Julia Draper’s work put families back together. In the Tracing Department, she received requests from civilians for information on missing relatives. The International Red Cross in Geneva communicated between countries. Through Geneva, Julia tried her level best to reunite families across borders and alliances.
How did you get involved?
“France had fallen. The Germans had conquered France. A lot of the families, particularly in France, had all been split up. Some had come to England.
And they wanted to get in touch with relatives. There were many people who couldn’t find their loved ones. Imagine families wanting to contact each other when they hadn’t or couldn’t do it through normal ways.
And at Red Cross, they asked me to go into the Tracing Department.
What did you do?
“They were lent a house in St. James’s Palace enclave, where we had the office. What we did was, we received requests from families who were split up. And there we received letters and telegrams from distraught people.
Sometimes in English, sometimes in French. Regardless of what they chose to write in. My French is very poor….but it was enough to understand these rather short messages.
And all we did was our level best to find, get information of the relatives who were missing. And sometimes we didn’t: sometimes they had been captured, might be prisoners of war, sometimes they might be dead.
Geneva kept the records. Such as there were. They were the centre, the base. And we were the outlying ladies. And so we had to look up and send off messages to Geneva, who had a central office there and sometimes we could unite people.
I was simply a pair of hands, or a brain, that was doing its best to fix these pieces of paper that might relate to each other, so that families could get news of their loved ones. That is what we did: as much as we could. We had to use our initiative as much as possible. Sometimes we heard of success and other times we heard no more. So one was never certain. But in wartime conditions, everything is uncertain.
We knew we were helping or trying to help people. Whether they’re prisoners of war, whether they’re civilians, whether they’re families together or separated. That is the job.”
The Wounded and Missing Department of the Joint War Organisation was first set up in June 1940 when the British Army retreated from Dunkirk, leaving over 40,000 men behind. It had to deal with thousands of people desperate for news of a relative or friend. Were they dead? If dead, how did they die? If alive, where were they? The Department produced results for 92per cent of enquiries. Find out more about the Wounded, Missing and Relatives Department
Joint War Organisation volunteers who worked in the Wounded, Missing and Relatives Department were very good at finding out the truth about what had happened to someone and dealing with relatives in sensitive manner, Sometimes there were unusual problems, such as the missing soldier whose three fiancées had to be informed that he was safe.
During the Second World War, international humanitarian law comprised rules governing the treatment of POWs. The ICRC was therefore able to assist and protect POWs. The Central Agency for Prisoners of War worked from Geneva, where the ICRC was based. It registered POWs, communicated essential information about them to their families, and forwarded correspondence. By the end of the war the Agency had filled in 25 million identity cards and passed on some 120 million messages to and from POWs and their families.