Henri Dunant

Henri Dunant

Henri Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 8th May, 1828. His father, Jean-Jacques Dunant, was the superintendent of an orphanage and supervisor of prisons. At the age of ten Henri was sent to the College de Geneva. After completing his studies he joined the banking house of Lullin et Sauter.

As a young man he became interested in the work of three outstanding women, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry. He was later to write: "The influence of women is an essential factor in the welfare of humanity, and it will become more valuable as time proceeds.

Dunant joined the Christian Association of Geneva, a group of young men who preached religious commitment and tolerance. He became a pacifist and argued for universal fraternity and the rule of law. In 1851 Dunant was impressed by the statement issued by Victor Hugo at the Paris Peace Congress when he predicted that: "A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and bombs are replaced by votes, by universal suffrage, by the venerable arbitration of a great supreme senate which will be to Europe what Parliament is to England, the Diet to Germany, and the Legislative Assembly to France."

After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin Dunant also developed a strong hatred of slavery and in 1853 met its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Geneva. Dunant also wrote, Notes on the Regency of Tunisia, a book that condemning slavery in the USA and Moslem countries.

On 24th June, 1859, Dunant found himself in Northern Italy and witnessed the Battle of Solferino. Dunant immediately began organizing local peasants to carry the wounded from the battlefield. They were taken to local churches where local doctors attempted to help relieve their suffering.

Over 300,000 men of the Austrian and French armies took part in the Battle of Solferino and resulted in the deaths of over 41,000 men. It is estimated another 40,000 men who took part in the battle later died from wounds, fever and disease.

After the battle, Dunant visited Emperor Napoleon III in France and persuaded him to issue the following orders to his soldiers: "Doctors and surgeons attached to the Austrian armies and captured while attending to the wounded shall be unconditionally released; those who have been attending to men wounded at the Battle of Solferino and lying in the hospital at Castiglione shall, at their request, be permitted to return to Austria."

Dunant decided to write a book about his experiences in Solferino. He claimed in A Memory of Solferino (1862) that his intention was to promote the "adoption by all civilized nations of an international and sacred principle which would be assured and placed on record by a convention to be concluded between governments. This would serve as a safeguard for all official and unofficial persons engaged in nursing war victims."

In the book Dunant warned: "If the new and frightful weapons of destruction, which are now at the disposal of the nations, seem destined to abridge the duration of future wars, it appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous." He added: "Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?

A Memory of Solferino was well received by Victor Hugo who wrote to Dunant that he was " arming humanity and serving the cause of freedom. I pay the highest tribute to your noble efforts." Saint Marc Girardin added that he hoped the "book will be widely read, especially by those who are in favour of warfare, who seek to show its advantages and who speak of it in glowing terms."

Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale (Crimean War) and Clara Barton (American Civil War), Dunant wanted to establish an organization concerned with the alleviation of human suffering. In 1862 Dunant sent Gustave Moynier, president of Geneva Society for Public Welfare, a copy of A Memory of Solferino. In the book Dunant stated that his intention was to promote the "adoption by all civilized nations of an international and sacred principle which would be assured and placed on record by a convention to be concluded between governments. This would serve as a safeguard for all official and unofficial persons engaged in nursing war victims."

Gustave Moynier went to see Dunant and invited him to a special meeting on 9th February, 1863, of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. Dunant told the fourteen people who attended that he wanted to form an organization that sent volunteer nurses to the battlefield. He also wanted to improve the methods of transporting the wounded and the care they received in military hospitals.

After the meeting it was decided to form an International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. Guillaume Dufour was to be president while Dunant, Thomas Maunoir, Gustave Moynier, and Louis Appia agreed to serve as board members. This eventually became the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In 1864 the five men organized an international conference of 13 nations in Geneva to discuss the possibility of making warfare more "humane". At the end of the conference on 22nd August, 1864, the representatives signed the Geneva Convention. The agreement provided for the neutrality of ambulance and military hospitals, the non-belligerent status of persons who aid the wounded, and sick soldiers of any nationality, the return of prisoners to their country if they are incapable of serving, and the adoption of a white flag with a red cross for use on hospitals, ambulances, and evacuation centres whose neutrality would be recognized by this symbol.

