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From Solferino to the birth of contemporary international humanitarian law

22-04-2009 Article, by François Bugnion

The early history of most institutions has been blurred by the passage of time. Even when their initial form can be clearly discerned, it often bears little resemblance to the institution as we know it today. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a striking exception - it can be traced back to a precise date, and its origins are relatively well known. This first phase is worth considering in detail, because it casts light on the entire subsequent development of the Red Cross.

On 24 June 1859 the armies of France and Sardinia engaged Austrian forces near the northern Italian village of Solferino. This decisive battle in the struggle for Italian unity was also the most horrific bloodbath Europe had known since Waterloo: in ten hours of fierce fighting, more than 6,000 soldiers were killed and more than 30,000 wounded. 

The medical services of the Franco-Sardinian armies were totally overwhelmed, exposing the negligence of the supply corps: the French army had more veterinary surgeons than doctors; transport was woefully inadequate; crates of field dressings were dumped far from the front line and sent back to Paris, unopened, at the end of the campaign. General de la Bollardière, French Quartermaster-General, reported that it took six days to bring in 10,212 wounded from the field. 

Helped by their comrades, leaning on makeshift crutches or on their rifles, the wounded soldiers staggered to nearby villages in search of food, water, first aid and shelter. More than 9,000 of them came to the small town of Castiglione delle Stiviere, where invalids soon outnumbered the able-bodied. The wounded were everywhere - in houses, barns and churches, or filling up the squares and lanes.

On the evening of 24 June a young man from Geneva, Henry Dunant, arrived in Castiglione. A banker by profession, he was travelling on urgent private business and had no particular medical knowledge, but he was too compassionate to be able to disregard the pain and distress around him: for several days and nights he worked at the “ Chiesa Maggiore”, a church sheltering more than 500 wounded. He gave them water to ease their thirst; he cleaned their wounds, changed dressings; he sent his coachman to the city of Brescia to buy cloth for dressings, pipes and tobacco, herbal infusions and fruit; he enlisted the aid of charitable local women to tend the injured and dying; he wrote to his friends at home to ask for supplies. In short, he set an example and tried to organize help so as to alleviate, as far as possible, the suffering which confronted him.

Dunant returned to Geneva on 11 July - the very day on which the Italian campaign ended. Not for the first time, he was dogged by financial difficulties arising from his business interests in Algeria.

Had that been the end of his involvement with the wounded of Solferino, his name would have been quickly forgotten, along with all those other people of good will who showed equal dedication at Castiglione, Brescia and Milan. Dunant, however, was haunted by what he had seen. In 1861 he decided to withdraw from the world and shut himself away in Geneva where, for a year, he studied accounts of the Italian campaign and wrote a book which was to prove a landmark: A Memory of Solferino

The book is in two parts: the first gives a description of the battle, an epic account in the greatest tradition of military historiography. But suddenly the tone changes and the hidden side of war is stripped bare in his grim portrayal of the "Chiesa Maggiore" where the wounded and dying lie crowded together; he tells of the squalor, the pools of blood, the nauseating smells, the swarms of flies settling on open wounds, the mouths of the wounded deformed in cries of agony, the pain and neglect, terror and death...

But Dunant was not content merely to describe the horrors of war: he ended the book by asking two questions, which were in effect appeals to the cons cience:

 “But why have I told of all these scenes of pain and distress, and perhaps aroused painful emotions in my readers? Why have I lingered with seeming complacency over lamentable pictures, tracing their details with what may appear desperate fidelity ?  

 It is a natural question. Perhaps I might answer it by another:  

 Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers ?”  

This simple question was the inspiration for the founding of the Red Cross.

But there was more: for these volunteers to be able to carry out their relief activities near the front lines, they had to be recognized and respected. This led to the second appeal:

 “On certain special occasions, as, for example, when princes of the military art belonging to different nationalities meet at Cologne or Châlons, would it not be desirable that they should take advantage of this sort of congress to formulate some international principle, sanctioned by a Convention inviolate in character, which, once agreed upon and ratified, might constitute the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded in the different European countries ?”  

This question was to result in the adoption of th e original Geneva Convention.

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I. Aftermath of a battle

II. The foundation of the Red Cross

III. From the foundation of the Red Cross to the first Geneva Convention




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