Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (International Committee of the Red Cross publication 1986 ref. 0361 by Henry Dunant). | legalanthology2 | June 24, 2014


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Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (International Committee of the Red Cross publication 1986 ref. 0361 by Henry Dunant).

Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (International Committee of the Red Cross publication 1986 ref. 0361 by Henry Dunant).

“There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably never have been undertaken.”(Message by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1901).


International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules aimed at the limitation of the effects of armed conflicts. It seeks to restrict the means and methods of warfare and protect persons who are not or who are no longer participating in hostilities. It entails specific rules to safeguard combatants, sick, wounded or shipwrecked members of the armed forces, civilians, prisoners of war, medical personnel, military chaplains and civilian aid workers. IHL was founded on the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. Modern IHL has its roots in the efforts of Henry Dunant who witnessed devastating scenes in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. The battlefield was littered with wounded and dying soldiers many of whom, despite Dunant’s efforts in mobilising aid, lost their battle to survive.

The beginnings of the Red Cross were modest. As a result of these proposals in A Memory of Solferino, the Société genevoise d’utilité publique (Geneva Society for Public Welfare) appointed the “International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded”, a committee of five people, on 7 February 1863, to find ways to put the plan into action. The committee consisted of the banker Gustave Moynier, the general Guillaume-Henri Dufour as well as the doctors Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir as along with Henry Dunant.

A call for an international conference led to the foundation of the Red Cross. Ever since its establishment, the Red Cross has been providing protection and assistance to those in distress. The conference was held from 26 to 29 October 1863 and included delegates from sixteen nations. The result of the conference was an international treaty with ten articles that were signed by twelve nations the following year. The Geneva Convention guaranteed neutrality to sanitary personnel and protection of sanitary establishments, guaranteed free access for such personnel to grant material assistance and adopted a special identifying emblem. A red cross on white ground was selected as a recognition and protection sign. It is the reverse of the Swiss Federal colours and was selected in honour of the Swiss origin of the initiative to provide humanitarian assistance in times of armed conflict. In 1876 the Red Crescent was introduced as an additional equally valid emblem for the Islamic countries. Furthermore, the red lion and the sun were subsequently introduced for Iran. The Geneva Convention has since been ratified by almost every state in the years that followed and became the foundation of modern IHL.

In 1872, a conference was held to establish the “Alliance universelle de l’ordre et de la civilisation” which was to discuss the need for an international convention on the handling of prisoners of war and for deviation from dispute settlement by war to a settling of international disputes by courts of arbitration. It was from the resolutions of the 1863 conference and the basis of the Geneva Conventions that the humanitarian organization called the “International Red Cross” and the substantial body of universally recognized rules of the Geneva Contention” gradually developed. The Committee of Five that has originally led to the creation of the Red Cross had become the “International Standing Commission for Aid to Wounded Soldiers” and remained engage in the setting up of new Societies. They encouraged the foundation of many National Red Cross Societies that are called the League of Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies since 1981, which ultimately became the League of Red Cross Societies in 1919.

During the two World Wars, the International Committee of the Red Cross devoted its work to the assistance of prisoners of wars and functioned as an intermediary between the prisoners and their families and forwarded messages. Furthermore it extended its protection to civilian internees and the civilian population in occupied territories.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the League and the National Societies joined together in an umbrella organization under the name “International Red Cross” in 1928. Nowadays, the Geneva Conventions provides legal protection and humanitarian assistance and now encompasses four conventions and three additional protocols.


A Memory of Solferino is about the experience in the aftermath of the battle of Solferino. The book contains three themes – the battle itself, the misery of the battle and the efforts undertaken to care for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione as well as a plan to overcome and prevent such an even occurring again.

Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman had witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino on a business trip to the Lombardy. The night of a bloody battle between Italians and French on the one hand and Austrians on the other, Dunant arrived in Solferino and was shocked by the thousands of wounded soldiers who had been left behind on the battlefield without medical support and food to await their death. The image was shaped by blood and ashes. Dunant initiated a solidary movement among the civilian population to take care of the wounded and sick soldiers – regardless of which party the victims belonged to – at improvised hospitals and lazarets, in churches, on floors covered with straw; literally anywhere in Castiglione. However materials and food supply were insufficient and many died in misery. These terrible events formed the beginning of the idea to create the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Henry Dunant shared with the world what he had seen on the battlefield. This report shook the whole of Europe. But rather than a mere description of the battle and a recalling of the events of the following day, Dunant provided the world in “A Memory of Solferino” with ideas and proposals aimed at preventing a repetition of the crucial happenings in Solferino.

What Dunant was trying to achieve was to establish voluntary relief societies aimed at giving care to the wounded in wartime. On the other hand, he envisioned the goal that international principles were created to support and base relief societies. Violations of these principles would be subject to sanctions under a Convention.


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June 24, 2014

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