Dunant's Dreamby Caroline Moorehead
The Red Cross was the dream of the Swiss businessman Henri Dunant that grew into the pre-eminent international humanitarian charity. The story begins in 1859, when almost by chance, Dunant witnessed the butchery and lack of care for injured soldiers during the battle of Solferino. Realizing that, although modern warfare meant more, and worse, wounded, medical treatment for the first time could save significant numbers of them, he began a crusade leading to 137 national societies and 250 million members today. Caroline Moorehead, a popular columnist on human rights for the London Independent, is the first writer to be granted wide access to the Red Cross's closed archives in Geneva. Her resulting book engrossingly recounts the Red Cross's full history and the moral dilemmas it has faced from the two World Wars to the post-Cold War conflicts of Somalia, Chechnya, and Bosnia.
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The year 1859 opened on a Europe briefly at peace. Alexander II had been on the throne of Russia for four years, pushing through liberal reforms that were about to bring an end to serfdom. In Prussia, Prince Wilhelm, soon to be King Wilhelm I and German Kaiser, had taken over as regent from his ailing brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV the previous year, and Bismarck, already the most powerful man in the German confederation, was busy putting together a strong and efficient army. France was rich and its major industries were expanding rapidly; Austria, though enfeebled by a succession of revolts, was still hanging on in both Italy and Hungary. Britain remained the largest colonial and naval power in the world.
The trouble started in Italy. Piedmont, under the leadership of the revolutionary patriots Garibaldi and Cavour, had been in the grip of growing nationalist fervour and now sought to liberate northern Italy from the Austrians. British attempts to broker peace collapsed. On 29 April 1859, Austrian troops crossed the River Tessino, the border between the kingdom of Sardinia and Austrian Lombardy. They met little resistance.
Napoleon III of France believed that, by supporting the liberation of Lombardy and the Veneto, he could gain a valuable ally in a united Italy. On 3 May, he joined forces with the Italians and declared war on Austria. The first battles, at Montebello and Palestro, went to the Allies. The Austrians fell back towards Milan. The battle of Magenta was fought on 4 June, another victory to the French andItalians. The retreating Austrians fell back again, 115 kilometres in fifteen days.
On the evening of 23 June, the Allied commanders learnt that the Austrians were camped on the edge of the vast plain that stretches from Brescia to Mantua, near a village called Solferino, whose eleventh-century tower, known to the soldiers as 'Italy's spy', could be seen for many miles in every direction.
The order to attack came at dawn on 24 June. Three hundred thousand soldiers, the Austrians under their yellow and black flags emblazoned with the Imperial Eagle, the French to the sound of drums and bugles, faced each other across a sixteen-kilometre front. The men were, for the most part, exhausted by many days of forced marches, hungry, thirsty and hot in their thick uniforms. They had had very little to eat. The two armies were on the whole evenly matched; the Austrians had fewer men, but more horses and cannon. Both had emperors at their head; Napoleon III as commander-in-chief of the Allied forces and the twenty-eight-year-old Franz Joseph leading the Austrians. It would be the last major European battle directed by reigning monarchs.
All day long, while the heat and the sunshine lasted, the soldiers advanced and retreated across the plain and up and down the hills, pushing their way through the rows of vines that had been strung between mulberry trees, with dust kicked up by the squadrons of cavalry and shells from the artillery on the heights raining down on them. The tower of Solferino, taken, lost, retaken, became the symbol of victory. At 4 o'clock a storm blew up, and the exhausted soldiers were drenched by heavy rain. Squalls of wind carried dust into their faces. Hail followed, then thunder and lightning. Visibility became extremely poor but when it cleared towards nightfall, it was obvious that the Austrians were in flight. Napoleon sent a telegram to Empress Eugénie: 'Great battle! Great victory!'
Among the vines, in the ditches, under the mulberry trees and around the battlements of Solferino lay more than 6,000 bodies. Well over 30,000 soldiers, equally divided between the Austrians and the Allies, had been wounded. One man in every five who had joined battle that morning was now either dead or injured. The living were agonizingly thirsty. The heavy rain had turned the few dusty tracks that criss-crossed the plain into impassable rivers of mud. There was little question of moving the wounded from where they lay to the surrounding villages. In any case, the retreating Austrians had taken every cart and horse they could find.
All battlefields have visitors; some come to loot, others to stare, a few to help the wounded. On the evening of 24 June a young Genevan businessman in a light tropical suit arrived at Solferino; later, people would talk of him as the 'man in white'. Henri Jean Dunant was thirty-one, a pious, sentimental, serious, somewhat stout young man, but full of energy. He had never seen a battlefield before. 'The stillness of the night was broken by groans, by stifled sighs of anguish and suffering,' he would later write. 'Heart-rending voices kept calling for help. Who could ever describe the, agonies of that fearful night!' To another visitor, the cries were like the 'endless, sad creaking of a door'.
