How the First Geneva Convention Gave Rise to the Red Cross

In 1864, a Swiss businessman named, Henri Dunant, invited 13 nations to discuss and outline how to define a benchmark for more humane conduct in war.

Dunant’s goal, that amidst the atrocities of war, civilized nations would consider humane treatment of downed soldiers. He wanted special consideration for caretakers. He wanted mercy.

There were 12 representatives who signed the first Geneva Convention, the first of many to follow. From that first agreement, sprung a movement of mercy, including the formation of the International Red Cross.

It was all because of one man…

Jean Henry Dunant

Dunant started life on May 8, 1828, born into a wealthy family. He would go on to live the life of an ardent humanitarian while trying to be a successful businessman at the same time.

When Dunant pursued an opportunity to develop some land in Algeria, he ran into a snag. The land required he secure water rights. Dunant decided to take his issue directly to the top, to Solferino, to the Emperor Napoleon III.

The French Emperor had his headquarters in Solferino due to war unfolding in Italy. Dunant arrived in time to witness the aftermath of a battle that had just taken place in Solferino.

Battle of Solferino

In 1859, Austria battled the French in Solferino, which is northern Italy. The French fought with Napoleon III at the helm, and the Austrians with Franz Joseph leading them.

By historical standards, it was an epic battle, one of the last led with their monarchs on the field. The French won. Hundreds of thousands fought in the battle. Of those soldiers, 40,000 perished across both sides.

Worse than that, the on the battlefield soldiers who could not walk away remained to die slow deaths as their comrades marched home. This was the custom of war at the time.

Upon observing this horror, Dunant, did some marching of his own. He bee-lined to Napoleon III’s headquarters, begging Napoleon command the troops give quarter to medical professionals. (What about the water right request?)

He insisted Napoleon order the French troops to release any captured doctors so they could attend their fallen soldiers.

Then, in 1862, Dunant penned a book about what he saw there, “Un Souvenir de Solferino” (A Memory of Solferino). In it he lobbied for a relief society that would tend to the wounded in such cases.

The Red Cross

Rather than wait for the world to respond to his request for creating a relief society, Dunant took matters into his own hands.

Before the famous Convention, Dunant organized the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their goal was to combat human suffering, be it from war or other strife.

He poured time and money into his new organization, visiting leaders throughout Europe, obtaining promises to contribute to the cause. From that, sprung his idea to bring powerful nations together in one convention.

The 1864 Convention

When it was all said and done, 16 nations showed up, including the United States and Britain. The plan was to reconvene every four years to review the terms, negotiate, revise, and sign.

At the 1864 Convention, the nations who signed agreed to terms of neutrality for ambulances and hospitals. They declared that medical aid would go to any soldier who needed it, regardless of nationality, that they would return soldiers to their nations when too incapacitated to serve.

The medical facilities would wave a neutral flag, white with a red cross. Neither the United States nor Britain would sign the document in 1864.

In time, both the U.S. and the U.K. would fold into subsequent Geneva Conventions. There would be more than four years between them, but the terms would expand every time.

For his work on the first one, and for the creation of the Red Cross, Dunant won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.