2 minute readHistory, International

Solferino: The Battle that Inspired the Global Red Cross Movement

Vivan (far left) and Chris (far right) with Red Cross volunteers

An Idea that Came to Life

If you have ever taken an interest in Red Cross history, you are likely familiar with the man who envisioned the worldwide movement, Henry Dunant. But did you know that his foresight was inspired by a single battle in Italy?

That’s right, in 1859, while he was trying to get in touch with French Emperor Napoleon III, Henry found himself in Solferino, a small town in Northern Italy. There, he witnessed the devastating aftermath of the battle between Franco-Sardinian and Austrian troops.

His shock at the rampant violence and bloodshed compelled him to develop an appeal to humanity through his publication, A Memory of Solferinowhere he argued that humane treatment of wounded people was essential and that suffering could be prevented. In the years that followed, Henry carried out his mission with the creation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement that we now know today.

Henry Dunant

Traveling to Solferino

Since the Battle of Solferino 161 years ago, Henry’s message of belonging to a common humanity lives on. Every year since 1995, thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff from around the world gather in Solferino where the vision for the movement was born.

Chris Spalding, a Red Cross volunteer who has visited Solferino twice, calls it a “historical experience.” At the gathering of thousands of volunteers from around the globe, she witnessed the universal spirit of the Red Cross surpassing language barriers and connecting cultures. Today, there are 192 National Societies, one in nearly every country of the world.

Celebrating a Shared Mission

Vivian Moy has volunteered with the American Red Cross since 2013, and in 2017, she had the incredible opportunity to observe the Italian Red Cross as they provided care and compassion for migrants seeking safety on Italy’s shores. It was there that she first fell in love with the Red Cross’ international work.

For her, the Solferino gathering was a great way to become immersed in the international movement. After attending in 2019, she knew that she’d never be the same.

“This yearly celebration of our movement renews your faith in humanity like nothing else I’ve ever experienced,” said Vivian.

Vivian and Chris

One word. Fiaccolata.

A fiaccolata, or a “torchlight procession,” is a beloved, centuries-old European tradition. Each year, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff follow the same route that was taken in 1859 to transport the wounded during the Battle of Solferino. They walk with a torch in hand from Solferino to Castiglione delle Stiviere in remembrance of the battle that started it all.

“During the procession we walked through the countryside, and at one point as night fell I turned around to look behind me and I literally sucked in my breath at the sight that lay before me, a sea of torches,” said Vivian. “My chest swelled with pride because it was at that moment I was reminded of the fact that I belong to something far greater than myself.”

The Fiaccolata

Connecting with an International Community

Last year, more than 10,000 volunteers from 140 countries traveled to Solferino. During Vivian and Chris’s trip, they had the chance to learn how other Red Cross and Red Crescent teams approach disaster relief around the globe.

“In the end, we may face different crises, but at the heart of it, we are all humanitarians,” said Chris.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Red Cross, visit redcross.org. You can also learn more about the Solferino trip here.