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How it all began
Battle of Solferino was fought as part of the wider battle for
unification within the Italian peninsula during the nineteenth century.
On the 24 June 1859, the alliance of France and Sardinia under Napoleon
III met the Austrian army at the small village of Solferino in northern
Italy. Fighting continued for fifteen hours until the Austrians
retreated, leaving more than 40,000 killed or injured. Surrounding
villages were overwhelmed with the walking wounded; the largest number
went to Castiglione. The small medical service attached to the French
and Sardinian forces was unable to cope.
There was no organised medical division within the army. Medical
provision was inadequate with few doctors, equipment or transport
attached to each regiment. Many died from simple wounds due to a lack of
knowledge or care.
At the same time, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was passing
through Castiglione on business and was appalled at the suffering of the
wounded. He had been involved with charitable organisations in his
native Switzerland and worked with local women to help the wounded. He
brought in supplies to wash dressings, food, water and clean clothes.
Why was it important?
In 1862 Henry Dunant published an account of what he had seen, A
Memory of Solferino. In it he proposed the creation of national relief
societies of trained volunteers to provide neutral and impartial help to
wounded soldiers in times of war.
He wrote: “Oh, how valuable it would have been…to have had a
hundred experienced and qualified voluntary orderlies and nurses! Such a
group would have formed a nucleus around which could have been rallied
the scanty help and dispersed efforts which needed competent guidance.”
Copies were sent to important people throughout Geneva and Europe,
including royalty and ministers.
What happened as a result?
Europe was experiencing a period of great change and welcomed
Henry Dunant’s ideas. Advances in technology and the increasing use of
firearms meant warfare caused injuries which hadn’t been seen before. A
body of trained volunteers would be a valuable asset to any military
Within months of the publication of A Memory of Solferino, a
temporary Committee of Five formed in Geneva to begin organising the
relief societies. The Committee of Five later became the International Committee of the Red Cross.
British representatives attended the first Red Cross conference
held in Geneva, which succeeded in drafting resolutions and
recommendations that would be used when national relief societies were
organised. By the end of 1863, the first society was formed in
Wurttemberg, later part of the German empire. In 1870 a society was
formed in Britain. That society later became the British Red Cross.
In 1864 the Swiss government called a second conference which
resulted in the drafting of a convention that, when ratified and agreed
by governments, bound them to give humane treatment to the sick and
wounded in war and protect those who cared for them. This was known as
the First Geneva Convention.
In 1959 the centenary of the battle was marked with events, a
memorial was dedicated at Solferino, and in Castiglione, a new road was
opened to the public, called Avenue Henri Dunant. In Britain a meeting
was held at the Guildhall attended by HRH The Princess Royal, followed
by a service of re-dedication in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The 150th anniversary
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino –
where Henry Dunant was first inspired to help people in crisis –
thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff gathered in
the Italian town in June 2009 for a week of celebratory activities. The
actual anniversary of the battle is 24 June.