Tactically, the battle of Solferino had not been markedly different from those of Magenta and Montebello. It stood apart by a particular combination of circumstances. Neither side expected to fight that day, having found themselves face to face by chance. There had been very little food or water for the soldiers; the heat had been so overwhelming that many had been forced to shed their thick, protective clothing; the few roads and paths, blocked by the storm, made outside help very difficult, and there was a desperate shortage of stretchers, ambulance wagons, orderlies and all kinds of medical equipment. The French forces had four vets for every thousand horses, but only one doctor for every thousand men, and a week before the battle one surgeon had reported that he had no instruments for amputations. 'When the sun came up on the 25th,' Dunant was to write later,
it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches to Solferino were literally thick with dead. The fields were devastated, wheat and corn lying flat on the ground, fences broken, orchards ruined; here and there were pools of blood ... All around Solferino, and especially in the village cemetery, the ground was littered with guns, knapsacks, cartridge boxes, mess tins, helmets, shakoes, fatigue caps, bells, equipment of every kind, remnants of blood-stained clothing and piles of broken weapons.
The poor wounded men ... were ghostly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look ... Others were anxious and excited by nervous strain and shaken by spasmodic trembling. Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery; and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death struggle ... Many were disfigured ... their limbs stiffened, their bodies blotched with ghastly spots, their hands clawing at the ground, their eyes staring wildly, their moustaches bristling ...
As it grew light, the villagers, who had been sheltering in their cellars for the past twenty hours, crept out to find their houses torn apart by shells and rockets. It took three days to bury the dead, in vast pits, as more and more bodies came to light in trenches, hidden under uprooted trees, or buried under piles of earth. In the June heat, the stench from the dead horses and men was overwhelming.
But it was the living who most preoccupied Dunant. As he wandered among the wounded soldiers, who kept calling out to him for water, surrounded by muddy pools filled with blood, he began to realize how very little attention anyone was paying them. There was no one to carry them away, and nowhere to carry them to. What doctors and orderlies had been found were already operating in the few buildings that still afforded shelter. In the hours that followed, as very slowly the wounded, who vastly outnumbered the local inhabitants, were carried to the villages to lie in churches, convents and in the open roads, Dunant set to work. He gathered together a group of local women, organizing them into teams to take food and water to the wounded; he set them to wash the 'bleeding, vermin-covered bodies', so that their wounds could be treated; he collected whatever fresh lint and linen he could find; he directed small boys to fetch water in buckets, 'canteens and waterpots' for the thirsty. On Monday 27 June he despatched his coachman to Brescia, to buy lemons, camomile, sugar, shirts, consommé, sponges, cigars, pins and tobacco. Making his base in the nearby vast neo-classical Chiesa Maggiore of Castiglione, where 500 men were by now laid out along the aisles with another hundred on the terrace outside, he pressed into service a retired naval officer, four English tourists, '3 or 4 travellers', a Parisian journalist, a young French count and a chocolate manufacturer from Neuchâtel called Philippe Suchard. Soon, these people were dressing wounds, fetching water, writing farewell letters to the families of dying men. By now, the village of Castiglione had over 10,000 casualties, many with multiple wounds from bullet, bayonet and sabre, some of them still awaiting attention even four days after the battle. Such was the exhaustion of the few surgeons that two fainted, and one was able to continue operating only if two soldiers held up his arms. Four million surgical dressings, which had been sent from France, were found after the war sealed in cases and intact.
Dunant was pleased to observe that following his lead all the helpers, as he put it, had quite forgotten the nationality of the men they tended; they were, as he put it, 'tutti fratelli', all brothers now. That same day, 27 June, Dunant found time to write a slightly self-regarding but eloquent letter, describing how he had seen, every fifteen minutes over the past three days, 'the soul of a man leave this world in the grip of unimaginable agony,' and send it to the Comtesse Valérie de Gasparin in Geneva, a woman known for her public-spiritedness and who had launched an appeal for funds and medical equipment at the time of the Crimean war six years earlier. The Countess was so moved by his account that she turned a précis of his words into a call for clothes, tobacco and medicines, which appeared in the Journal de Genève on 9 July. A rich Genevan called Adrien Naville and four theological students volunteered to serve, and donations poured in.
In Castiglione the chaos continued. Efforts to impose order were interrupted when a rumour spread that the Austrians were returning; in the ensuing panic, horses bolted, stretchers were overturned, the wounded crushed. 'Oh the agony and suffering of those days,' Dunant would write.
