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An Anniversary for the Ages

European history buffs can probably rattle of dozens of facts about the Battle of Solferino.  They would tell you it took place on June 24th, 1859, during the Franco-Austrian war in what is now Italy. Approximately 300,000 soldiers fought for either the French led by Napoleon III, or the Austrian Army, headed by Franz Joseph I. If they really knew their stuff, they would tell you that this was the last major battle in which armies were under direct command of their empire’s monarchs. They would probably also inform you that the Battle of Solferino was the largest battle in over 40 years. However, what they may not tell you is that the one of the most significant men in this history lesson was not a member of either military; rather, he was a Swiss businessman.

154 years ago today, Jean Henri Dunant set out on a business trip.  He intended to meet with Napoleon III to discuss difficulties conducting business in French-occupied Algeria. Unknowingly, he entered the small town of Solferino to encounter a devastating scene. In that day alone, nearly 40,000 soldiers died or were left wounded on the battlefield. Dunant was appalled by the suffering and the lack of adequate medical attention for soldiers.  He abandoned his business trip and took on the task of treating and caring for the wounded and was successful in recruiting volunteers to aid all soldiers, regardless of nationality.

When Dunant returned home to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino (1862) documenting his experiences. Additionally, he began advocating for the creation of a voluntary, neutral relief organization to aid wounded soldiers and international treaties in order to assure protection of neutral aid workers in conflicts.

Dunant and four other men went on to form the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which was dedicated to fulfilling this vision. In 1864 the committee helped organize the First Geneva Convention for the “Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. All European countries, the United States, Brazil and Mexico were invited by the Swiss to attend. In the end, 12 countries signed the convention, which set out requirements for a national relief organization to be recognized internationally.

In the years to come, national societies were created in almost every country in Europe. In 1876, the committee changed its name to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 1881, due to efforts spearheaded by Clara Barton, the American Red Cross was founded.

Today, the ICRC is present in approximately 80 countries with 11,000 staff members.  The ICRC and its network of relief organizations have helped millions of people around the world.

The ICRC goes beyond what Henri Dunant could have reasonably imagined. His humanitarian spirit, perseverance and empathy lead to the creation of a movement for aid around the globe, one which  not only provide relief on the battlefields of Europe , but which reaches all corners of the world and provides aid and comfort wherever and whenever needed, in both natural disasters and in war.

To watch an animated story of Dunant’s experience click here