23. June 2022
Structurescharitable foundationcarey

No. 18 – How the search for water found humanity.

Beat Haering

Algeria in Spring 1859. Henry, a young businessman from Geneva had a problem. For months he had been trying to obtain licences from the French colonial authorities to buy agricultural land and the associated water rights, but in order to run his new business near Sétif profitably, he urgently needed approval from Paris. Unfortunately for him, the French officials were so preoccupied with France’s war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Upper Italy that they postponed their colonial tasks and repeatedly deferred the young “foreigner” to a later date.

In desperation, Henry turned to a friend who, more in jest than in earnest, advised him to contact the French Emperor Napoleon III directly. To his friend’s complete surprise, Henry thought this was a great idea and, being a born optimist, he immediately began to think of a way to approach the Emperor himself about his licence problem.

After a short time, he decided to dedicate a small book to the French monarch, in which he praised him as the restorer of the Holy Roman Empire and extolled his political foresight to the skies. Henry was convinced that with this homage he would soon receive his licences.

By the Summer of 1859, everything was prepared and one of the most fruitless business trips in history began. The carriage crisscrossed through northern Italy in search of Napoleon III’s headquarters. Time and again, when painstakingly he reached the Emperor’s Headquarters, he found that Napoleon III had already moved on with his entourage.

To his great disappointment, this was also the case when at a late hour in the evening of 24 June 1859, Henry reached the small village of Castiglione. However, his disappointment was instantly dispelled by the picture of horror that presented itself. The whole village was crowded with wounded and screaming soldiers who had been transported there from the battlefield of Solferino, where the fighting had just ended. Henry had missed the Emperor but he had found the war.

All the streets, squares and houses were filled with dying people screaming in pain. The women and girls of Castiglione tried to help wherever they could. Everything was running into disarray. Nothing was organized. The unbelievable slaughter on that day between France and Austria and their allies claimed over 39,000 dead soldiers on both sides and was one of the bloodiest military conflicts of the 19th century. Also, the wounded suffered from lack of food, overexertion and inadequate sanitary conditions. Consequently, a further 40,000 soldiers died thereafter as a result of their wounds and contaminated water.

At this moment, Henry’s intention to pay homage to the Emperor and to ask him for a water licence in faraway Africa suddenly seemed both unreal and inhuman.

Instinctively, Henry began to help. Influenced by his Christian upbringing and his experiences in Algeria, he knew how important it was to remain calm and take control in challenging situations, and so he immediately began to organise the chaos. In the nearby Chiesa Maggiore church, he took command and only when a young woman forcefully confronted him, reminding him that these were Austrian and not French wounded, did he raise his voice: “Tutti Fratelli, Madam! My name is Henry Dunant, and here all wounded are treated equally, regardless of their nationality.”

From that moment on, Tutti fratelli became the motto for those helping the wounded at the Battle of Solferino. Henry Dunant did what he could. He sent his coachman to the nearby larger city of Brescia to buy as much field dressing material as possible. He ensured that the French quartermaster assigned suitable captured soldiers to take care of the wounded, including three Austrian doctors and a German surgeon.

Deeply impressed by what he had experienced, he wrote his book “Memoirs of Solferino”, which he distributed throughout Europe to promote his ideas for an independent aid organisation. Just four years later, Henry founded in Geneva a charitable association to implement his ideas of neutral and independent care for the wounded.

For the symbol of the new aid organisation and in honour of Henry Dunant and his Swiss homeland, the founding members proposed the inversion of the Swiss flag into a red cross on a white background, and that is how the Red Cross with its overriding principle of neutrality was born.

Henry Dunant’s ideas contributed to the world community’s agreement to civilize war by treaty, to care for the wounded, to spare civilians and to treat prisoners with dignity. Purified as a pacifist, whose gloomy prophecies anticipated the First World War, Henry Dunant was awarded with the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

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