Little Bits of History

Seeing Red

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 29, 2013
Jean Henri Dunant

Jean Henri Dunant

October 29, 1863: An international conference in Geneva ends. In 1859 Jean Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, arrived in Italy to discuss trade issues. Instead, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino. The engagement was part of the Austro-Sardinian War. Dunant was appalled by the carnage. About 40,000 men lay across the battlefield, dead or dying. There was no organized effort to help the suffering men. Dunant gave up his original plan and spent days helping with the treatment of the wounded, regardless of army affiliation. He also encouraged the local civilians to give medical treatment to any wounded soldier.

Dunant wrote about the experience and self-published A Memory of Solferino. He sent copies to leaders, both political and military, throughout Europe. He not only graphically described the horror of the aftermath of battle, but advocated for the formation of national voluntary relief organizations as well as international treaties to permit their action. He sought to protect neutral nurses and medics on the battlefield. On February 9, 1863 Dunant and four other wealthy Genevans formed the Committee of Five. They hosted a three-day international conference attended by 36 individuals representing 14 nations. They laid the groundwork for the International Red Cross.

A year later, with all European governments, the US, Brazil, and Mexico involved, the group adopted the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded Armies in the Field.” In 1867 the name became International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Geneva Convention was updated as the role of the ICRC grew with the ever expanding horrors of Two World Wars. The Red Cross on a white background is a reversal of colors of the Swiss flag, a way to honor Dunant. It is a protection symbol. While the shape of the cross is specified for official flags, any red cross on a white background is to be honored. During the Russo-Turkish War, it was thought Muslims might be alienated by the cross, so a Red Crescent was added.

Today, there are several ethnic or religious based flags, all with red symbols across a white background. In 1919 the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was formed. It is the largest humanitarian organization in the world and offers assistance without regard to nationality, race, religion, class, or political beliefs. There are 186 Societies across the globe with more being formed. Each Society is made up of volunteers and staff and works both at home and internationally. In 2006 about 35,000 volunteers responded to 480 emergencies worldwide.

“We’re not all in a position to suddenly show up in New Orleans and start handing out supplies, but you do what you can with what you have. I’m a radio guy. So I tried to put together something that would drive people to help out with the Red Cross.” – Chris Miller

“The American Red Cross is one of the things you know you can depend on in time of crisis – always seems to be leading the charge – when something bad happens and we want to help, that’s where we go, to make sure we make a difference.” – Brooks and Dunn

“When I was a young schoolboy at the Beijing Opera Academy in Hong Kong, I was very poor and yearned for some of the most basic things in life. My fellow students were in similar need and it was at this time that a representative from the Red Cross arrived, bringing us supplies. My classmates and I were so grateful and touched and I vowed to always remember this generosity.” – Jackie Chan

“Why I support the Red Cross? Ask the millions that are saved every day because of the gift of blood, ask the family that lost their home in a fire and the Red Cross assisted, it could be your son or brother or the kid next door.” – Cristina Saralegui

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Jean Henri Dunant was born in 1828 in Geneva, Switzerland. His family were devout Calvinists and he was brought up to participate in social works. His father was known for helping orphans and parolees while his mother worked with the sick and the poor. In 1852 he founded the Geneva chapter of the YMCA.  At the age of 21 he was forced to leave college due to poor grades and so he began an apprenticeship with Lullin et Sautter, a money-changing firm. He was successful in this endeavor and remained employed by the bank. He traveled on business to Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily in 1853 and after his visit he wrote his first book. In 1856 he started a business to function in foreign countries and was granted a land concession to carry this out. However, land and water rights were not fully understood and he was on his way to discuss these problems with Napoleon III when he came upon the Battle of Solferino.

Also on this day: Ali, the Greatest – In 1960, Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali, had his first professional fight.
You’re in the Army Now – In 1940, the first peacetime draft in the US was instituted.
Raleigh – In 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed.