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Compassion moved Henri Dunant to create the Red Cross

Posted in Historical articles, History, Institutions, Medicine, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

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This edited article about the Red Cross originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 798 published on 30th April 1977.

Red Cross in the Trenches, picture, image, illustration

The Red Cross faced enormous challenges in the trenches of WW1 by Andrew Howat

In the summer of 1859, a young Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant went to war. His mission was a peaceful one, but by the time he returned to his prosperous flour factory in Geneva, his whole outlook on life had changed. And he vowed that from then on he would devote his skill and energy to helping the victims of war.

Henri had followed the army of the Emperor Napoleon III to the village of Solferino, in Italy, where a great battle was shortly to be fought against the Austrian forces. He sought the Emperor’s permission to buy 1,200 acres of land in West Africa, and to plant corn and make flour there. He felt that if the Emperor was victorious, then he would be more likely to grant such a request.

The Battle of Solferino took place on 24th June, and to make sure he was not mistaken for a spy or a soldier, Henri wore a conspicuous white suit. The suit ensured his safety, but as he watched the French and Austrian armies attack and counter-attack, he almost wept because there was nothing he could do to lessen the bloodshed.

“It was a terrible sight,” he told his family later. “Practically the whole village was destroyed. The pretty white houses were either blown up or burnt to the ground. Everywhere soldiers were lying dead and dying. By evening, the casualties numbered more than forty thousand.”

But Henri was even more concerned by the fact that there was no one to look after the wounded. “Thousands of men were in dreadful pain,” he said sadly, “but there were not enough bandages and lint to dress more than a handful of them. As for doctors and nurses. I don’t think I saw one!”

Back home again in Geneva. Henri took less and less interest in his business affairs. He had obtained permission to buy land in what later became known as French Equatorial Africa, but was more concerned with writing his inspirational Souvenir of Solferino – a book which urged the formation of voluntary aid societies to succour the wounded and other sufferers in time of war.

Henri, who was born in Geneva in May, 1828, had long been interested in helping those in distress. His father was a wealthy businessman who prepared him for a banking career. Mr. Dunant allowed his son a generous sum of pocket-money each week, but he did not know that Henri gave most of it away to the poor families in the district.

When he was 18, Henri and some of his friends formed the ‘Society for Giving Alms’. They extended their work to include prison visits, and each Sunday afternoon Henri went to Geneva gaol, where he talked with the inmates, gave them food and books, and read them stories from the Old Testament.

The years he spent as a banker and mill manager gave him little time to concentrate on humanitarian acts. But his experiences at Solferino changed all that. In 1862 he published his book, and it caused a sensation both in Switzerland and throughout Europe. It was read by people who had no practical experience of warfare, and for the first time in their lives they appreciated the horror of fighting.

Souvenir of Solferino was quoted as a handbook on how war casualties should be treated. Month by month its influence spread, and in 1863 it resulted in an international conference being held in Geneva. Sixteen European countries sent representatives to the talks on how to relieve the suffering, and the following year saw the signing of the Geneva Convention.

Henri was delighted by the success of his efforts, but he told the delegates that it was not enough just to provide bandages and doctors and nurses.

“We do not want French doctors tending only French casualties, German doctors looking after just German soldiers, and so on,” he said. “Our organisation must be truly international. It will pay no attention to ‘sides’ or the rights and wrongs of issues.”

To avoid any confusion over uniforms and flags, the Convention decided that the doctors, nurses and stretcher-bearers would follow the example of their founder, Henri Dunant, and wear white clothing. For an emblem of neutrality they adopted a red cross on a white ground (the colours of the Swiss flag reversed), and for a motto they chose the Latin phrase, Inter Arma Caritas (‘Love Amid War’).

All this time Henri had been too busy promoting his Red Cross organisation to give his business the attention it deserved. His scheme to make bread in Africa and sell it to the French Colonial Army failed, and in 1866 he was declared bankrupt. Unable to pay his debts he was forced to leave Geneva, and for the next few months nothing was seen or heard of him.

Meanwhile the Red Cross flourished beyond all expectation. More and more countries became interested in it, and at the Paris World’s Fair of 1867 the Red Cross had its own exhibition tent.

It was here that Henri Dunant made an unexpected reappearance. He came to inspect a white alabaster bust which had been made of him, and he removed a gilded laurel wreath from around its neck.

He claimed that he wanted no reward or official recognition for his work, and that he planned to spend the rest of his life wandering throughout Europe explaining the aims of The Red Cross. Again he slipped quietly from the public eye.

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