National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 5/The Needs Abroad

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The Needs Abroad[edit]

By Ian Malcolm, Member of the British Red Cross and of the House of Commons

From a meeting of the American Red Cross War Council, Washington, D.C., May 24–25, 1917


It is difficult, nay, almost impossible, to imagine or to describe the damnable devastation of modern war.

It is one thing to glance at long lists of casualties in the morning papers, to read the descriptions of villages and townships ruined by artillery fire. It is quite another thing to sense, as I have had to do, the true inwardness of the vast human tragedy that is being enacted across the sea.

The silence of London and Paris, and of our great cities in France and England; the prevalence of black as the color in which most of our women are dressed, an eloquent testimony to the mourning that is in the hearts and homes of nearly every family in the land; the streets full of wounded in hospital uniforms, either walking or being driven out for an airing—these are some of the outward and visible signs of the ravages of war.

Ambulances driving gently down all the thoroughfares, the Red Cross flying over one or more large houses in every street of the residential quarter—these are tokens of the same tragic truth.

And abroad, in France and Flanders, you come nearer still to the true agony of the situation. How can I describe it? Think of the worst earthquake, of the worst floods, that have scourged and shocked you here at home; multiply the horror of your impression a hundredfold, and you will come near to the horrors of the Marne and the Aisne.

Multiply them a thousandfold, and you will realize the ferocity of carnage at the battles of the Ancre and the Somme.

Multiply them two thousandfold, and that is the picture of misery and pain and death after the great battles on the plains of Russia and in the mountains of Persia and the Caucasus.

Think of the ruin by floods in Flanders, with the stench of thousands of carcasses, human and animal, poisoning the atmosphere for miles around for those who must stay day and night in the trenches; think of the devastation by fire in France, where villages and woods and broad pasture lands are utterly wiped out of existence—not a house nor a church nor a tree left standing, where once there were thousands of families living in a condition as prosperous and happy as anywhere in the world.

A purgatory of pain[edit]

Then turn your minds to the picture of some great engagement; try to conceive long trenches of men writhing in torture from poisonous gas or from liquid flame, soldiers smashed and disfigured by shell wounds, their lacerations indescribable as their heroism is undaunted.

Leave the trenches and retire behind the firing line with me. Here we are on roads lined with men on stretchers some dead, scores mortally wounded, hundreds upon hundreds of casualties in one or another degree of collapse. The middle of the roadway is filled by dozens of ambulances after every action; there is perhaps a mile length of hospital trains waiting in a siding to convey the wounded to base hospitals.

And all this purgatory of pain is dependent for relief upon the skill of our doctors, the tenderness of our nurses, the efficiency of our equipment—all of which means, and is dependent upon, the generosity of the public.

May I not take it for granted that just as the fighting manhood of the United States is soon to be with us in the trenches, so you of the Red Cross who have done so much for us in the past are now eager to be mobilized in the allied Army of Mercy, and of charity that is almost divine?

I assume that your organization is coming with us in increased numbers and with increased equipment, if necessary, to the mountains above and around Saloniki, to the plains of Egypt, to East Africa, to the waterless wastes of Mesopotamia—our tears and triumphs mingling beneath the shadow of the Red Cross flag.

Where unassuaged wounds cry for America's compassion[edit]

Nay, further, I should like to assume that, with your resources inexhaustible as your hearts are warm, you will pour out of the fullness of your treasure into war zones where we have no men fighting, but where ambulance columns are desperately needed, such as Russia and Roumania.

You are wanted there, though the pride of Russia will prevent their even telling you so. I cannot think of a greater movement at this moment, in the interests of bleeding humanity or of Allied propaganda, than the offer of a fully equipped ambulance corps to work with the Russian army and for the Russian people.

Have I said enough to indicate to you the illimitable sphere of Christian influence that lies before you if you care to occupy it? Have I said enough to show you the dire needs of those who are fighting in the sacred cause that you have made your own?

Even so, I have left untouched all the work of caring for the homeless, starving populations, now being daily released from the bondage of nearly three years' servitude, as slowly, but surely, we are driving back the Germans on the western front. It is, of course, for your great-hearted public to decide whether and when and how they can best intervene in this area of human desolation.

Unless I have totally misconceived your splendid ambition to rescue and to save in whatever part of the world war zone you are needed most, I have indicated to you by inference the tremendous part that money must play in the great drama of your intervention.

Am I to specify in detail a few of the objects upon which, it may be supposed, your money will be most usefully spent? I can only do so by reference to your own schedules of expenditures.

A thousand needs for dollars[edit]

We have base hospitals, running into hundreds, I am sorry to say, in France and England; advanced base hospitals, and special hospitals for convalescents, for cripples, for the blind, for face cases, and homes for the permanently disabled.

We have hospital ships on the English Channel, in the Mediterranean, on the Adriatic, and on the Tigris.

We have hospital trains in England, France, and Egypt; hundreds of motor ambulances in all our theaters of war, with their repair cars and other necessary adjuncts.

There are thousands of doctors, nurses, orderlies, etc., to be clothed and fed; there are canteens for Red Cross men, rest homes for nurses worn out by assiduous work and ceaseless activity. We provide, of course, hospital clothing, drugs, dressings—all in enormous quantities for equipment and in reserve. These reserves are forever being replenished and forever rising in cost.

Then if you affiliate the Young Men's Christian Association to yourselves, there will be scores of canteens wanted—you can never have enough of them—for the soldiers sent to rest camps or to the base. You will want accommodation for officers or men sent over to England from time to time for the regulation periods of leave.

I feel I could go on forever suggesting to you ways and means for the expenditure of all the money that you can collect in June and go on collecting afterward; but the time at my disposal, to say nothing of your patience, is exhausted, and I must close.

But I close with these words: We count confidently upon you to rouse, and it should not be difficult, the deep-seated spirit of humanity that permeates this Northern Continent of America—to rouse that soul of your people to translate itself into terms of hard cash; as an earnest that those who cannot fight will pay, and that, if it be the will of God that wars shall continue in this imperfect world, then you are determined to relieve and mitigate its horrors for its victims to the utmost of your power.

And may I add that if, in any way whatever, you care to ask the British Red Cross for the benefit of its experience in any quarter of the world during the tragic period through which we have passed, I am authorized to say that it will be promptly and gladly given; no longer to our “cousins,” as we used affectionately to call you, but to our brothers and sisters united by a thousand ties, but none closer than that of an overmastering passion to join hands in drawing a great net of mercy through an ocean of unspeakable pain.

Source: Ian Malcolm (May 1917), “The Needs Abroad”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(5): 427–431.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).