Dunant, war correspondent, citizen journalist

Dunant, war correspondent, citizen journalist - © ICRC

Dunant, war correspondent, citizen journalist - © ICRC

October 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry Dunant's A Memory of Solferino, the foundational text of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and of the ICRC.

The battle of Solferino was fought in northern Italy in June 1859 and left around 6,000 men dead and 35,000 wounded or missing. It was a decisive episode in the struggle for Italian unification and a pivotal moment in the history of humanitarian action. 

The battle led Dunant to publish A Memory of Solferino, a graphic account of what had witnessed and, with the help of the local population, done. The book is also a manifesto, calling for the creation of a neutral and impartial organization to protect and assist the war wounded and of voluntary relief societies to care for the injured – an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of the ICRC and the formation of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Remarkably, Dunant also proposed that an international principle be created to serve as the basis for these societies, an idea that developed into the Geneva Conventions.

“If we still remember Henry Dunant today… it is first and foremost because he reported on what he had seen," ICRC President Peter Maurer wrote on the book's anniversary. "Unable to forget the cries, the suffering and the heartache that never ceased to haunt him, he bore witness in a book that had a profound impact on the age in which he lived."

Widely recognized as the founder of modern humanitarianism, Henry Dunant was arguably also the first embedded war correspondent and citizen journalist.

Former delegate, Assembly member, historian and Intercross contributor François Bugnon examines Dunant's text and reflects on its author's activism:

An artefact of its time

A Memory of Solferino was published in 1862. There is a certain degree of uncertainty regarding the accurate date but it was either the very last days of October or the very first days of November 1862. The book itself is really striking. It starts with a description of the battle, which is typical of military histories published at the time. In a way, Dunant imitates the style of the military historians of his generation, of his time, of the 19th century. But then, suddenly, the narrative changes completely. It is no more a story about flags and drums and the courage of the troops, it is now a story about the fate of the wounded. And it is a very realistic description of the fate of the wounded or rather of the abandonment of wounded soldiers left to die on the battlefield or in makeshift hospitals. And then, the book becomes a call to action, ending with concrete proposals, Dunant's great twin ideas. On one hand proposing that relief societies be set up, and, on the other, proposing the adoption of a treaty protecting the volunteers of those relief societies and of medical services on the battlefield. So you had really three different segments in the book. The first one is a very brilliant description of the battle. The second one a very realistic description of the fate of the wounded and then comes the call to action.

There had of course been many previous descriptions of battles. In the western canon, the Illiad is for example partly about battle. Warfare is of course an important part of the Enaid. And in 19th century litterature, you have very famous descriptions of war: the battle of Waterloo in Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme and in Hugo's Les Misérables, which by the way, is absolutely contemporary to Dunant's book. The difference, and it is a signiciant one, is that Dunant places the wounded at the center of his description, of his reporting as it were. And this is a new element, one that is consonant and the product of an emerging social consciousness reflected in other literary works of the time, notably Uncle Tom's Cabin, published ten years earlier. Dunant had had the chance of meeting Ms. Beecher Stowe while she was travelling through Europe and was very impressed by her book. He was of course by conviction very strongly against slavery and was impressed by the way this woman, through the pen, through a book, had been able to raise awareness about the social condition and plight of slaves in the southern United States. 

A Memory of Solferino is still today a very valuable instance of naturalist litterature, typical of the vein prevailing in the second part of the 19th century, whether Dickens in English or Zola in French. Dickens was a contemporary of Dunant. While I am not aware that he ever described the plight of wounded soldiers in his writings, he of course played a major role in raising awareness about social conditions and struggles in Great Britain. It is noteworthy that Dickens published large sections of A Memory From Solferino in his journal All The Year Round in May 1863, barely six months after its publication in Geneva.

War correspondent/citizen journalist/master communicator

While he was in Castiglione attending the wounded, Dunant sent a letter to the Countess de Gasparin, a Geneva friend then known for having launched a subscription in favor of wounded soldiers during the Crimean war. Dunant alerted her and asked her to launch a similar effort in favor of the men wounded at Solferino. The Countess sent his letter to the Journal de Genève, a local newspaper, which immediately published it. Dunant's words resonated with the public and Mme. de Gasparin immediately started collecting money for the wounded of Solferino. 

The first edition of A Memory of Solferino was not meant to be sold. There was even a "Not For Sale" note on the cover. Dunant first sent his pamphlet to members of his own family and to close friends. He also sent it to people in positions of authority such as General Dufour, a Swiss officer who enjoyed great prestige in Europe. He very rapidly also sent the book to people he wanted to influence, namely European ministers, generals, field marshalls, writers, politicians and others with an interest in social affairs. What is striking is that during his first three years as Secretary of the Committee, Dunant actively used his book, sending it to anyone who was in position, mostly in Europe, but not only. He received many letters of support, congratulations and so on. Clearly, the book provided Dunant access to deciders, people like princes, kings, ministers, whom he would never had accessed without it.

A Memory of Solferino was, for a short time, a bestseller and it definitely did open a lot of doors for Dunant and for the ICRC. When Dunant went bankrupt in 1867, he was forced to resign from the ICRC and the organization he had founded immediately stopped using A Memory of Solferino as a communication tool. Following the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Dunant in 1901 and a publicity campaign which Dunant himself, in the last years of his life, very cleverly orchestrated, the ICRC noticed that the book was very popular, still. After Dunant's death in 1910 and at a time when the institution needed political support and financial backing, the ICRC finally rediscovered A Memory of Solferino as the powerful communication instrument it is."

From Solferino To The Birth of Contemporary International Humanitarian Law, François Bugnon, 2009: