Friday, August 12, 2016

Remembering: The Foundation of the Red Cross

Jean Henri Dunant
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
- Francis of Assisi

Its logo signaled sanctuary of safety and help. A group of volunteers showing the best of mankind during worst times. The Red Cross is an international organization dedicated in volunteerism and assistance to everyone in need during perilous events in every corner of the world. And it all began on August 1863.

Henri Dunant

The Red Cross began with a privileged Swiss Jean Henri Dunant, who envisioned an international humanitarian organization from his encounter of a conflict in 1859. What he witnessed convinced him to crusade for the care of wounded and the weak during wartime. Through his travels, books, and lectures, Europe noticed and heard his advocacy, leading eventually to the realization of his dream in form of the Red Cross.

Dunant was born on May 8, 1828 to a very successful and highly respected businessman and a deeply religious Calvinist and dedicated mother. His mother taught him important Christian values, such as kindness, generosity, and charity; while, his father imbued him the value of hard work and perseverance. During his teenage years, free from worries of survival, well-educated, and warmhearted, he engaged in many philanthropic activities for the needy and less fortunate – the paupers, the sickly, prisoners, and the marginalized. He joined volunteer and charitable organizations like the local League of Alms and the multinational Young Men’s Christian Union, where he first thought of creating a federation of various national groups to provide better network and resources, which he later took as the concept of the Red Cross.

From 1849 to 1859, he walked on the path of having a successful business career. He became a general manager in a branch of his employer in Tunis, Algeria. He even established his own prospering enterprise. But, in 1859 he had a business trip in Italy, where he made a stop in Castiglione and witnessed something that changed his life's path.

Few miles from Castiglione, the Franco-Sardinian army clashed with Austrian forces in the Battle of Solferino. The battle ended with huge casualties for both side, so much so French public opinion soured forcing Napoleon III to end the war. The wounded suffered further in their agony from the awful treatment that their respective armies gave. The dying and wounded failed to receive any treatment and could only anguish in horrible pain. The absence of properly trained nurses and doctors, shortage of medicine and other medical supplies, and lack of clean and safe hospitals plagued the after battle situation. The condition deeply affected Dunant, who then assisted in tending the wounded, forming a group of volunteers to help. The experience opened his eyes to the horrors of war and drove him to found a solution to prevent another situation like Solferino. 

Laying the Foundations
French Infantry Advance (by Carlo Bossoli)
After witnessing the chaos and the decrying situation in the aftermath of Solferino, Dunant finished his job in Algeria before pursuing his advocacy. In a surprisingly short time and much to the support of Europe’s most powerful, his dream took shape. It culminated in 1864 when representatives of Europe's most powerful gathered to cement Dunant's proposal.

Solferino made Dunant to lessen the same depressing and weakening images of war. But Dunant only pursued to realize his goal after finishing properly his work in Algeria; besides, he needed the money from his work and business for his advocacy. In 1862, Dunant made his experience of the Battle of Solferino and his proposals known with the publication of his book titled A Memory of Solferino.

The book became widely published, with multiple translation produced and distributed. It aimed to widely knock onto the hearts of many to show the grim effects of war and especially the ill-managed treatment of the helpless, wounded, weak, and sick. The work, however, did not only opened eyes to the horrors but showed hope with a proposal in reducing such scenes in the conclusion of his book. Dunant made his suggestion in form of 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?”

He added further the nature of the society he envisioned:

“Societies of this kind, once formed and their permanent existence assured, would naturally remain inactive in peacetime. But would be always organized and ready for possibility of war.”

Dunant, however, knew the daunting task ahead. Such society with humanitarian aims needed the assistance and recognition of major European powers, which were responsible in the balance of war and peace in the continent. He needed to convince and pledge in the support of major European governments either by arousing public opinion or by making an audience with the royals and their governments. But before this, he first needed a network of support, a launching pad, which he got from within his hometown of Geneva.

International Standing Commission for Aid to Wounded Soldiers

In February 9, 1863, Dunant lectured to the Geneva Society of Public Utility. The lecture went well when the head of the society Gustav Moynier shared Dunant’s enthusiasm and supported his cause. Two other accomplished figure of Geneva, a physician, Dr. Louis Appia, and the city councilor, Adolph Ador, also supported Dunant. The 4 of them established a council known as the International Standing Commission for Aid to Wounded Soldiers, the precursor of the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, the four of them knew that in order to succeed, they needed to enlist the support of a nationally acclaimed personality to be a part or even stand as the leader of the commission. Dunant proposed Guillaume Henri Dufour, an accomplished general and politician, who then accepted the leadership, resulting to the establishment of the committee that served as the founding fathers of Red Cross.

Gaining Support

From March until August, the Committee rallied support to their cause. Dunant traveled throughout Europe to campaign for the society, most especially in Paris – the capital of the accepted continental power France. Getting France’s pledge would influence other European countries to follow.

The Committee received enthusiastic support from the people, much to the credit of the broadening view on the horrors of war. The growth of journalism, communication, and transportation allowed faster and wider distribution of information. News of the atrocious situation during the Crimean War in the early 1850’s already disheartened multitudes. Stories of dedication and care of Florence Nightingale and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna to the wounded and the fallen offered warmth to the hearts of men and women, contributing to the raising of awareness to humanitarianism. Reports of further large scale casualties and deplorable treatment of the wounded during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and off course the Battle of Solferino led to public outrage. The French public even forced Emperor Napoleon III to cease hostilities after news of Solferino spread. As a result, the idea of a society dedicated to the unfortunates of war were widely accepted as necessary and supported.