Wounds were infected by the heat and dust, by shortage of water and lack of proper care ... The convoys brought a fresh contingent of wounded men into Castiglione every quarter of an hour, and the shortage of assistants, orderlies and helpers was cruelly felt ... With faces black with the flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed around them, wild-eyed and helpless. Others were no more than a worm-ridden, inextricable compound of coal and shirt and flesh and blood.
Beyond the application of camomile, water and the donation of cigars, there was often very little to be done. In the middle of the nineteenth century, nothing was understood about the nature of germs and antiseptics. And though ether and chloroform had both been discovered, they were virtually unknown outside the main civilian hospitals. Surgery after a battle mostly came down to two very simple questions: whether or not to amputate, and how soon to do so.
On his rounds, Dunant came across a twenty-year-old corporal, Claudius Mazuet. The young man had a bullet lodged in his left side and understood perfectly that he was about to die. Dunant was to describe this scene with some care: 'When I had helped him to drink, he thanked me, and added with tears in his eyes: "Oh sir, if you could write to my father to comfort my mother!" I noted his parents' address, and a moment later he had ceased to live.' Some months went by before Dunant was able to trace them in Lyon, where he learnt that the young corporal had been their only son. 'The only news they received of him,' he recorded, 'was that which I gave them.' This gesture of Dunant's would prove important in the years to come.
By the evening of the 27th, Dunant had had enough. 'Worn out with fatigue, and unable to sleep a wink', he called his coachman and set off at 6 o'clock to 'breathe the fresh evening air in the open.' By 9 pm he was in the village of Cavriana, where Napoleon III had slept after his victory, occupying the bed that Franz Joseph had vacated that morning. That night, Dunant slept for a few hours at Borghetto, another village in the plain, returning next morning to Cavriana and then to Castiglione. By now, those whose limbs had been amputated too late were dead of gangrene. The survivors were being ferried by ox cart and a few private carriages to nearby towns, where private houses had been turned into temporary hospitals, and whose inhabitants had volunteered to help with the nursing. By 30 June, Dunant was in Brescia, where he distributed more tobacco and wrote letters to the families of the wounded men.
In later life, Dunant went to some lengths to muddy the record of his exact movements during the aftermath of battle of Solferino. Neither the timing nor the intent had been altogether as he would have wished them, even if he was to write a little defiantly in his memoirs many years later, 'Certainly, I was a tourist, but a tourist much concerned with questions about humanity.' For Dunant had come to Solferino not as a concerned citizen to help wounded soldiers, but as the president of an ailing industrial enterprise in search of Napoleon III who, he felt, could alone salvage what was left of his scheme to turn a stretch of North Africa into a bread basket for Europe. That spring, the lack of water for his corn at Mons-Djémila in Algeria and his need for backing had become desperate and only powerful sponsors could now save him from ruin. Dunant had been told that the Emperor was to be found near the battlefield and there, in his white suit, he had gone to seek him bearing a handsomely printed book he had written called The Empire of Charlemagne Restored, a homage to the Emperor in which he described Napoleon III as the successor to Romulus and a 'new Cyrus'. Dunant came with good recommendations from well-placed French military men. Distracted for a while by a genuine sense of shock and pity at Solferino, he pressed on afterwards to Castiglione, Cavriana and Borghetta in pursuit of the Emperor, and though he had failed to obtain an audience he was able to leave with assurances from Charles Robert, Napoleon's civil attaché that his book would be delivered. He also took the opportunity to tell the French Marshal MacMahon made Duke of Magenta for his role in the campaign of the terrible condition of the wounded and to obtain from the French promises that the captured Austrian doctors would be allowed to help their overwhelmed French colleagues.
Peace was settled rapidly between the Austrians and the Allies. The French were now being threatened by the Prussians on their exposed northern and eastern flanks and in any case the soldiers were exhausted by two months' campaigning in great heat. Both emperors expressed horror at the number of dead and the agony of the wounded. By the terms of the Armistice, drawn up in a school playground at Villafranca on 11 July, Franz Joseph accepted the loss of Lombardy and an end to Austrian hegemony in northern Italy, while Napoleon III agreed not to press on into the Veneto.
By this time, Dunant was back in Geneva attending to his muddled affairs. A note from Charles Robert informed him that Napoleon III did not wish to see the book dedicated to him, and his application for a concession for a second waterfall to irrigate his parched corn at Mons-Djémila was turned down. The livestock he had bought were dying of thirst. But because what he had seen had truly appalled him, and he continued to be haunted by the dying soldiers for whom so little had been done, he sat down in 1861, once his business had collapsed, to write about the battle of Solferino. Dunant was an inspired reporter and he held nothing back. His descriptions are vivid and memorable. Much of his book was an account of the horrors he had witnessed, the 'sheer butchery', the 'crushing of skulls, ripping bellies open with sabre and bayonet', the terrors of the dying, the moans of the wounded, amputations without anaesthetic, the dying words of countless brave men, the selflessness of his team of Lombardy women. But he also used his book to put into words the questions that had come to obsess him. The last few pages contain, almost in its entirety, an idea that was soon to sweep the capitals of Europe. Why, asked Dunant, could societies of volunteers not be set up in peacetime to be ready to help the wounded when wars broke out? And why not at the same time draw up 'some international principles, conventional and sacred, which once agreed and ratified would form the basis for these national societies to help the wounded in different countries of Europe?'
