From the battle of Solferino to the eve of the First World War


The first half-century of the ICRC's existence saw the development of concerted and coordinated humanitarian action for war victims, on the basis of international law.

On 24 June 1859, during the War of Italian Unification, Franco-Sardinian forces clashed with Austrian troops near the small town of Solferino in northern Italy. On that day, a Swiss businessman by the name of Henry Dunant was in the area to meet Napoleon III on a business matter. On the evening of the battle, Dunant arrived in the village of Castiglione, where more than 9,000 wounded had taken refuge. Thousands lay unattended in the main church, the Chiesa Maggiore . For several days, Dunant and the local women gave them water, washed and dressed their wounds and handed out tobacco, tea and fruit. Dunant remained in Castiglione until 27 June and then set out again, returning to Geneva on 11 July. He was beset by financial difficulties, but could not forget what he had seen, and in 1862 he published a work entitled A Memory of Solferino. In this book, he described the battle and the wounded of the Chiesa Maggiore , concluding with a question: "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?" It was this question that led to the founding of the Red Cross. He also asked the military authorities of various countries whether they could formulate "(...) some international principle, sanctioned by a convention and 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 second question was the basis for the Geneva Conventions.

A Committee is formed

Henry Dunant's book was a huge success; it was translated into virtually all the European languages and read by the most influential people of his time. Among them was Gustave Moynier, a citizen of Geneva, lawyer and chairman of a local charity, the Geneva Public Welfare Society. On 9 February 1863, he presented the conclusions of Dunant's work to his society, which established a five-member committee to study the author's proposals. 

This committee, which comprised Moynier, Dunant, General Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Dr Louis Appia and Dr Théodore Maunoir, was initially called the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. However, it soon became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (IC RC). It met for the first time on 17 February 1863. From the outset it saw that the volunteers envisaged by Henry Dunant could act effectively, without risking rejection by officers and soldiers, only if they could be told apart from ordinary civilians by a distinctive emblem and were protected from the fighting. Hence the concept of giving neutral status to medical services and volunteer nurses. On 25 August 1863, the International Committee decided to convene an international conference in Geneva, under its own responsibility, to study ways of overcoming the inadequacy of army medical services. It sent out invitations to all European governments and numerous leading personalities. The conference was opened by General Dufour on 26 October 1863. There were 36 participants, including 14 government delegates, six delegates of various organizations and seven private individuals. This dual approach, both public and private, continues in International Conferences of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, whose participants today comprise delegations of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, those of States party to the Conventions and observers (mainly from non-governmental organizations). The 1863 conference took as a basis for discussion a draft convention prepared by the International Committee. It ended with the adoption of ten resolutions , which provided for the establishment of societies for relief to wounded soldiers ( " committees " ) – the future Red Cross, and later, Red Crescent, Societies.

Resolution 10 entrusted the exchange of information among the relief societies of the various countries to the International Committee.

The growth of national societies  

The first relief societies - those in Württemburg, the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, Belgium and Prussia - were set up during the next few months. Societies followed in Denmark, France, Italy, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Spain, Hamburg and Hesse.

Meanwhile, the International Committee was preparing for the next stage, a diplomatic conference. The purpose was to transform the resolutions adopted in 1863 into treaty rules, which would have the force of law for the contracting parties (i.e. States).

On 1 February 1864, however, the Austrian and Prussian armies invaded Denmark, starting what became known as the German-Danish war . The International Committee decided to send two delegates to the field to care for the wounded and to study the possibilities of implementing some of the conclusions of the October 1863 conference.

On 6 June 1864, the Swiss government (which had agreed to organize the diplomatic conference)   sent a letter of invitation to all the European governments and to the United States of America, Brazil and Mexico.

Adoption of the Geneva Convention  

The conference, attended by delegates from 16 States, met from 8 to 22 August 1864. Taking as a basis for discussion a draft convention prepared by the International Committee, on 22 August 1864 it signed the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Modern international humanitar ian law was born.

By the end of the year, the Convention had been ratified by France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Grand Duchy of Baden.

A new war, however, was soon to put the recently adopted Convention through a baptism of fire. This was the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Bismarck believed he had to crush France in order to achieve the unification of Germany. This led to the Franco-Prussian war, which broke out four years later, in July 1870. It was during this conflict that the International Committee established the first Information Agency for families of wounded or captured soldiers. A series of conflicts, known as the Eastern crisis (1875-1878), took the delegates of the International Committee as far as the Balkans. They returned there during the Serbo-Bulgarian war (1885-1886) and again during the Balkan wars (1912-1913) .

Throughout this period, the ICRC remained the chief driving force behind the development of international humanitarian law. It was able to do this mainly through the experiences of its delegates.



Serbian-Turkish War, 1878. Serbian ambulance.  

Serbian-Turkish War, 1878. Serbian ambulance.
© ICRC / hist-00588

 Members of the Committee of Five, which later became the ICRC. 

Louis Appia, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Henry Dunant, Théodore Maunoir, Gustave Moynier. Members of the Committee of Five, which later became the ICRC.
© ICRC / hist-00113