The Salvation Army first commenced work amongst armed forces when the Naval and Military League was established in November 1894. The League is believed to have begun as a response to the wish of a small group of Salvationist armed servicemen to have a place for religious meetings whilst stationed in Malta. Operating in times of peace and war the League's was 'chiefly concerned with the Spiritual and moral welfare of Salvationists in the Forces and their dependants.' Its five point covenant included the command 'To do my best to bring my comrades to Christ.'
By the end of the nineteenth century the League was associated with UK armed forces in the UK, Malta and Gibraltar. Officers of the League, including Mary Stewart Murray (MSM), served with UK forces in the South African (Anglo-Boer) war in 1899-1900. On her return Murray took charge of the League until she retired in 1919.
The League's activities expanded during world war one as representatives joined UK armed forces based in Europe, Egypt and Mesopotamia (Iraq). As well as continuing to provide chaplains and hostels for members of armed forces, the Salvation Army also supplied motor ambulances, mobile canteens and parcels of food and clothing to battle zones. Female American Salvationists became popularly known as 'doughnut girls' for their provision of refreshments to troops in France.
The League's first Club for Salvation Army Service-Men was established in 1918; it was titled the Red Shield Club and its Headquarters were at St. Pauls Churchyard, London. It was intended that Clubs be formed in Naval and Military Centres and for each Club to comprise rooms for 'reading, writing, recreation, and where the worship of God may be fostered.' All 'Military Salvationists' were automatically members of the Club.
During world war two the Salvation Army joined the UK Council of Voluntary Welfare Workers; this council aimed to prevent the duplication of war efforts by voluntary bodies. The Salvation Army also established a War Emergencies Department to co-ordinate its war activities. This Department's work was divided in several sections comprising:
- Red Shield Club canteens
- Comforts (for forces and civilians)
- Investigation bureau (to trace missing servicemen or relatives)
- Services officers
Throughout world war two the Red Shield provided relief to civilians and armed forces in the UK and to armed forces abroad. After hostilities ceased the Red Shield continued its active involvement with UK armed forces at garrisons in the UK, German Rhine, Malta, Gibraltar and Egypt. In 1947 the name of the then Naval, Military and Air Force League was changed to Red Shield Services League. It was believed that given the success of Red Shield Clubs during wartime this title had larger appeal with the public.
The Red Shield's ideal of evangelical and material service has remained similar since its inception. Its present fourfold aims are to be: 'a ministry of Encouragement in the Christian Faith; of Evangelism; of Counsel to those in perplexity; of Comfort to those in sorrow.' Its Shield motif symbolises 'Rest, Refreshment, Recreation and Religion.' The Salvation Army continues to offer its services to military garrisons, in particular through chaplains and mobile canteens.
The Australian, Canadian and the US Territories of the Salvation Army have also historically maintained their own equivalent of Red Shield services.