A Memory of Solferino was finished in October 1862. In his memoirs many years later Dunant would say that, while at work on his book, 'I was as it were lifted out of myself, dominated by a superior power, and inspired by the breath of God.' He oversaw the drawing of a map of the battle formations, then sent the manuscript to be printed at his own expense by Jules-Guillaume Fick, who charged him 2,407.50 francs, of which 256.50 were for the 342 hours he had spent on the numerous 'author's corrections'. The 1,600 copies he ordered, destined at first mainly for friends and acquaintances, were not for sale. But when favourable responses began to come in, he sent his remaining copies off to publishers in Paris, Turin, St Petersburg and Leipzig, asking them to be distributed first to the protagonists of Solferino then, as he grew bolder, to princes, ministers of war, generals and kings.
Dunant's instinct that his book was both shocking and timely was right. A Memory of Solferino was greeted everywhere with admiration, horror and guilt. People had written of battles before, of course, but not with such a sense of indignation and revulsion. Speeches were delivered, lectures given; from their pulpits, priests spoke of Dunant as a man whose name deserved to enter history. In France and Germany, throughout Holland and Prussia, Dunant was referred to as a poet, a philosopher, a literary genius, a man de coeur, of vision, of inspiration, of initiative. Generals, doctors, writers and statesmen all wrote to congratulate him. 'You have created the greatest work of the century,' wrote Ernest Renan, the French historian and writer, 'Europe maybe will stand in dire need of it.' Victor Hugo told him that he had performed a great deed for humanity. The Imperial Medical Society of the Caucasus among many others welcomed him as a new member. 'These pages are sublime,' announced the Goncourt brothers. 'It is better a thousand times better than Homer ... After this book, the reader curses war.' And if a few recipients foolishly wrote before reading what Dunant had written a banker called Etienne Rivoire assured him that the first pages 'provide a charming recreation for country evenings' far more took Comtesse de Gasparin's line. She had wept, she said, while she read; Dunant's devotion to God had lit up 'the most sombre pages with a serene glow'.
And throughout the courts of Europe, the royal families were full of admiration. Dunant's first royal blessing came from the Queen Mother of the Netherlands, who praised him for a work so 'eminently philanthropic and Christian'. After this came messages from Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, Franz Joseph of Austria, the Queen of Prussia, the King of Württemberg, and Queen Isabella of Spain. Dunant's book was indeed, as the Journal de Genève put it in February 1863 after the publication of a third edition, 'a great and beautiful idea'. That same month, Saint-Marc Girardin recounted Dunant's story in the prestigious Journal des Débats, read widely throughout European society; and his fame was assured.
When the contributor to Baedeker arrived in Geneva in the 1860s on one of his periodic tours of inspection, he was not altogether impressed. True, there were fine tree-lined quays along the lake front, a Jardin Anglais had just been opened, the gilded domes of the new Russian church, put up with contributions from the Russian imperial family, gleamed brightly over the town, and the old buildings and steep, crooked streets were being knocked down in the approved Haussmann manner to make way for imposing neo-classical hotels and specialized streets, one for bankers, another for lawyers. But anything of any note, the inspector observed in a somewhat disapproving tone, could easily be seen in less than a day. And though Geneva possessed what were reputed to be the best hotels in the world, the local wine served in them was a 'source of such vexation' that travellers were urged to sample more expensive vineyards. Better, said Baedeker, to pause only briefly in the city, glancing at the romanesque cathedral of St Pierre and at the Hôtel de Ville, built in the 'Florentine style', before setting off to walk in the mountains with a guide, though he conceded that a trip on one of the new steamboats along the lake provided excellent views of the well-to-do villas with their gardens leading down to the water. At Ferney, just over the border in France, omnibus passengers were advised to look up at Voltaire's villa and the church he had built with its impudent inscription Deo Execit Voltaire though here Baedeker became stern. Voltaire had been, the guide noted, a man 'whose stupendous talents exercised so great, though injurious, an influence over the age in which he lived'. Only the lake of Geneva itself came in for unreserved praise, with its water a unique shade of blue ascribed by the British scientist Sir Humphry Davy to iodine, a speculation much contested by Swiss naturalists its twenty-one different species of fish, many of them delicious to eat, and the woods of sweet and wild chestnut, walnut and magnolia, vines and cedars of Lebanon, which covered its shores.
