Red Cross History

The birth of a movement

In 1859, the battle fought in Solferino Italy was not only decisive for the independence of Italy from Austria but also brought about the birth of the largest humanitarian movement in the world, the Red Cross movement.  In turn, this led to the creation of the Geneva Conventions.

A 31-year-old Swiss banker, Henri Dunant, happened to be passing by the bloody battlefield, which is estimated to have claimed up to 40,000 casualties.  Stricken by the sight of countless soldiers left wounded or dying on the battlefield without adequate medical aid, Henri Dunant was spurred to organise villagers from nearby to the assistance of the soldiers by providing water, food, medical aid and comfort to all in need, irrespective of whether they were allies or foes.

In 1862, Dunant gathered his memoirs in Solferino and wrote a book entitled ‘Un Souvenir du Solferino’ (A Memory of Solferino) in which he pleads to mankind to build upon these experiences and join together in the formation of societies that would voluntarily assist the wounded during conflicts.

“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?” (A Memory of Solferino; Henri Dunant)

Dunant’s plea did not fall on deaf ears as, in February 1863 a five-man committee, the Public Welfare Association, with Dunant himself and the association’s President Gustav Moynier as the key members, met for the first time in Geneva.  This was later to become the International Committee of Red Cross.  In October of the same year, the committee organised a conference in Geneva which was attended by international delegates including those from Austria, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, Spain and Sweden.  On the 29th of October, 1863 the delegates approved the proposals of the committee and adopted the symbol of a Red Cross on a white background[i], the reverse of the Swiss flag in honour of Dunant’s provenance. This effectively marked the birth of the Red Cross Movement.

In 1864, a conference was held in Geneva at which delegates from European countries, the United States of America, Mexico and Brazil signed the first Geneva Convention ‘for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field’, which set up rules following the lines which Henri Dunant had advocated. This convention provided for (i) the immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers and their personnel, (ii) the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants, (iii) the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded, and (iv) the recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement.

In that same year, the first Red Cross volunteers wearing the Red Cross symbol attended to the wounded in action in Denmark.

Henri Dunant was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901; together with the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1917.

[i] The Red Crescent emblem was afterwards adopted by the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire in the 1870s