Today is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, an annual celebration of the principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. World Red Cross Red Crescent Day is celebrated on 8 May each year because it is the anniversary of the birth of Jean-Henri Dunant (1828), the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. The first Red Cross Day was celebrated on 8 May 1948. The official title of the day has changed over time, and it became “World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day” in 1984. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is an enduring symbol of hope for peace, especially in times of war when the various societies act to provide aid to those in war zones and prison camps.
Most people are aware of the work of the Red Cross Movement, even if only from movies of prisoner of war camps during World Wars I & II where they delivered letters from home, provided care packages, and visited prisoners to ensure they were being treated according to the standards of the Geneva Convention. Such work continues to this day. To celebrate the day I’d like to sketch out a little of the history of the founding of the International Red Cross, the first of many such relief organizations.
Until the middle of the 19th century, there were no organized or well-established army nursing systems for casualties, and no safe and protected institutions to accommodate and treat those who were wounded on the battlefield. In June 1859, the Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant traveled to Italy to meet French emperor Napoléon III with the intention of discussing difficulties in conducting business in Algeria, at that time occupied by France. When he arrived in the small town of Solferino on the evening of June 24, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, an engagement in the Austro-Sardinian War. In a single day, about 40,000 soldiers on both sides died or were left wounded on the field. Dunant was shocked by the terrible aftermath of the battle, the suffering of the wounded soldiers, and the near-total lack of medical attendance and basic care. He completely abandoned the original intent of his trip and for several days he devoted himself to helping with the treatment and care for the wounded. He succeeded in organizing an overwhelming level of relief assistance by