At the time Dunant settled down to write A Memory of Solferino the city of Calvin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was expanding at great speed, though a quarter of its 60,000 or so inhabitants were 'aliens', as foreigners were known, many of them descended from families who had settled there when Geneva was one of the few cities to welcome free-thinkers and revolutionaries. Though it had never quite lost the stamp of Calvin's austere regime, Geneva in 1860 was a curious mixture of piety and fermenting social ideas. Home to Pastor Louis Gaussen of the fashionable Reveil movement, who preached according to the teachings of the Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane interpreting history in the light of scriptural prophecy, it remained both curiously ignorant of current intellectual movements in other parts of Europe and resolutely open to social reform. A strong spirit of humanitarianism was taking root among people who regarded themselves as enlightened conservatives. Pacifism, the abolition of slavery, the freeing of serfs, were all topics much discussed in the salons along the lake and in the old city, and much reported in the Journal des Débats. The city's many philanthropic institutions, orphanages, hospices, homes for former prisoners and refuges for repentant prostitutes were to quadruple from forty-five to over 200 during the nineteenth century. Dominated by an aristocracy of families dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a scholarly élite who took pride in the city's achievements in philosophy and theology, and particularly in the natural sciences, Geneva was prosperous, serious, hard-working and for the most part piously Christian. As were most of the towns in this mountainous landlocked country which acted as guardian to Europe's natural trans-A1pine routes. Switzerland's constitution, like its position, would prove crucial in the story of Dunant's dream. About half the size of Scotland, the Swiss Confederation of twenty-two cantons and almost 3,000 communes was traditionally neutral, its absolute neutrality sanctioned by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and confirmed by the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, since when its borders had remained stable and its laws of asylum welcoming for people at times of unrest.
Dunant belonged to one of Geneva's prosperous old families. His father was Jean-Jacques Dunant, rising merchant, superintendent of an orphanage and supervisor of prisons. His mother, Anne-Antoinette, was the daughter of Henri Colladon, a city councillor and mayor of Avully in the Rhône valley. Jean-Henri, as he was christened, although he was always known as Henri, was sent at the age of ten to Geneva's most prestigious school, the Collège de Genève, founded by Calvin. He started well, but by the age of fourteen was so far behind in his studies that it was judged more sensible to move him to live with a pastor, whose wife was a teacher, before sending him as apprentice to the banking house of Lullin et Sautter. About his schooling Dunant was later to say that he did not care for boisterous games, but preferred to read books that transported his imagination to distant adventures. 'He kept a diary,' he was to write in his memoirs, referring to himself in the third person, 'which was remarkable, and demonstrated his early literary talents'. Not that he ever said very much about his childhood, beyond painting a lyrical picture of his many visits to his grandparents' house at Avully where they bred pigs and cows, kept poultry, and where wonderful picnics were had, with many strawberries and wild berries. 'At the age of ten,' he once said, 'I was a little aristocrat, and entirely respectful of aristocracy.'
The Dunants' own house was called La Monnaie in Petit Saconnex on the outskirts of Geneva, with views over the lake and to Mont Blanc, and cannot have been altogether disagreeable. Jean-Jacques loved rare trees and planted a great many in his garden, along with conifers and fruit trees of every variety, especially plums. From time to time Anne-Antoinette would invite the girls from the orphanage to spend a 'few happy hours among its flowers and shrubs', under the supervision of their headmistress. From the windows of La Monnaie, the young Dunant could see the coach set out for Lausanne, laden down with cases, and hear the distant sound of the coachman's horn. Other children were born, two brothers and two sisters. At the age of eight, Dunant was taken by his father to inspect a number of Swiss prisoners held in Toulon in France, and well into old age he would describe his sense of horror at seeing the men shackled to one another as they broke up stones in the road. From childhood he had 'experienced a keen compassion for the unhappy, the humble, the weak and the oppressed,' he wrote later.
What Dunant lacked in scholarliness, he made up for in piety. The Reveil movement, urgent and prophetic, with its mission to revive the faith and the true spirit of the early church, was made for him. He loved the well-attended services at the new oratory in the rue Tabazon. By the time he was nineteen he was an enthusiastic member of what was shortly to become the Christian Association of Geneva, a group of young men in their late teens and early twenties who met every Thursday evening at the Evangelical Society to discuss the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, or tramped the hills above the city repeating the teachings of Pastor Gaussen. The language of their conversation and their writings was eager, even fervent. By 1851, Dunant was on the committee of the Evangelical Alliance, a movement of Christians who preached religious commitment and tolerance. Soon, he was in touch with other Christian Associations in other countries, travelling to meet their members, and working towards the first World Conference that took place in Paris in 1855. Not surprising, then, to find him a keen admirer of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had made her world famous by the time he met her during her visit to Geneva in 1853. Dunant was by now the author of a first book, Notes on the Regency of Tunisia, a passionate attack on the American slave trade, full of colourful accounts of slave auctions and manhunts, culled from newspapers from the American South, interspersed with serious, somewhat plodding facts about the geography and ethnology of North Africa.