The campaign then began to persuade the different countries to ratify the Convention. It was approved by Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Switzerland in 1864. They were followed by Britain (1865), Prussia (1865), Greece (1865), Turkey (1865), Austria (1866), Portugal (1866), Russia (1867), Persia (1874), Serbia (1876), Chile (1879), Argentina (1879), Peru (1880), USA (1882), Bulgaria (1884), Japan (1886), Luxemburg (1888), Venezuela (1894), South Africa (1896), Uruguay (1900), Guatemala (1903), Mexico (1905), China (1906), Germany (1906), Brazil (1906), Cuba (1907), Panama (1907) and Paraguay (1907).

Dunant was a director of one of Geneva's main banks, Credit Genevois. In 1867 the directors were accused of bad judgement and a conflict of interest when it was discovered they had been buying and selling shares in some stone quarries in Algeria. On 17th October, the city's Commercial Court reached the verdict that the directors' actions were "grossly beyond the limits that a vigilant and conscientious board of directors should have permitted." As a result of this ruling Dunant was forced to resign as secretary of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Financially ruined by the failure of the Credit Genevois, Dunant spent the rest of his life in poverty. However he continued to campaign for international disarmament and the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1901 was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Peace. Henri Dunant died in Heiden, Switzerland, on 30th October, 1910.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Henri Dunant wrote about how he became aware of social problems in his autobiography.

I gradually came into contact with misfortune and poverty in gloomy and squalid streets. In hovels, which at times were more like stables, I saw men entirely destitute of any worldly belongings and bowed down under a burden of unspeakable suffering, who knew neither love or kindness. I then realized for the first time that one man alone is powerless to act in the face of such misfortune and that no relief, however, small, can be brought to him unless the whole world joins hands in the fight against such dire poverty.

(2) Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (1862)

When the sun came up on the 25th it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches to Solferino were literally thick with dead. The fields were devastated, wheat and corn lying flat on the ground, fences broken, orchards ruined; here and there were pools of blood.

The poor wounded men were ghostly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look. Others were anxious and excited by nervous strain and shaken by spasmodic trembling. Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery; and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death struggle.

Though the army, in its retreat, picked up all the wounded men it could carry in military wagons and requisitioned carts, how many unfortunate men were left behind, lying helpless on the naked ground in their own blood? How many silent tears were shed that miserable night when all false pride, all human decency even, was forgotten? In some quarters there was no water, and the thirst was so terrible that officers and men alike fell to drinking from muddy pools whose water was foul and filled with curdled blood.

The men's wounds were covered with flies. The tunic, shirt, flesh and blood formed an indescribable mass, alive with vermin. A number of the men shuddered to think they were being devoured by these vermin, which they thought were emerging from their bodies, but which in reality were the result of the fly-infested atmosphere.

(3) After the Battle of Solferino, Henri Dunant visited the Emperor Napoleon III in Italy. As a result of this meeting Napoleon III issued a proclamation to the Italian forces (1st July, 1859)

Doctors and surgeons attached to the Austrian armies and captured while attending to the wounded shall be unconditionally released; those who have been attending to men wounded at the Battle of Solferino and lying in the hospital at Castiglione shall, at their request, be permitted to return to Austria.

(4) The Geneva Convention, drawn up by Gustave Moynier and agreed by conference delegates on 26th October, 1863.

(1) In each country signing the concordat, there shall be a national Committee charged with remedying, by every means in its power, the inadequacy of the official sanitary service provided for armies in the field. This Committee shall organize itself in whatever manner seems to it to be most useful and expedient.

(2) An unlimited number of sections may be formed to assist the national Committee. They are necessarily dependent on this Committee, to which belongs the overall direction.

(3) Each national Committee shall be in communication with the government of the country, and shall assure itself that it offers of service will be accepted in case of war.

