Humanitarian Aid – British Style

Humanitarian Aid with Union Jack showing

On Friday, October 15, 1915, a month after the Americans began organizing relief for Armenians and Assyrians, there was a meeting in London to do the same. The Lord Mayor of London, Charles Johnson, along with Cardinal Bourne and Lord Bryce, spoke at the inauguration of the Lord Mayor’s Armenian Refugees Fund for the urgent need of humanitarian aid. While the American effort was tremendously generous, there was one significant difference in the call for donations: The United States was not at war and its citizens could afford to give. The British Empire, at that time comprising almost one-quarter of the world’s population, had been fighting the Central Powers (the German, Austria-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, and other countries) for more than a year. While rationing didn’t come until late in World War I, discretionary money was tight in the British Empire, since most of it had gone to support the war effort. In true British style, its citizens—or more accurately, the King’s subjects—kept calm, carried on, and lent a helping hand.

The largest countries within the British Empire were Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, which was not yet independent), its dominions (the semi-independent nations of Canada, Newfoundland, which became part of Canada in 1947, Australia, and New Zealand,), and its colonies in various states of transition to self-government (South Africa, India, Ceylon, Singapore and others).

Great Britain

Union JackLord Mayor’s Fund was perhaps the largest British fund and sent the most personnel to distribute it and organize the relief effort in the camps in Russia (now Tbilisi, Georgia; Gyumri and Yerevan, Armenia), Port Said, Egypt, and after the war, in Turkey. Susan Wealthy Orvis spent Christmas 1917 in Yerevan with some of her old ABCFM colleagues, and with Dr. William Kennedy, a Canadian working on behalf of the Lord Mayor’s Fund. Both he and his British wife, Marian, who was a nurse, were stationed for a brief time in Adana and Constantinople after the war. Two other relief workers, Alfred E. Backhouse (and later, his wife Mary Louise), and E. St. John Catchpool, were also working for the Fund. Susan wrote that these men had been invited for Christmas from their station in Iğdır, but “were unable to arrive on account of the brigands around the foot of Mt. Ararat.” Mr. Catchpool was a Quaker who had been seconded to the Fund, courtesy of the the Friends’ War Victims’ Committee. In Alexandropol, Susan worked with Thomas Dam Heald, another Quaker. The Friends’ Committee had been assisting Polish war refugees, but also supported humanitarian aid for Armenian and Assyrian refugees. Another person who was “closely connected” to the Fund, and unable to attend the Christmas celebrations was the Irish captain in the British Army, and former missionary in Urfa, George Gracey.

In addition to the Lord Mayor’s Fund, the Friends’ fund, were the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Committee, municipal funds, and other agencies around the country.

In Britain, every year during the relief effort, one Sunday in February was designated as “Armenia Sunday” in churches and cathedrals throughout the land. Proceeds from the collection plate on those days went directly to aid the refugees.


Flag of Canada 1914Canada was in a unique situation because of its history and geography—as is the case now, too. As a former British colony and then dominion, its political, historical and society was closely affiliated with British. However, separated from Britain by an ocean and sharing a continent with the United States, it was also closely connected to the Americans relief effort. About 10% of the ABCFM missionaries were Canadian—roughly the same ratio as the two countries’ population. But one thing differentiated these missionaries: They were British subjects, and were ordered deported from the Ottoman Empire as soon as WWI started. So early Canadian contributions were made to the ACASR (and later ACRNE and NER), to ensure the money was delivered to Turkey.

However, in June 1916 Canadian newspapers got involved in fundraising. The Toronto Daily Star (which would soon employ Ernest Hemingway as a reporter) led the drive, and involved another Toronto-based paper, The Globe. In one year their campaign raised $15,000 ($335,000 in 2017 dollars). There were also campaigns in Sunday schools and churches. The Canadian Armenian Relief Association not only raised money, they also helped in the re-settlement of orphans in Canada. Canadian missionaries had returned home and were making the lecture circuit to raise awareness and promote the fundraising efforts, not only for Armenians but for all the refugees in need of help. Another newspaper-driven campaign was launched in 1919-1920, this time involving dozens of papers across Canada. As Aram Adjemian noted in his 2007 master’s thesis, “Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia,” The Globe’s initial contribution of $1,000 “became a powerful inducement for humanitarian action. Over $5,000 was donated the next day, a sum which was matched or surpassed every day during the first month of the campaign.” By my calculation, that would amount to at least $2.1 million today—not bad for a country of 8 million who were also fighting a war.


Flag of Australia 1914I’m combining Australia (its flag at left) and New Zealand’s contributions together because they established a joint fund known as the Australasian Armenian Relief Fund, which contributed more than “$100,000 (about $1.5 million in today’s terms) worth of relief supplies” to refugee camps in the Near East.  The first Australian fund, the Armenian Relief Fund, was established in Melbourne in 1915. In 1917, just as Britain had done, the local citizens declared that one Sunday in April would be “Armenia Sunday”, with proceeds going to the relief effort. “Melbourne newspapers reported that over £2,000 [$200,000 today] had been collected as a result.” By 1918, relief committees were organized in Sydney and Adelaide, and by 1922, they “were operating in every state in Australia,” under the banner of the Australasian Fund. Flag of New Zealand 1914Historian James Robins noted that “New Zealanders were collecting donations to aid the victims as early as 1915. But the aid efforts began in earnest with the US-based Near East Relief fund.” One of the important results of the Australasian Fund was the establishment of an orphanage in Antelias, Lebanon, which housed 1,700 surviving orphans under the direction of New Zealander John Knudsen, and his wife, Lydia. In 1922-23, Near East Relief spokesmen travelled the globe to organize donations of food and clothing, rather than money, to be shipped to the Near East. Residents in southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand responded to the call.


Flag of India 1914ABCFM had several missions in India, which was a poor country and not able to contribute financially to aid the refugees, as far as I can tell. However, I do want to make special mention of the Lancers. It was a cavalry regiment in the British Indian Army, and was stationed in Mesopotamia at the end of the war. Under the command of General Allenby, the Lancers were instrumental in making Turkey as safe as possible for the relief workers to enter the interior in 1919. Brigands and army deserters roamed the countryside, robbing and killing civilians. It was thanks mostly to the Lancers that the missionaries and relief workers were able to provide help within Turkey starting in the Spring of 1919.

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By the end of WWI, collectively British subjects had donated millions of pounds/dollars and delivered hundreds of personnel to provide humanitarian aid the victims of the late Ottoman Empire.

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