Henri Dunant (1828-1910)

Founder of the Red Cross

He dreamed of living in Algeria

  • Henry Dunant © Société Évangélique de Genève

In 1853, Dunant visited North Africa, sent by the bank Lullin and Sautter, on assignment with the Genevan Company for the Development of Swiss Colonies. They had been granted a piece of land in Sétif from the French government, which had to be developed and where several hundred settlers had to be installed.

In 1856, he created his own colonial business in Algeria not far from St. Arnaud after having been granted his own territory. This was called the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Djemila Mills.

However he had considerable difficulty in developing it. It was not at all easy for him to obtain permission to use a waterfall which was essential to turn the wheels of the flour mills.

He visited Tunis in 1857, and wrote a book called An Account of the Regency in Tunis when he returned to Geneva. In it he gave many details about the geography and anthropology of the country.

His situation in Algeria grew worse and worse – in order to resolve his difficulties, or so he thought, he applied for and obtained French nationality.

In 1859, he decided to contact the Emperor Napoleon III personally.

Protestantism in Geneva at the time of the Revival

Henry Dunant was born on the 8th May 1848 in Geneva into a Calvinist family where social work was considered to be of great importance – an ideal which became a part of his life.

During this period of religious revival, the YMCA was founded and Dunant was its secretary and correspondent. He gave it his energetic support as well as most of his salary (he was an apprentice in the Lullin and Sautter bank in 1849).

During the summer of 1853, there were many meetings organized to found new chapters of the YMCA, both within French-speaking Switzerland and in France, and he visited Saint Etienne, Marseilles and Montpellier on an “apostolic mission”.

The creation of a Five-person Committee

Dunant decided to start writing a book A Memory of Solferino, which was published in 1862; in its last pages he expressed the main guidelines for the future Red Cross: The foundation of relief organizations to help nurse wounded soldiers in the case of war All relief should be on an international level and the principle of neutrality respected by all concerned.

On the 17th February the former Committee of Five Commission was renamed the Geneva Committee. In addition to Dunant, it was comprised of Gustave Moynier, General Dufour and two doctors: Théodore Maunoir and Louis Appia. Later it became the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. This is now widely recognized as the origin of the future International Committee of the Red Cross, which would nominate Henry Dunant as its Secretary.

The main idea was to found relief organizations for the care of wounded soldiers in peacetime and to make sure that a special unit was added to armies on the battlefield which would comprise a corps of volunteer nurses wearing a distinctive symbol for their protection. This International Committee would exist in times of peace as well as in times of war.

The members of the Committee immediately sought the support of leading figures in Europe and indeed throughout the world.

The battle of Solferino

  • Timbre Dunant, Moynier,Dufour © Collection privée

This is why, on the 24th June 1859, Dunant was near the battlefields of Solferino, where the Piemontese Army supported by French troops, fought against the Austrian Army.

The battle had been particularly horrific with a great many casualties. When Henry Dunant saw the battlefield strewn with the bodies of more than 40 000 dead or dying soldiers, his life took on a different course.

Based in Castiglione, he began to organize assistance with volunteers who were mostly women. He set up field hospitals, notably in the local cathedral Chiesa Maggiore, where he organized medical care for at least 10 000 wounded soldiers, whatever their nationality. He also managed to gain the release of Austrian doctors who had been held prisoner by the French and ensured that they help to take care of the wounded.

The Congress of Berlin (September 1863)

Although Dunant was asked to draw up a speech that was to be read at the International Congress of Charitable Organizations in Berlin, the latter was replaced by an international conference on statistics so it was never used. However, Dunant decided to go to Berlin.

During his stay he convinced several important leaders of the value of his Committee, notably the King of Prussia and the King of Saxony, whom he went to see in Dresden. In this way he impressed on people the importance of neutral organizations for the care of wounded soldiers. He also travelled to Austria and the Hesse.

The Conference of Geneva (October 1863)

  • © Société Évangélique de Genève

In Geneva, an international conference was organized “to develop possible measures to improve medical services on the battlefield”. It met with general approval and the conclusions put forward were in accordance with Dunant’s ideas:

  • Committees responsible for the relief of the wounded must be properly recognized and respected by military authorities;
  • Relief workers must retain their neutrality;
  • The latter must wear a distinctive symbol for their protection – this would be a white armlet bearing a red cross.

A diplomatic conference was organized on the 22nd August 1864

  • Geneva Convention 22 April 1864 © Société Évangélique de Genève
  • Page 1 of the Geneva Convention © Société Évangélique de Genève

The Geneva Convention for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Wounded on the Battlefield was able to obtain the establishment in international law of the proposals advocated two years earlier in A Memory of Solferino. Among these were :

  • The neutrality of ambulances, hospitals and their staff;
  • The universal care of the wounded, whatever their military allegiance.

More difficulties in Algeria

In Algeria Dunant tried in vain to obtain permission for the ownership of a second waterfall, necessary for the development of his land. Despite opposition he labored on: in 1865, he bought the quarries of Felfela and tried, by all possible means, to save the Mills of Djemila by making them part of another, financially more viable firm. However his debts increased dramatically and in the end his firm went bankrupt.

He was condemned by the Geneva Trade Court for deceptive practices in bankruptcy.

In 1867, Dunant left Geneva for Paris

His conflict with Moynier intensified day by day.

Dunant resigned as Secretary from the International Committee for the Relief to the Wounded.

Moynier wrote to Dunant saying that, no longer living in Geneva, he did not have the right to belong to the Red Cross Committee any more. This was the final break between the two men and Dunant was never again a member of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded in his lifetime.

He was also expelled from the YMCA.

In his memoirs he described his state of mind at this time “sadness, despair, destitution and famine – no-one can imagine what it is like”.

In the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Dunant took part in many activities

He founded the International Providence Association for the Benefit of Citizens in Arms, which was presented as an auxiliary organization to the Society for the Relief of the Wounded; he also founded the Common Relief Society and the Common Alliance for Order and Civilization.

Together with his friend Doctor Chéron, he launched the idea of making a new kind of bandage, which would have far-reaching consequences; it was made of shredded lined soaked in ferric chloride.

He also worked on the creation of libraries.

In 1872, he once more tried to set up a society for the benefit of prisoners of war and two years later he was appointed International Secretary of the Society for the Improvement of the Conditions of prisoners of War. This society was founded in Paris and he was invited to England several times to present its aims.

However, from 1872 onwards, he began to take a certain distance from public affairs.

From 1874 to 1886, Dunant led a lonely life, beset by financial worries

From 1881 onwards he was still travelling fairly extensively, to Stuttgart, where he had friends, to Rome or to Basel, but little by little he began to lead a more sedentary life and he finally moved to Heiden in Switzerland, in the canton of Appenzell in 1888. At first he used to spend the summer in a guest house the Paradies, and the winter in the Freihof hotel, but in 1892, he lived in a hospital and nursing home run by Doctor Hermann Altherr.

The Nobel Prize (1901)

  • Postage stamp depicting Henri Dunant (1828-1928) © Collection privée

In 1901, Henry Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament.

Henry Dunant died on 30th October 1910 in Heiden at the age of 82.

Associated notes