Finding a Needle in a Haystack An Examination of the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau 1915-1919

Author: Sandra Kearney

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 27 Sep 2024.

Kearney, Sandra, 2022 Finding a Needle in a Haystack An Examination of the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau 1915-1919, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The Australian Red Cross information bureaux network was founded in the latter part of 1915 during the First World War. As one of six such bureaux, the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau opened its doors to the public on 5 January 1916. It had the self-appointed task of assisting those in society ‘anxious to seek news of sick, wounded or missing men’ who had enlisted from the state. The archival collection of the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau housed in the State Library of South Australia is the only extant such archive in Australia and, more broadly, in what was once known as the British Dominions.

The thesis examines the workings of the bureau in South Australia based on this extensive and unique archival collection. It undertakes to understand the bureau’s development and organisational structure to meet the changing needs of the public as the war progressed. It identifies the functions of this bureau at the crucial meso-level of society, positioned between the public, on the one hand, and state and military institutions, on the other, as an organisation and a set of resolute individuals. It also considers the role of this bureau within a national and international network run by the Australian Red Cross Society and within the context of other institutions undertaking similar enquiry work.

This thesis thus adds to the current historiography by showing how the bureau’s success in South Australia moved beyond supplementing the particulars supplied by the government and military authorities concerning casualties, as it worked collaboratively with other state bureaux and, importantly, an Australian bureau abroad. It further corrects the current understanding of the bureau’s wartime work by turning attention to the pivotal role played by Australian searchers. The bureau's success on the home front depended on the effectiveness of what Deakin achieved in the Australian bureau abroad. This thesis argues the bureau abroad represents practices of global humanitarian nationalism, employing international humanitarian networks to fulfill its tasks. It did so through undertaking strategic organisational development in response to demands on the home front, as enquirers became increasingly dependent on the efficient completion performance of its functions.

More than an organisational history, this study is an interdisciplinary examination of how the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau undertook vital activities. It adopts a language analysis tool to interpret the communication patterns between the enquirer and the bureau secretary, revealing knowledge about the writer’s characteristics and the circumstances in which letters between the enquirers and the bureau were composed. This approach opens possibilities for future work based on this unique and invaluable archive.

Keywords: Red Cross Information Bureau, World War 1, Australian Red Cross Society, YMCA, League of Loyal Women

Subject: History thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Andrekos Varnava