Though Dunant willingly gave his Sundays to reading travel stories to the prisoners in Geneva's gaol, he was not only serious-minded. He went to the occasional ball or reception, as he reported in the few letters to his grandparents that survive, and he evidently enjoyed picnics. Photographs of him in his early twenties show a well-dressed young man, with hair cut short and a small moustache; his face is open, agreeable, almost childlike, but not altogether joyful. He has the look of a mild schoolmaster.
In 1853, Dunant accepted an offer to replace Baron de Gingins-la-Sarraz as head of the Compagnie Genèvoise des Colonnes de Sétif in Algeria, which was associated with the banking firm of Lullin et Sauter and had received from the French government, by imperial decree, a concession of 50,000 acres with which to promote colonization. He left for North Africa at once. Reports reaching home soon suggested that he could be a little hasty in his judgements, making decisions based on little more than enthusiasm, a feeling echoed by one of his friends in the Christian Association, Max Perrot who, writing to his brother in Paris, commented: 'What a pity he has no judgement. With judgement he would be pure gold. His energy and zeal are astonishing.' Though Dunant kept up his missionary fervour, distributing copies of the Bible in Arabic on his travels, he was quickly entranced by the spectacle of North Africa, by this apparently pagan and primitive land, and as quickly seduced by the fortunes visibly being made around him. A first venture of his own, the purchase of a load of timber which he sold on at satisfactory profit, produced congratulations from Geneva. Dunant now fell in with a young man from Württemberg called Henri Nick. Nick was married to a niece of a rich Parisian banking family, the Lauronts, and was making his way in Sétif as a corn dealer and land agent. Eager to repeat his timber success, Dunant proposed to his employers that they lease him part of their concession; he intended to grow corn and build a mill. While they deliberated, he began to raise money in Geneva, extravagantly promising fortunes in shares, and although capital was forthcoming, the trust of his employers was not. In 1856, the Compagnie Genèvoise terminated his contract.
One of the people to whom Dunant had sent an early copy of A Memory of Solferino was General Guillaume Henri Dufour, hero of the Sønderbond when the secessionist Catholic cantons were defeated in 1847 and a man widely admired throughout Switzerland as military strategist, writer, politician and engineer. He was also a humane and thoughtful man, instructing his men before the battle:
If a body of enemy troops is repulsed, give to the wounded the same care as you would give to your own men; treat them with all the forbearance due to one who is stricken ... After the battle, restrain the fury of your troops; spare the vanquished ... People should say of you: they fought courageously when they had to, but remained generous and humane throughout.
Dufour was now seventy-six, a scholarly, independent-minded figure with a somewhat pointed face and pleasingly mischievous eyes, known as a staunch supporter of asylum in Switzerland for political refugees, providing they renounce all political activities. In the years since the Sønderbund, he had overseen the building of the new Pont des Bergues in the middle of Geneva, brought gas lighting to the city, launched steamboats on the lake and drawn up a map of Switzerland. He was an expert on trains and a fervent Bonapartist, Louis-Napoleon having been his pupil at military college, and from a young age had been convinced that neutrality was the only possible position for Switzerland, but that to have its neutrality respected it needed a strong army. Dunant and Dufour were acquaintances from meetings of the Geographical Society to which both belonged and Dufour had evidently thought well enough of the younger man to write a letter of recommendation for him over the ill-fated Mons-Djemila project.
On receiving A Memory of Solferino, Dufour was impressed. On 19 October 1862, he sent Dunant a friendly note. 'It is most important that people read accounts like yours so that they can see what the glory of the battlefield costs in terms of pain and tears. We are all too ready to see only the brilliant side of war, and to shut our eyes to its sad consequences.' Dunant, enchanted by the support of so eminent a figure, hastened to Fick and had the General's words of praise printed as an afterword to his memoir. He did not, however, include the entire letter. For while agreeing with Dunant's overall idea that volunteers should and could be recruited to help the wounded at times of war, Dufour very much doubted that any such corps could be made permanent. 'You need a crisis,' his letter had gone on to say, 'to spark off such devotion.'
