The Battle You've (Probably) Never Heard of - June 24, 1859

On this day, 149 years ago, a bloody battle raged on - one that many Americans, and indeed a lot of non-Europeans, have probably never heard of: the Battle of Solferino, which took place on June 24th 1859.

It, too, was bloody, militarily decisive, and ushered in vast change. In fact, it is at the origins of the Red Cross and contemporary international humanitarian law (IHL), which places limits on how wars are waged. (IHL is often referred to as the “Law of Armed Conflict” in the US.)

The battle itself took place in northern Italy and pitted allied French and Sardinian troops against Austrian forces in a struggle over Italian unity. (The alliance won.) “It was the most horrific bloodbath Europe had known since Waterloo,” writes Francois Bugnion, a former ICRC delegate and well-known historian, who has penned more than 50 books and articles on IHL and the history of the Red Cross.

In ten short hours of fierce fighting in Solferino, more than 6,000 soldiers were killed and around 40,000 wounded as they shot, trampled, bayoneted, and slit each other's throats. “The medical services of the Franco-Sardinian armies were totally overwhelmed,” says Bugnion. “The French army had more veterinary surgeons than doctors. Transport was woefully inadequate.”

Their suffering was witnessed by a Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant, who happened upon the aftermath of the violence and wound up providing care and assistance to thousands of injured soldiers – no matter what side they had fought on. (Interestingly, it is believed that only one civilian was killed during the Battle of Solferino and historians say there was only one civilian casualty at Gettysburg. That's in stark contrast to the alarming toll armed conflicts take on civilians today.)

With the support of local women volunteers, Dunant nursed the men's wounds, gave them food and water, helped evacuate the injured, and wrote letters from the dying to their loved ones. He also appealed to well-heeled friends and associates in Geneva for funds and supplies.

Upon returning to Switzerland and haunted by what he had seen, Dunant wrote a graphic account, called “A Memory of Solferino,” which became a bestseller in its day. More importantly, it laid the foundations for the Geneva Conventions, which form the backbone of IHL.

But he didn't stop there. Dunant also put forward the idea of a neutral and impartial organization to protect and assist the war wounded, along with voluntary relief societies to care for the injured.

It was his vision that led to the creation of the ICRC and, eventually, the establishment of the world's largest humanitarian network: the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which includes, for example, the American and Canadian Red Crosses – along with 187 other National Societies.

In 1901, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize for what was described as the "supreme humanitarian achievement of the 19th century."

This is an excerpt of the original piece written by the ICRC DC'S Communications Coordinator, Anna Nelson in June 2013 - Gettysburg & Solferino: Catalysts for Change