Detective work by a British historian has unearthed information that could enable thousands to piece together their family histories.
Historian Peter Barton explores the archives
Peter Barton was commissioned to carry out research into the identities of World War I casualties discovered in a mass grave at Fromelles in France.
He was given access to the basement of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva.
There, he was allowed to examine records that have lain virtually untouched since 1918.
He estimates that there could be 20 million sets of details, carefully entered on card indexes, or written into ledgers. . . . .
The fragile documents now being examined could provide the missing pieces of a jigsaw, and the Red Cross are already working to bring the archive into the computer age.
The organisation's head of press, Florian Westphal, admitted they had never faced a challenge quite like this: "First we have to make sure that we preserve the original records," he told me."Then, this autumn, we will begin the process of digitising the World War I section of the archive - we expect that phase of the project to cost around four million Swiss Francs."
The Red Cross say they'll need expert help from other countries, and will almost certainly ask for volunteers to join their own archivists. They aim to have the archive available on the web by 2014, a century after World War I began.But that's only the start; the careful record-keeping extended through World War II, and on to more recent conflicts.
I was shown the rows of metal shelves which contain millions more personal stories; more index cards neatly packed into boxes. Public access here would require significantly more effort, and more cash which is simply not available at this stage.Back in the World War I archive, Peter Barton was leafing through page after page of handwritten names - all men who had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme - lives ended far from home, but, thanks to the patience and care of Red Cross staff all those years ago, their stories may soon be told. "