More importantly for future developments was the interest taken in Dunant's words by a lawyer and philanthropist called Gustave Moynier. Descended from Geneva shoemakers, merchants and bankers and author of a life of the apostle Paul, Moynier was thirty-seven, two years older than Dunant; the two had met at receptions in their youth. He was austere, driven and possessed of considerable self-importance; he was to have a determining effect not just on Dunant's personal future but on the future of his ideas. A stocky figure, with a large moustache that wound around his chin and cheeks and a fixed stare, Moynier was seldom seen to laugh. He could be touchy and jealous, and expressed extreme dislike for those he branded mere 'humanitarian dreamers' and 'philanthropic dilettantes'. But he was dogged, and in 1863 he was in search of a cause. In a rare and touching passage of self-revelation written many years later, he said that his legal studies in Geneva and Paris had left him with a narrow lawyer's mind devoid of all originality, extremely shy, and prone to doubt everything except the infallibility of the law. He had long been involved with Geneva's philanthropic institutions his forty different interests ranged from prison to alcoholism and orphans and he was currently president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, a private institution concerned with social reform, where his talents as an organizer had won him much admiration. In his writing, as in all else, he was precise, brief and cool. But he had no appetite for litigation, much preferring analysis and statistics and this, together with his failure to make an impact with a thesis on Roman law, had driven him away from the bar.
A few days after receiving his copy of A Memory of Solferino, Moynier went to call on Dunant. He carried with him an invitation to discuss his ideas before the next meeting of the Public Welfare Society, a place in which Geneva's philanthropic and utilitarian spirit found true expression. (Many of its 180 members had read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and been educated in Paris and Heidelberg, and all shared a belief that it was possible, with sufficient hard work and Christian commitment, to improve education, reduce poverty and 'reclaim' erring citizens from alcoholism and prostitution.) Present would be General Dufour, a former president of the society, and another acquaintance of Dunant's, a forty-five-year-old doctor called Louis Appia, a taciturn and brooding man fascinated since his earliest days with medical surgery and war wounds. Appia, like Dunant, had visited the battlefields in Lombardy, but he had gone there to see for himself the terrible injuries caused by the new dum-dum bullets, and stayed on to attend the wounded, before returning to Geneva to write a paper on the treatment of fractures and talk about his belief that the physical healing of injured soldiers was influenced by their morale. Like Dunant, Appia had left the battlefield appalled at the inadequacy of the medical services and he too had appealed in Geneva for supplies. Like Dunant, Appia was pious and philanthropic but he was also wealthy, having married a rich wife.
The meeting of the Public Welfare Society on 9 February 1863 was held as usual on the ground floor of the Casino de Saint-Pierre, one of Geneva's cultural centres and home to many charitable societies. The agenda included one item on a popular new edition of French classics and another on the founding of an agricultural colony for delinquent children. In between came a proposal to discuss the provision of a 'corps of volunteer nurses for armies at war (conclusion of M. Henri Dunant's book, entitled A Memory of Solferino)'. Of the 160 or so members of the society, fourteen attended that day. After reading extracts from Dunant's book, Moynier suggested that the idea should be submitted to the International Charity Congress, due to take place in Berlin in October. Dunant sketched out his plans. What he had in mind, he told his audience, was not simply sending volunteer nurses to the battlefield, but the improvement of methods of transporting the wounded, as well as the care of soldiers in hospital. What was more, he dreamed of having a permanent committee, if possible under the patronage of Europe's crowned heads, working to make it easier to despatch relief in wartime without customs duties, a committee that would also be able to draw up a covenant, signed by all civilized powers, which would agree to adhere to some basic code of behaviour in wartime.
No one that February afternoon seemed particularly enthusiastic, though Dr Théodore Maunoir, a friend of Appia's and something of a mentor to him in Geneva's medical world, did comment that he had long felt the ambulance services to be defective. Descended from a family of doctors, Maunoir was neither an orator nor a writer but he had a quick, often caustic wit and he worked extremely hard. Unlike the others, he had never had any private money and there was mystery in his past: he had married the widow of a writer called Paul-Louis Commer, who had been murdered in unexplained circumstances for which his wife had been arrested, charged with the crime, then exonerated.
The meeting adjourned with an agreement that a working party be set up to investigate Dunant's idea further.
Moynier, at least, was intrigued. On 17 February the five designated working-party members Moynier, Dunant, Dufour, Appia and Maunoir met again. This time they decided to turn themselves into an International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, of which Dufour was to be president, Moynier vice-president and Dunant secretary. The background of the group was crucial. All five men belonged to Geneva's oldest, most prosperous families, active over many generations in the law, medicine, the army and politics, and three of them Dufour, Moynier and Appia were rich enough not to have to work. All were Protestant and practising Christians and shared Dunant's feelings about the ethics of war, 'the moral sense of the importance of human life, the humane desire to lighten a little the torments' of the wounded.
