Honouring Humanity- Henry Dunant, a passionate humanitarian and Nobel Laureate who inspired the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross

The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe. 

Aftermath of the Battle of Solferino

On 25 June 1859, Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant witnessed war at first hand. Dunant had travelled to Northern Italy seek an audience with the French Emperor Napoleon II regarding his business interests. Instead, he observed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, which he described as ‘these endless combats, these massacres’ when some 300,000 Austrian, French and Piedmontese troops met in battle. As the armies withdrew, the remaining military hospitals proved unable to treat estimated 12,500 wounded soldiers who remained on the battlefield. Dunant described the terrible effects of ‘bullets and bursting shells’ on men and horses, and the cruel suffering of the wounded left under the burning sun without water. He also recorded the plight of Austrian prisoners of war, to whom some French soldiers wished ‘to do violence’.

Henri Dunant at Solferino 1859


‘A thirst to carry help to the greatest number possible’

Some respite was offered by local volunteers at Castiglione, where ‘every house became an infirmary’. Dunant recognised the benefits of a ‘voluntary force, good or bad’ to help alleviate the suffering of the soldiers. He quickly gathered local women to help provide food and water and change bandages. The ‘gentleness, goodness, compassion and attentive care’ of the volunteer nurses restored ‘a little courage to the wounded’. Dunant himself felt ‘inexpressible suffering’ in his own inability to ‘help all those who lie before you, because of their great numbers’. He came away from Solferino with ‘a thirst to carry help to the greatest number possible.’

Aid for the wounded

Dunant’s A Memory of Solferino was published at his own expense in 1862. His memories of the crippled and dead from the battle prompted Dunant appeal to all men and women that permanent Aid Societies should be formed in every European country to provide trained volunteer nurses in wartime, who would care for wounded soldiers regardless of their nationality. He was, in part, inspired by the ‘great self-devotion’ of Florence Nightingale and her work with wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War. He also called for an international convention for the efficient distribution of medical supplies and the relief of the wounded.

A non-partisan organisation

The concept of a non-partisan organisation for the relief of soldiers wounded in wartime found favour with the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. The President of this society, Gustave Moynier brought A Memory of Solferino to the 9 February 1863 meeting, where a five-man committee was formed to investigate how best to implement Dunant’s ideas. The first meeting of this committee, on 17 March 1863, is now recognised as the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dunant continued to lobby for his vision of the neutrality and protection of wounded soldiers on a battlefield, which the four other members of the committee felt was not feasible.

International Committee for Relief to the Wounded

The committee was renamed the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded on 17 March 1863, with Dunant acting as the secretary. The first international conference was hosted by the committee in October 1863, and the 36 delegates discussed how to improve battlefield medical services. Amongst the final resolutions of the conference were some of Dunant’s key ideas – the establishment of national societies for the relief of wounded soldiers, the neutrality and protection of wounded soldiers, the use of volunteer forces to assist with the relief of the wounded on a battlefield and the introduction of a distinctive for medical personnel on a battlefield – a White Armlet with a Red Cross (the colours of the Swiss flag in reverse). The following year twelve states and kingdoms signed the first Geneva Convention, which formalised the neutrality of wounded soldiers and medical personnel in the field and specified that only national relief societies recognised by their own governments, which were in turn signatories to the convention, could be recognised by the International Committee. National societies were soon formed in Europe and joined in an international conference on the nursing of war wounded in 1867.

Change of fortune

Dunant suffered a change of fortune in 1867. While campaigning for the welfare of wounded soldiers he had neglected the business interests in French-occupied Algeria which had taken him to Solferino in 1859. Dunant was declared bankrupt in 1867, owing almost one million Swiss francs. He resigned from the international committee in October 1867, and left Geneva for Paris. Despite being almost destitute and living on the streets of Paris, Dunant continued his humanitarian work for the benefit of wounded soldiers. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the use of a badge to identify war dead was introduced. In 1872 he organised a conference to consider an international convention on the treatment of prisoners of war and for the settlement of international disputes by arbitration not conflict. Three years later he organised another conference for the ‘complete and final’ abolition of the slave trade.

Rehabilitation and Recognition

Dunant moved to the Swiss village of Heiden in 1887, where in 1892, at the age of 64, he entered a hospital and nursing home. In 1895 a feature article on ‘Henri Dunant. The Founder of the Red Cross’ appeared in European newspapers, highlighting his tireless efforts to help establish what was now known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. He received a number of awards in his final years, including the inaugural Nobel Peace Prize, and he died in 1910 with the final words ‘Where has humanity gone?’

The highest award of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Organisation is the Henri Dunant Medal, which has awarded biennially since 1969 to ‘recognise and reward outstanding services and acts of great devotion, mainly of international significance, to the cause of the Red Cross/Red Crescent by any of its members.’ Dunant’s birthday, 8 May, is World Red Cross and Crescent Day.

Inaugural Nobel Peace Prize

 In 1901 Dunant became the first recipient of the Alfred Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with his contemporary the French economist and advocate of international arbitration and peace Frédéric Passy. The will of the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel who had died in 1896 specified that a Norwegian committee would award a peace prize to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.’ Dunant received the prize for ‘his humanitarian efforts to help wounded soldiers and create international understanding’. The International Committee of the Red Cross congratulated Dunant as the man who had ‘set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken’. Dunant continued to live simply, and his share of the prize money was distributed after his death in 1910 to his carers, his creditors and to charitable causes.

Nobel Peace Medal


Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.