Almost anybody that is involved with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement knows what the battle of Solferino is. It was there, in that little town in Italy, that Swiss businessman Henry Dunant saw the brave and courageous women of Castiglione taking care of soldiers who lay wounded and dying on the battlefield. Their actions inspired him and gave the idea that led to the birth of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, now the largest humanitarian network in the world. Up until the mid-19th century, there were no organized and well-established army nursing systems for causalities and no safe and protected institutions to accommodate and treat those who were wounded on the battlefield. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement changed that.
In June 1859 Swiss businessman Henry Dunant travelled to Italy to meet French emperor Napoleon III to discuss the difficulties to conduct business in Algeria, which was under French occupation then. On the night of 24 June 1859 he arrived to the small town of Solferino and witnessed the battle between the French-Italian (Piedmont) and the Austrian armies. In one single day, around 40.000 soldiers on both sides died or were left wounded on the field. A horrible sight that affected the local community directly.
– The women of Castiglione, Italy
The women didn’t hesitate and helped the wounded soldiers accepting human pain beyond uniforms
The people of Castiglione, a little town not far from Solferino, saw the thousands of wounded soldiers laying on the battlefield. The villagers, and especially the women, didn’t hesitate: they started to assist the wounded men, piously accepting human pain beyond banners, uniforms and incomprehensible languages. Soon streets, squares, churches and homes became improvised aiding posts. Everybody was put to work to help the people in need.
Henry Dunant witnessed the humanitarian spirit of the locals and helped them organize the support. He was shocked by the aftermath of the battle, the suffering of the wounded soldiers and the near-total lack of medical attendance and basic care. He neglected his meeting with Napoleon and devoted the rest of his time there to help organising the treatment and care for the wounded. Back home in Geneva he wrote the famous book ‘Un souvenir de Solférino. From there he started his journey to set up the First Geneva Convention for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field.
Already back then, the women of Castiglione showed initiative, courage and strength. Their spirits have been role models for the Volunteers of the Red Cross and Red Crescent ever since.
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