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The Battle of Solferino

How it all began

A painting of the Battle of Solferino, showing soldiers with swords in front of a destroyed village© InfoThe Battle of Solferino was fought as part of the wider battle for unification within the Italian peninsula during the nineteenth century. On the 24 June 1859, the alliance of France and Sardinia under Napoleon III met the Austrian army at the small village of Solferino in northern Italy.

Fighting continued for fifteen hours until the Austrians retreated, leaving more than 40,000 killed or injured. Surrounding villages were overwhelmed with the walking wounded; the largest number went to Castiglione. The small medical service attached to the French and Sardinian forces was unable to cope.

There was no organised medical division within the army. Medical provision was inadequate with few doctors, equipment or transport attached to each regiment. Many died from simple wounds due to a lack of knowledge or care.

At the same time, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was passing through Castiglione on business and was appalled at the suffering of the wounded. He had been involved with charitable organisations in his native Switzerland and worked with local women to help the wounded. He brought in supplies to wash dressings, food, water and clean clothes.

Why was it important?

In 1862 Henry Dunant published an account of what he had seen, A Memory of Solferino. In it he proposed the creation of national relief societies of trained volunteers to provide neutral and impartial help to wounded soldiers in times of war.

He wrote: “Oh, how valuable it would have been…to have had a hundred experienced and qualified voluntary orderlies and nurses! Such a group would have formed a nucleus around which could have been rallied the scanty help and dispersed efforts which needed competent guidance.” Copies were sent to important people throughout Geneva and Europe, including royalty and ministers. 

What happened as a result?

Europe was experiencing a period of great change and welcomed Henry Dunant’s ideas. Advances in technology and the increasing use of firearms meant warfare caused injuries which hadn’t been seen before. A body of trained volunteers would be a valuable asset to any military establishment.

Within months of the publication of A Memory of Solferino, a temporary Committee of Five formed in Geneva to begin organising the relief societies. The Committee of Five later became the International Committee of the Red Cross.

British representatives attended the first Red Cross conference held in Geneva, which succeeded in drafting resolutions and recommendations that would be used when national relief societies were organised. By the end of 1863, the first society was formed in Wurttemberg, later part of the German empire. In 1870 a society was formed in Britain. That society later became the British Red Cross.

In 1864 the Swiss government called a second conference which resulted in the drafting of a convention that, when ratified and agreed by governments, bound them to give humane treatment to the sick and wounded in war and protect those who cared for them. This was known as the First Geneva Convention.

In 1959 the centenary of the battle was marked with events, a memorial was dedicated at Solferino, and in Castiglione, a new road was opened to the public, called Avenue Henri Dunant. In Britain a meeting was held at the Guildhall attended by HRH The Princess Royal, followed by a service of re-dedication in St Paul’s Cathedral.

The 150th anniversary

Solferino images© Info

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino – where Henry Dunant was first inspired to help people in crisis – thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff gathered in the Italian town in June 2009 for a week of celebratory activities. The actual anniversary of the battle is 24 June.

Volunteers and staff from across the world met to share ideas and take part in events at a specially constructed humanitarian village. Five hundred young volunteers from 150 National Societies were also invited to participate in the Youth on the move programme and construct a youth declaration.

The week culminated with the famous Fiaccolata, a five-mile torchlight procession that re-traces the route taken by farmers transporting injured soldiers from the Solferino battlefield to makeshift hospitals in nearby Castiglione. The Fiaccolata event annually attracts more than 8,000 people.

Following the closing ceremony, 300 young volunteers carried their youth declaration on a symbolic journey to Geneva, following the footsteps of Henry Dunant's return home after the Battle of Solferino. Once in Geneva, they presented the declaration to international community representatives (governments, UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations) at an official ceremony.

Find out more about the Geneva Conventions

Learn about Henry Dunant

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