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Red Cross


organization and volunteers
in principle and in practice

Five Genevan philanthropists founded the Red Cross in 1863 in order to prevent needless suffering during war. The Red Cross promoted international agreements regulating warfare and encouraged the creation of national committees that would prepare volunteer nurses to treat wounded and sick soldiers during war. Despite its successes, the Red Cross's close relationship with national governments sometimes compromised its humanitarian goals. The organization's treatment of noncombatants and position on pacifism also remained ambiguous.


Genevan businessman Jean-Henri Dunant (1828–1910) provided the inspiration for the Red Cross after witnessing French and Italian allies fight the Austrians in the battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859. He was appalled that thousands of wounded soldiers were left to suffer on the battlefield without treatment. In 1862 he published an account of his observations and a call for action in Un Souvenir de Solférino (Memory of Solferino). The following year, four Protestant Genevan philanthropists joined Dunant to form the International Committee for Assistance to Sick and Wounded Soldiers (known as the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, by 1884). Lawyer Gustave Moynier (1826–1910) in particular worked hard to make Dunant's inspiration a reality.

On 22 August 1864 the ICRC achieved its first international victory when twelve nations signed the first Geneva Convention. This convention protected the neutrality of wounded or sick soldiers, those who tended them, and any place where they were sheltered. The convention, however, did not mention volunteer associations, as many states viewed these associations as potential threats to their authority. The convention adopted the symbol of a red cross on a white field as a means of identification. Later, the Ottoman Society (founded 1868) adopted the symbol of the Red Crescent, to distance itself from the Christian symbolism of the cross.

organization and volunteers

National committees began to form in 1864, and by 1899 thirty-seven committees had been established in countries throughout the world, including Peru (1879) and Japan (1886). National committees raised money, gathered resources, and organized and trained volunteers for service in case of war. Upper-class notables dominated many of these committees, which often formed separate "ladies' committees" run by aristocratic women. The committees varied in the amount of training they provided and generally did not prepare volunteers to become professional nurses. Some organizers claimed that women were natural nurses who required very little training.

The ICRC was initially intended to serve only as a link between the national committees, through the Bulletin (regularly appearing since 1869). However, the ICRC first sent its own volunteers into the field during the First Balkan War (1912). The ICRC was composed solely of male Genevan Protestants until 1918.

in principle and in practice

The Geneva Convention was first applied during the Austro-Prussian War (1866), but the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) was the first conflict in which both sides had signed the convention and formed national committees. Whereas German committees proved organized and prepared, the French committee had to improvise ambulances. The French and German committees tended to thousands of sick and wounded, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Red Cross. But many officers and soldiers on both sides were unfamiliar with the Geneva Convention, and scavengers took advantage of the Red Cross armband in order to rob wounded soldiers. The ICRC did not become involved in fieldwork, but instead formed an agency in Basel, Switzerland, as a liaison between the national committees and between wounded prisoners of war and their families. The ICRC furthermore established a semi-independent agency under the sign of the green cross that sent aid to nonwounded prisoners of war and compiled lists of prisoners. This agency opened the way for an expansion of the Red Cross mandate.

The Red Cross's policy on the treatment of civilians and nonwounded prisoners of war remained unclear through 1914. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the ICRC helped civilian war victims. During the Boer War (1899–1902), however, neither the ICRC nor the British Red Cross assisted Boer civilians or Black Africans caught in the British campaign to stamp out Boer resistance. In the Bulletin, the ICRC did not mention the concentration camps in which 26,000 Boer civilians died. In 1914 the ICRC formed the International Prisoners of War Agency, although the Geneva Convention did not address the treatment of prisoners of war until 1929. National Red Cross committees and the ICRC eventually also provided aid and volunteers during non-war-related emergencies, such as the Messina earthquake in Italy (1908).

Should the sight of these young invalids, deprived of an arm or a leg, who return sadly to their homes, not stir in us remorse or regret? … What is needed, therefore, are male and female volunteer nurses, who are diligent, prepared, and ready for this work, and who, recognized by army leaders during a campaign, are facilitated and supported in their mission…. In an era when one speaks so much of progress and civilization, and since unfortunately wars cannot always be avoided, is it not urgent in the spirit of humanity and true civilization to try to forestall it, or at least to soften its horrors? (author's translation)

Henry Dunant, Memory of Solferino (1862), pp.108–109, 110, 113.

The Red Cross organizations hoped to alleviate suffering, but did not oppose war itself. Both Dunant and Moynier advocated the establishment of an international arbitration tribunal. The ICRC

lobbied to place limits on warfare at international peace conferences in Brussels (1874) and at The Hague (1899 and 1907). The first Hague conference extended the Geneva Convention to include naval warfare, but a 1906 revision of the convention restricted the wartime activities of committees from neutral countries. Many Red Cross volunteers were more interested in social functions and military heroism than in tackling thorny issues of international law and working toward durable peace. Over the years, national committees became more closely tied to their national armies and thus seemed to serve national, rather than humanitarian, interests. Yet the ICRC maintained its independence from state governance. Despite these contradictions, Dunant shared the first Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1901.

See alsoGeneva Convention; Nightingale, Florence; Switzerland.


Primary Source

Dunant, Jean-Henri. Un Souvenir de Solférino. Geneva, 1862.

Secondary Sources

Harouel, Véronique. Histoire de la Croix-Rouge. Paris, 1999.

Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder, Colo., 1996.

Moorehead, Caroline. Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross. London, 1998.

Rachel Chrastil

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