuals were familiar with the Red Cross movement that had taken root in Europe during the 1860s and 1870s. The symbol of the red cross appeared on at least three homemade red cross flags which were flown to claim neutrality for the humanitarian work of battlefield medics. Toronto citizens also raised money to equip a “Red Cross Corps” of medical students who travelled west to provide medical care to the sick and wounded of the Canadian militia.

After the North West Rebellion ended, Red Cross activity in Canada temporarily disappeared. But in 1896, Toronto surgeon and militia member Dr. George Sterling Ryerson – one of the three men to fly a flag bearing a red cross, in 1885 – sought and gained permission to start a branch of the British Red Cross in Canada. (This was necessary because Canada was still a British colony.) Ryerson was part of a group of doctors and militia members who were concerned about the poor quality of medical care available to Canadian soldiers. They believed the Red Cross would be a good way to provide better care to sick and wounded soldiers in wartime. Officially known as the “British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War – Canadian Branch,” this 1896 organization was the first official Canadian Red Cross.


Getting Started: 1896-1913.

After being founded in 1896, there wasn’t much for the Canadian Red Cross to do. Red Cross societies generally only worked in wartime, at this point, and Canada was at peace. Then, in 1899, the British Empire went to war in South Africa (known as the “Boer War,” 1899-1902), and several contingents of Canadian soldiers were sent overseas to fight. This gave the Canadian Red Cross its first chance to fulfill its mandate to help the sick and wounded in war. Canadians responded generously to the young organization’s call for donations of money and goods, and the Canadian Red Cross was able to provide a wide range of supplementary medical supplies and invalid foods. Dr. Ryerson was among several Canadians who served in South Africa as Red Cross Commissioners, overseeing the distribution of these funds and items in military hospitals during the war. The Boer War created the first strong connection between ordinary Canadians and the Canadian Red Cross.
When the Boer War ended, the Canadian Red Cross once again lost its momentum for a time. It had no mandate for peacetime activity, and nearly ceased to exist. However, by 1909 key Red Cross supporters came together in attempt to reinvigorate their organization. They secured a charter (the 1909 Act of Incorporation) from the Canadian government which set out a new organizational structure and established financial reporting rules for the Red Cross. Through this charter the Canadian Red Cross Society (CRCS) — as it was now officially re-named — became something more than just a branch of the British Red Cross, and established its position as an auxiliary to the government’s military medical services in wartime. Unfortunately there was still little for the Society to do in peacetime, and some of the momentum of 1909 dissipated over the next few years.

  • Source: Report by the Canadian Red Cross Society of its Activities in the South African War, 1899-1902. Toronto: CRCS, 1902. CRCS. Annual Reports. 1910-1913.


The First World War marked a major turning point for the Canadian Red Cross Society (CRCS), establishing it as Canada’s leading wartime humanitarian aid organization. From the moment the war broke out in August 1914, Canadians were keen and enthusiastic supporters of Red Cross work. The number of Red Cross branches (with official charters) and Red Cross auxiliaries (church groups, clubs, etc. who worked for a local Red Cross branch) across the country exploded, and financial donations flooded in. Women – who were not allowed to participate in the military at this time – were especially active in their support for the Red Cross, and the knitted “comforts” (socks, scarves, sweaters, etc.) and medical supplies (ex. Bandages) they produced by the millions became a symbol of women’s contributions in wartime. As Superintendent of Supplies, Mrs. Adelaide Plumptre brought a business-like efficiency to women’s wartime production. Volunteers also packed food parcels for Prisoners of War, and by the end of the war volunteers were also producing jam and other canned foods for invalid soldiers overseas. The Society donated large sums of money to the relief work of other Red Cross societies, and at the end of the war, to the cause of civilian refugees returning to devastated areas of Europe.

While Canadians fundraised and produced comforts and medical supplies back home, the Society set up overseas headquarters in London, England, from which to coordinate its work in Britain and France. This work encompassed the establishment and support of a number of rest homes and hospitals in England (including, most famously, the Taplow hospital on the Astor family’s Cliveden estate) and the provision of comforts and supplementary medical supplies to Canadian, British, French, and other allied hospitals. CRC volunteers visited convalescing soldiers in Britain, attempted to trace missing soldiers, maintained files on all Canadian Prisoners of War (with the assistance of the ICRC), and corresponded with family members in Canada about the status of their sick, wounded, missing, or captured loved ones. A separate but related CRC relief effort took place when Canadian and other allied troops were sent to Siberia in 1918. All of these activities took place in close cooperation with the British Red Cross (still the CRCS’s “parent” Society, at this time), but the Canadian Red Cross Society gained valuable experience and confidence over the course of the war. It also solidified its positive relationship with Canadians: the Society offered them a variety of concrete means of helping sick, wounded, and captured soldiers.

  • Sources: CRCS. Annual Reports. 1914-1918.





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