Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross
The military history of the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a curious discrepancy between the heightened destructiveness of warfare and the lack of attention paid to means of controlling its human costs. As armies adopted infantry weapons like the breech-loading Dreyse needle gun and the French chassepot, whose range and rate of fire greatly exceeded those of previous models, casualties in the field increased in number. It was the rare army, however, that made ade-quate provision for the care of the wounded. In 1854, the British army went into the Crimean War without a field commissariat, an effective system of supply, a corps of service troops, or an ambulance corps or medical ser-vice. After the battle of the Alma it was discovered that there were no splints or bandages on hand, and, in the barracks hospital at Scutari, the spread of cholera, gangrene, and dysentery raged virtually uncontrolled until the Secretary of War persuaded Florence Nightingale, who had administered a sanitarium in London, to organize a corps of nurses and go to the Crimea to prevent a disaster.
In the war that broke out in 1859 between France and Piedmont on the one hand and the Austrian Empire on the other, the situation of the wounded was no less calamitous. The French Emperor Napoleon III, who had taken to the field with his armies, was so shaken by the heavy losses at Solferino on June 24 that, without consulting his ally, he began secret negoti-ations with the Austrians for peace. After the day of battle 6,000 dead lay in the fields and vineyards around the tower of Solferino, as well as 30,000 wounded, who could not be moved be-cause the retreating Austrians had taken all the carts and horses with them, and who lay without care or water, some in the throes of death and others crazed with pain.
On the evening of the 24th a young Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant came to Solferino, hoping to meet the French emperor and to enlist his aid in behalf of an ailing business he owned in Algeria. He was unsuc-cessful in this, but he was horrified by the devastation of the battlefield and the hapless condition of its victims and stayed to do what he could to alleviate their suffering by recruiting women and children in the neighboring vil-lages to take food and water to them and by organizing a primitive field hospital in a church in Castiglione. Without an adequate supply of ban-dages, anesthetics, or surgical help, the hospital proved unable to deal with the thousands of casualties who were brought to it, and the scenes that he witnessed there—of wounds becoming gangrened because they were not treated soon enough, of last-minute amputations followed inex-orably by death—were etched in Dunant’s mind. After he returned home, he recorded them in a book called A Memory of Solferino, which was published at his own expense in October 1862 and aroused wide atten-tion, less …
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