(4) In peacetime, the Committees and the Sections shall concern themselves with improvements to be introduced into the military sanitary service, with the installation of ambulances and hospitals, with means of transport for the wounded, etc., and will work towards their realization.

(5) The Committees and Sections of the various countries shall meet in international Congresses to communicate with one another about their experience, and to agree on measures to be taken to further the enterprise.

(6) In January of each year, the national Committees shall present a report of their work during the previous year, and may append to it whatever information they wish to bring to the attention of the Committees in other countries. These communications and reports should be addressed to the Geneva Committee, which will undertake to operate this exchange.

(7) In the event of war, the Committees of the belligerent nations shall furnish necessary assistance to their respective armies, and in particular shall undertake to form and organize corps of volunteer nurses. They may solicit the support of Committees belonging to neutral nations.

(8) Volunteer nurses will undertake to serve for a limited time, and not to interfere in any way in the conduct of the war. They will be employed according to their wishes in field service or in hospitals. Of necessity, women will be assigned to the latter.

(9) In all countries, volunteer nurses shall wear an identical and distinctive uniform or badge. Their persons shall be sacred, and military leaders shall owe them protection. When a campaign begins, the soldiers of both armies shall be informed of the existence of this corps, and of its exclusively charitable character.

(10) The corps of volunteer nurses or helpers will march behind the armies, to which they will cause neither difficulty nor expense. They shall have their own means of transport, their own provisions and supplies, of medications and first aid of all kinds. They shall be at the disposal of the chiefs of the army, who will use them only when they feel the need. For the duration of their active service, they shall be placed under the orders of the military authority, and subjected to the same discipline as ordinary military nurses.

(5) Henri Dunant, speech on Florence Nightingale at the Geneva Convention (August, 1864)

To the many who pay their homage to Miss Nightingale, though a very humble person of a small country, Switzerland, I yet want to add my tribute of praise and admiration. As the founder of the Red Cross and the originator of the diplomatic Convention of Geneva, I feel emboldened to pay my homage. To Miss Nightingale I give all the honour of this humane Convention. It was her work in the Crimea that inspired me to go to Italy during the war of 1859, to share the horrors of war, to relieve the helplessness of the unfortunate victims of the great struggle on June 24, to soothe the physical and moral distress, and the anguish of so many poor men, who had come from all parts of France and Austria to fall victims to their duty, far from their native country, and to water the poetic land of Italy with their blood.

(6) Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (1862)

If the new and frightful weapons of destruction, which are now at the disposal of the nations, seem destined to abridge the duration of future wars, it appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous.

Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?

Societies of this kind, once formed and their permanent existence assured, would naturally remain inactive in peacetime. But they would always be organized and ready for the possibility of war. They would have not only to secure the goodwill of the authorities of the countries in which they had been formed, but also, in the case of war, to solicit from the rulers of the belligerent states authorization and facilities enabling them to do effective work.

(7) Victor Hugo, letter to Henri Dunant after reading a Memory of Solferino (1862)

You are arming humanity and serving the cause of freedom. I pay the highest tribute to your noble efforts.

(8) Saint Marc Girardin, Journal des Debats (1862)

I hope that this book will be widely read, especially by those who are in favour of warfare, who seek to show its advantages and who speak of it in glowing terms.

(9) Guillaume Dufour, letter to Henri Dunant after reading his book, A Memory of Solferino (19th October, 1862)

It is most important that people read accounts like yours so that they can see what the glory of the battlefield costs in terms in pain and tears. We are all too ready to see only the brilliant side of the war, and to shut our eyes to its sad consequences.

(10) Max Huber, Executive President of the International Red Cross Committee (1928)

Henri Dunant himself saw clearly that the task of the Red Cross would always be a dual one: succor for the victims of war, and the repudiation of war itself.

(11) In his memoirs Henri Dunant explained what he had spent his life trying to do during his various campaigns.

To inspire in all a horror of the spirit of vengeance, of hatred and destruction, is to force backwards the terrible scourge of war, and perhaps even make it impossible.