When Was the Red Cross Formed?
The Red Cross organization was established at a conference in Geneva in 1864. It was inspired by a Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant, who had been horrified by the scenes of bloodshed he had witnessed on the battlefield of Solferino in northern Italy after a victory of the French over the Austrians in a war of liberation. His book, Un Souvenir de Solferino, aroused the compassion of all who read it.
At the Geneva Convention of 1864, 26 countries were represented. The objects of the International Red Cross were outlined as follows: during wartime prisoners and wounded men were to be respected; military hospitals were to be regarded as neutral; doctors, nurses and medical equipment were to be protected; and the Red Cross was to act as a benevolent intermediary between governments, and to see that suffering was relieved.
In honor of Henri Dunant the Swiss flag with the colors reversed was chosen as the flag of the Red Cross. In 1919 the League of Red Cross Societies was formed with the aim of extending Red Cross activities in times of peace. A relief division was formed to help in natural disasters, such as earthquakes and famines. An international nursing center was set up in London, which trained hundreds of nurses every year, and Red Cross hospitals were established in countries liable to malaria and tropical diseases.
Until the middle of the 19th century, there were no organized and/or well-established army nursing systems for casualties and no safe and protected institutions to accommodate and treat those who were wounded on the battlefield. A devout Reformed Christian, the Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant, in June 1859, traveled to Italy to meet French emperor Napoléon III with the intention of discussing difficulties in conducting business in Algeria, at that time occupied by France.
He arrived in the small town of Solferino on the evening of 24 June after the Battle of Solferino, an engagement in the Austro-Sardinian War. In a single day, about 40,000 soldiers on both sides died or were left wounded on the field. Jean-Henri Dunant was shocked by the terrible aftermath of the battle, the suffering of the wounded soldiers, and the near-total lack of medical attendance and basic care. He completely abandoned the original intent of his trip and for several days he devoted himself to helping with the treatment and care for the wounded. He took point in organizing an overwhelming level of relief assistance with the local villagers to aid without discrimination.
Back in his home in Geneva, he decided to write a book entitled A Memory of Solferino which he published using his own money in 1862. He sent copies of the book to leading political and military figures throughout Europe, and people he thought could help him make a change. In addition to penning a vivid description of his experiences in Solferino in 1859, he explicitly advocated the formation of national voluntary relief organizations to help nurse wounded soldiers in the case of war, an idea that was inspired by Christian teaching regarding social responsibility, as well as his experience after the battlefield of Solferino. In addition, he called for the development of an international treaty to guarantee the protection of medics and field hospitals for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
In 1863, Gustave Moynier, a Geneva lawyer and president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, received a copy of Dunant’s book and introduced it for discussion at a meeting of that society. As a result of this initial discussion the society established an investigatory commission to examine the feasibility of Dunant’s suggestions and eventually to organize an international conference about their possible implementation.
The members of this committee, which has subsequently been referred to as the “Committee of the Five,” aside from Dunant and Moynier were physician Louis Appia, who had significant experience working as a field surgeon; Appia’s friend and colleague Théodore Maunoir, from the Geneva Hygiene and Health Commission; and Guillaume-Henri Dufour, a Swiss Army general of great renown. Eight days later, the five men decided to rename the committee to the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded”.
In October (26–29) 1863, the international conference organized by the committee was held in Geneva to develop possible measures to improve medical services on the battlefield. The conference was attended by 36 individuals: eighteen official delegates from national governments, six delegates from other non-governmental organizations, seven non-official foreign delegates, and the five members of the International Committee.
The states and kingdoms represented by official delegates were: Austrian Empire, Grand Duchy of Baden, Kingdom of Bavaria, Second French Empire, Kingdom of Hanover, Grand Duchy of Hesse, Kingdom of Italy, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Kingdom of Prussia, Russian Empire, Kingdom of Saxony, Spanish Empire, United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Among the proposals written in the final resolutions of the conference, adopted on 29 October 1863, were:
The foundation of national relief societies for wounded soldiers;
Neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers;
The utilization of volunteer forces for relief assistance on the battlefield;
The organization of additional conferences to enact these concepts;
The introduction of a common distinctive protection symbol for medical personnel in the field, namely a white armlet bearing a red cross.
Only one year later, the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, to attend an official diplomatic conference. Sixteen countries sent a total of twenty-six delegates to Geneva. On 22 August 1864, the conference adopted the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. Representatives of 12 states and kingdoms signed the convention:
The convention contained ten articles, establishing for the first time legally binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.
Directly following the establishment of the Geneva Convention, the first national societies were founded in Belgium, Denmark, France, Oldenburg, Prussia, Spain, and Württemberg. Also in 1864, Louis Appia and Charles van de Velde, a captain of the Dutch Army, became the first independent and neutral delegates to work under the symbol of the Red Cross in an armed conflict. Three years later in 1867, the first International Conference of National Aid Societies for the Nursing of the War Wounded was convened.
Also in 1867, Jean-Henri Dunant was forced to declare bankruptcy due to business failures in Algeria, partly because he had neglected his business interests during his tireless activities for the International Committee. Controversy surrounding Dunant’s business dealings and the resulting negative public opinion, combined with an ongoing conflict with Gustave Moynier, led to Dunant’s expulsion from his position as a member and secretary. He was charged with fraudulent bankruptcy and a warrant for his arrest was issued. Thus, he was forced to leave Geneva and never returned to his home city.
In the following years, national societies were founded in nearly every country in Europe. The project resonated well with patriotic sentiments that were on the rise in the late-nineteenth-century, and national societies were often encouraged as signifiers of national moral superiority. In 1876, the committee adopted the name “International Committee of the Red Cross” (ICRC), which is still its official designation today.
Five years later, the American Red Cross was founded through the efforts of Clara Barton. More and more countries signed the Geneva Convention and began to respect it in practice during armed conflicts. In a rather short period of time, the Red Cross gained huge momentum as an internationally respected movement, and the national societies became increasingly popular as a venue for volunteer work.
When the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, the Norwegian Nobel Committee opted to give it jointly to Jean-Henri Dunant and Frédéric Passy, a leading international pacifist. More significant than the honor of the prize itself, this prize marked the overdue rehabilitation of Jean-Henri Dunant and represented a tribute to his key role in the formation of the Red Cross. Dunant died nine years later in the small Swiss health resort of Heiden. Only two months earlier his long-standing adversary Gustave Moynier had also died, leaving a mark in the history of the Committee as its longest-serving president ever.
In 1906, the 1864 Geneva Convention was revised for the first time. One year later, the Hague Convention X, adopted at the Second International Peace Conference in The Hague, extended the scope of the Geneva Convention to naval warfare. Shortly before the beginning of the First World War in 1914, 50 years after the foundation of the ICRC and the adoption of the first Geneva Convention, there were already 45 national relief societies throughout the world. The movement had extended itself beyond Europe and North America to Central and South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Uruguay, Venezuela), Asia (the Republic of China, Japan, Korea, Siam), and Africa (Union of South Africa).