Cross purposeful

7th July 1995 at 01:00
THE RED CROSS STORY by Emily Wood Dorling Kindersley Pounds 9.99. 0 7513 0173 6

The arms dangle awkwardly like shop dummies, the faces are saintly masks, but this World War 1 recruiting poster attracted a phenomenal response from tens of thousands of men and women who were happier to bear stretchers than arms. Among those who pulled on VAD (voluntary aid detachment) uniforms were Vera Brittain, E M Forster, John Masefield, Freya Stark and Agatha Christie.

But then, as this pictorial history makes clear, the Red Cross, which set up the VAD at the behest of the War Office, has never been short of influential friends. Luminaries ranging from Queen Victoria to rap star Hammer have lent their names and money to the cause even if they couldn't tie a bandage. But it is the first-aiders and ambulance teams who are the real stars of this 125th-anniversary publication. The men and women who walked into Belsen under the Red Cross banner or laid out the bodies of the dead Aberfan children; the young doctors and orderlies who died of exhaustion or were caught in the crossfire while tending soldiers in faraway wars.

The pages of this book aren't drenched in gore, however. There are fascinating sections on the contents of the famous Red Cross parcel (Douglas Bader's artificial legs arrived in one), the work with the herring fishermen and fish- gutters of East Anglia whose knife wounds could be infected by brine, and the help that the Red Cross offered to hop-pickers who suffered from now-forgotten afflictions such as hopper's eye in the immediate post-World War 1 years. Painful it may have been, but after the poppy fields of northern France the hop fields of Kent must have seemed like paradise.

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