By second half of 1863, the Committee planned the establishment of the desired society with a congress in September 1863. However, they later abandoned the plan due to lack of preparation and stronger support from various governments of Europe.

Dunant then informed the Committee of his plan to attend the International Statistical Congress in Berlin in September 1863. He also took his attendance as an opportunity to get the support of another powerful continental power – Prussia. Indeed, Dunant received wonderful support from the Germans and attendees of the Congress. He even received the pledge of support from King Wilhelm I, his family, and government. The Prussian government even suggested to Dunant the idea of making his planned society to be neutral during conflicts, to which the Swiss considered seriously. Dunant also traveled to other German cities and visited their rulers, gaining their support along the way.

Geneva Conference of 1863

After Dunant attended the Congress in Berlin, the Committee then planned a conference for the needs of their society, which they held on October 26, 1863. 14 representatives from different European nations attended the conference, more sent their support via letter read during the event. The Geneva Conference laid out the requirements of the society:

  • the creation of a central committee to lead the association of different national societies.
  • the coordination of central committee and various national societies with their respective government in preparing supplies, training nurses and volunteers, and setting up of hospitals.
  • the adoption of a sign or mark that distinguishes the society’s neutrality in times of conflict.
  • the recognition of major powers of the neutral status of the society and its volunteers.

The conference ended well and the Committee planned to achieve it.

In November, 1863, Dunant began his quest to get the needs of the society to be formally recognized by the international community. He went to Paris to gain the formal support of French Emperor Napoleon III. 

The French Emperor received Dunant well and presented him with a way to officially make the outcomes of Geneva Conference into a formal and recognized convention. Napoleon had his foreign minister ask the Federal Republic of Switzerland to send invitations to countries for a convention on the establishment of Dunant's proposed society. France then accepted the invitation that influenced other European countries to join. And with Prussia that rivaled France in continental influence also showed their interest and support, it helped in gaining the support of other German principalities to join in the planned convention. By June 6, 1864, Switzerland sent the invitation for the Convention to be held between August 8 and 22 in the city of Geneva, a venue requested by Dunant and agreed upon as a veil of respect.

The Geneva Congress and Convention
Signing of the Geneva Convention in 1864
The Geneva Congress proceeded as scheduled and attended by minister plenipotentiaries of 11 major European countries. The congress culminated with the signing of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. It secured most of what the Geneva Conference in the previous year set as the need of the society. It secured the neutrality of ambulances, military hospitals, and staff operating. It also secured the continuation of their duties regardless of who occupied the area. It mandated the signatories to protect the well-being of wounded both theirs and foes. Most importantly, it called for the adoption of a “distinctive mark and uniform” flag as a sign of their neutrality.

On that note, they decided the mark to be today’s recognizable Red Cross. The Red Cross was chosen in respect to the country hosting the congress – Switzerland. Its flag, the white cross in a red field was inverted to be a red cross in a white field. Coincidentally, it also had a cross, which in Europe, a symbol of Christianity but also of mercy, compassion, and kindness.

From that point, Dunant’s committee worked to oversee an organization of different national Red Cross societies, first in Europe and later, throughout the world. The Geneva Convention also evolved through the following decades, as improvements and developments allowed.

Impact of the Red Cross

The Red Cross served its purpose well and expanded to incorporate new countries and new situations to assist.

From 11 signatories in the Geneva Convention and established respective national Red Cross organizations, it grew to cover 196 countries and the convention had amendments and today included 64 articles from 10. The Red Cross also inspired the establishment of other societies, like the Red Crescent.

For its works, it had the first major taste of battle during the Franco-Prussian War. It did not participate much in the Seven Weeks’ War because Austria did not sign the Geneva Convention. Only when the two first major European powers who supported the Red Cross’ foundation fought did the full capability of the organization was unveiled.

Since then, images of battlefield changed. No armies fought each other without the Red Cross and their sister organization working in the sidelines, tending to the wounded, the sick, and even civilians. Now, medical teams of the Red Cross even shows activeness in helping victims of disasters. Their actions made their sign and those that followed as beacons of hope and sanctuary in face of terrible situations.

As for the main progenitor of the Red Cross, however, the organization took its toll. Henri Dunant’s concentration to the society and its expensive undertaking ruined his business. He fell into debt and lived in poverty for decades. He was forgotten until the last years of the 19th century, when Europe discovered his situation, and movements began to help him. Europe and the world commemorated Dunant further in 1901, when he received the first Nobel Peace Prize along with the French economist and pacifist Frederic Passy. But even with this, Dunant remained in poverty until he passed away on October 30, 1910.

The story of Dunant, however, did not reflect that of the Red Cross. The Red Cross, his greatest legacy, helped million throughout the years, and will continue to help more those in need, regardless of the dangers they faced.

Barton, Clara. The Red Cross in Peace and War. American Historical Press, 1899.

Dunant, Henry. A Memory of Solferino. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross. 1959.

Muller, Rudolf. "History of the Origin of the Red Cross and  of the Geneva Convention." The Advocate of Peace, Volume 59. URL:

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