Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 09:56 UK

Red Cross marks battle anniversary

Painting of the Battle of Solferino
The battle at Solferino left 40,000 men dead or dying

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Solferino, Italy

The Red Cross is marking the 150th anniversary of the battle which inspired Henri Dunant to found the world's best known humanitarian movement.

At the end of June 1859, the armies of France and Sardinia, led by Napoleon III, confronted the Austrians at Solferino in northern Italy.

Henri Dunant, a Geneva businessman, happened to be passing, and witnessed the battle.

Horrified by what he saw, he documented the slaughter in his book, A Memory of Solferino.

"Here is a hand-to-hand struggle in all its horror and frightfulness," he wrote.

"Austrians and Allies trampling each other under foot, killing one another on piles of bleeding corpses, felling their enemies with their rifle butts, crushing skulls, ripping bellies open with sabre and bayonet. No quarter is given; it is a sheer butchery."

Henri Dunant was certainly a visionary. He was the man for the moment
Francois Bugnion, ICRC

At the end of the battle, the Austrians were defeated and 40,000 men lay dead or dying.

As Dunant discovered, and later recounted, little was done to care for the wounded.

"Men of all nations lay side by side on the flagstone floors of the churches of Castiglione: Frenchmen and Arabs, Germans and Slavs.

"Oh, Sir, l'm in such pain!" several of these poor fellows said to me, "they desert us, leave us to die miserably, and yet we fought so hard!"


Red Cross remembers Solferino

Unlikely hero

What he saw at Solferino shocked Dunant, and inspired him to develop an organisation dedicated to helping war wounded.

Henri Dunant
Dunant was shocked by the violence and injury he saw at Solferino

But the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had modest beginnings; Dunant and four friends met in an apartment in Geneva's old town to discuss possible rules for war, aimed at alleviating suffering.

And Dunant himself was an unlikely candidate for such an ambitious task.

The son of a wealthy Geneva family, he did so badly at school he was forced to leave the prestigious College Calvin, and take up an apprenticeship with a money-changing firm.

In his twenties, he set his sights on a business career, joining a colonial company involved in north Africa. He witnessed Solferino because he had an appointment to discuss water rights in Algeria with Napoleon III.

But Dunant's humanitarian ideals quickly gained support.

In 1864, the first Geneva Convention was drafted and signed by 16 nations.

It established the immunity from attack of all hospitals and medical personnel treating the wounded; it said all wounded combatants must be treated impartially; and introduced the red cross on a white background as the official symbol for humanitarian work.

"I think Henri Dunant was certainly a visionary," says ICRC historian Francois Bugnion.

"He was the man for the moment. And what he witnessed at Solferino stayed with him for the rest of his life."

Worldwide movement

Today, the ICRC, together with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, has become a worldwide movement with tens of thousands of workers and volunteers.

A limb-fitting centre in Afghanistan
Civilians make up an estimated 90% of casualties in modern wars

ICRC delegates on their way to Solferino to mark the anniversary each have their own tales of modern day Solferinos.

Susannah Swann was in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994.

"At one point there was an advance on Kigali and the government fell," she recalls.

"The population started fleeing, hundreds of thousands of people were on the roads. It was chaos, with wounded dropping by the wayside, and children being separated from parents.

"It was almost surreal to be in the midst of this huge chaos and try to provide water and medicine and help the lost children."

The basic principles are the same - he said the fallen enemy is no longer an enemy
Jacques Moreillon, ICRC

Meanwhile, Philippe Spoerri was in Kabul. He tells his story with plenty of wry laughter, but the events were deadly serious.

"In 1998 I was the protection co-ordinator, and I was due to supervise a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance," he recalls.

"It was the first time such an exchange took place, a hundred prisoners against a hundred.

"So we went up to the front lines, and there were thousands of Taliban fighters. I was told, 'you have to go down into that valley, and pick up the prisoners in the middle'," he said.

"The valley was mined, and we came under fire doing it, we had to bring out the prisoners in groups of five, but at the end of the day we managed to do it."

Relevant ideals

One of the biggest challenges facing the Red Cross today is that the very nature of war has changed enormously in the last 150 years.

Red Cross camp at Solferino
Red Cross members are gathering at Solferino for the anniversary

At Solferino, there was just one civilian casualty, nowadays it is estimated civilians make up 90% of war victims.

Nevertheless, Jacques Moreillon, the ICRC delegate whose job it was to visit Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, believes Dunant's ideals remain both relevant and important today.

"I don't think Dunant was thinking originally of civilians, or of political detainees," he explains.

"But the basic principles are the same - he said the fallen enemy is no longer an enemy: a wounded soldier has lost his nationality.

"As the women trying to treat the wounded in the church of Castiglione said, 'sono tutti fratelli' - they are all brothers.

"You had Austrians and French and Italians and they were tutti fratelli, they were no longer enemies because they were wounded and they were helpless.

"And the Red Cross is still about that today."

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