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Henri Dunant and the Birth of the International Red Cross

Posted in Aid, Heroes and Heroines, History on Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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This edited article about Henri Dunant and the birth of the International Red Cross originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 918 published on 25 August 1979.

Henri Dunant was on an urgent mission. This Swiss banker was planning business projects in Algeria, but first he needed authorisation from the French government, which then controlled Algeria. At that time the emperor of France, Napoleon III, was in northern Italy, where his army, in alliance with the Piedmontese, was fighting to expel the Austrians.

The International Red Cross was founded by Henri Dunant. Illustration by John Keay

The International Red Cross was founded by Henri Dunant. Illustration by John Keay

Dunant decided to follow him there, and in June 1859, he arrived near the village of Solferino – and became witness to the horrors of a battle.

Dunant was appalled at the suffering he saw, and the woefully inadequate facilities for tending the wounded. Forgetting his original errand, Dunant gathered together a few volunteers and did what he could to save the wounded and comfort the dying. Three years later he published an account of his experiences in Un Souvenir de Solférino. In it he strongly advised that “voluntary aid societies” should be formed to help victims of war. His plea attracted world-wide interest.

In Geneva, Dunant and others formed a committee to pursue his aims. On 22nd August 1864, the first Geneva Convention was signed, and the committee was nominated to head a new organisation devoted to alleviating the crueller effects of war. The aim was to care for the wounded of the war, whether enemy or friend, and for its emblem the committee chose the Swiss flag reversed – a red cross on a white background. In this way the International Red Cross movement was born.

The operational side of the organisation was placed in the hands of national Red Cross Societies in the member countries. The work of these societies, later joined by Red Crescent Societies in some Moslem lands, was soon extended beyond the problems of the battlefield.

The arrangements made by military authorities for tending the wounded improved considerably. But civilian refugees and prisoners of war were still suffering. Also, when human beings are not inflicting misery on one another, nature can make them the victims of disaster – plague, earthquake, flood or famine. Today, wherever there is suffering, the Red Cross is likely to be on hand to bring aid and comfort.

Henri Dunant’s subsequent life was not a very happy one. Only three years after the foundation of the Red Cross, his business failed. He went bankrupt, resigned from the International Committee, and vanished from public view.

Eventually in 1895 he was found by a newspaperman living in a small town in Switzerland. Here, with the help of friends and admirers, he was enabled to enjoy a comfortable old age.

In 1901, the world took a further step towards repaying the debt which it owed Dunant, when he was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for Peace.

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