The five men had long been supporters, to a greater or lesser extent, of the conservative Council representing the cantons Dunant's father and grandfather had both been members and were out of sympathy with the radical new politics of Jean James Fazy, an ardent follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his call for a new constitution and elected government. They felt distanced from power, their political exile making their need and desire for a role all the greater. And though between them they spanned three generations, from Dufour at seventy-six to Dunant at thirty-five, they knew each other socially, having met in church, at social gatherings and at meetings. All would prove susceptible to flattery, with a definite taste for medals, decorations and honours. But while similar in background and outlook, they were very different in character. Moynier was cautious, shrewd and a superb organizer, an admirer of the Old Testament prophets and fascinated by St Paul, Dunant was impetuous and imprudent, Maunoir humorous and retiring and Appia gloomy, a little truculent and reputed to be a ladies' man. Over them presided the sensible and good-tempered General Dufour.
During the spring and early summer of 1863, the committee made rapid progress. Dufour's experience, as well as his innate generosity of spirit, coloured many of their deliberations. The fact that he had himself once been wounded and captured while fighting for France against the British, and then returned to France in a prisoner-of-war exchange, made his remarks all the more pertinent. Dufour, who had by now swung round to Dunant's idea of a permanent corps of voluntary helpers, proposed some kind of badge, uniform or armlet to distinguish the band of auxiliaries. Maunoir, asked to formulate specific proposals, outlined the idea of a corps of male nurses subject to the military authorities but not paid by them, to remain at the ready to help, but who would 'cause no embarrassment, create no hindrance'. Borrowing what he believed to be an English phrase, he suggested that the Committee should 'get up an agitation', in order to gain the support of 'the rulers of Europe as well as the masses'.
When, at their third meeting in August, news came that the Berlin Charities Conference had been cancelled, it was Moynier who suggested calling a conference of their own in October, asking states to send delegates to Geneva to consider this question of volunteer relief societies, and Dunant who proposed a tour of European capitals to drum up support among the military and the royal princes. Dunant had been further inspired by a letter from a Dutch military doctor called S. H. C. Basting, who had been so taken by A Memory of Solferino that he had already translated it into Dutch and now longed to meet its author. 'I really believe that in this cause you are carrying out God's work,' he had written to Dunant on 3 March, suggesting that they attend a second Berlin conference together, this time of statisticians, but relevant in that one session was to be devoted to the health and illness statistics among civilians and the military. Could they not meet in Berlin first?
The two men met at the Hotel Töpfer in Berlin early in September. Fired by each other's ideas, they talked far into the night about the necessity of removing casualties as fast as possible from the battlefield and of carrying out operations rapidly. But how were doctors and medical personnel, wearing the uniforms of their regiments and thus indistinguishable from fighting men, to be protected from attack? Their exact conversation is not recorded, but it seems that it was Dunant who now had one of those sudden and elusive ideas that in retelling seem so obvious. Why, he asked, should medical personnel not be made neutral?. Why not get states to agree to return all doctors and nurses to their own armies after patching up the wounded, so that they could continue their work? The remainder of the night was spent drafting their speech for the statistical conference, in which they proposed a status of neutrality for all medical personnel and, when they delivered the speech the following day, their ideas for neutrality and for a voluntary corps of helpers were greeted with approval. After the meeting, with characteristic impetuousness, Dunant wrote a supplement on neutrality to add to the International Committee's original proposals, and sent it off to everyone who had been invited to the October meeting in Geneva.
Dunant's next few weeks were frantically busy. Using money borrowed from friends, and hiring secretaries to help him, he hurried from one European capital to another. Having canvassed the German minister for war, Albrecht von Roon, in Berlin, and won his approval, he moved on to Vienna to see the Archduke Rainer, head of the permanent imperial council, who told him his idea was 'magnificent', and to Munich, to persuade General Frankh, the Bavarian minister of war, to support him. Of all his royal audiences, he would retain the most pleasant memories of his meeting with the King of Saxony in Dresden who, as he rose to go, announced gravely: 'A nation which did not join this work of humanity would fall to the. bottom of European public opinion.' Dunant returned home with a list of 'august protectors'.
Back in Geneva only a few days before the October meeting, he was momentarily troubled over his failure to consult his partners about the idea of neutrality. He asked Moynier for his opinion. Moynier's answer has been quoted often. 'We thought,' he is said to have replied, in a dry and somewhat chilly tone, 'that you were asking the impossible.' Dufour said nothing.
Their caution turned out to be misplaced. Europe's ministers of war had already expressed a desire to limit the evils of war in the Treaty of Paris of 1856, and shown sympathy for the idea of arbitration. They were now equally taken by Dunant's dream, bold as it was. They were being asked to endorse a proposal quite unlike any that had come their way before and agree to a covenant that rose above the right of nations to make war. There was nothing pacifist about these men; on the contrary, they all represented essentially war-loving nations. But Dunant had been right. Militaristic they might be, but in a particular way. Like Dufour, they wanted 'civilized' and 'humane' war, which could be invoked or set aside as a political instrument.
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