A young Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, traveled to Solferino, Italy in 1859. He hoped to rescue his investment in an Algerian farm by asking for additional water rights from Emperor Napoleon III, who was leading the French army in Italy. At Solferino, a battle erupted between French and Austrian troops. Dunant ended up taking care of hundreds of wounded soldiers.
The experience changed the young businessman. Dunant devoted his life and fortune to the design of a system to care for wounded soldiers. His work led to the creation of the International Red Cross. The Red Cross arm band became a guarantee to men of every language that the wearer would provide help to sick or injured people without regard for nationality.
The Battle of Solferino was part of a war between Austria and France, with Italians on the side of France. Italian nationalists tried to rid themselves of an Austrian-led government by offering provinces to Napoleon III in return for military aid.
The conflict at Solferino was huge: 300,000 men fought along a battle line that was ten miles long. It was awful. Injured men lay helpless, without water to drink, under the blazing June sun for several days. The large number of casualties overwhelmed medical and nursing personnel. Henri Dunant never got to speak to Napoleon III, but he wrote a book about his experiences in Italy and it helped awaken the world’s desire to improve care for injured soldiers. From his book:
The wounded are sent to Castiglione. From there they are carried on to the hospitals in Brescia, Cremona, Bergama, Milan, and other cities of Lombardy, where they will receive care and will submit to the necessary amputations. But as the means of transportation are very scarce, they are obliged to wait several days in Castiglione. This city, where the confusion surpasses all imagination, soon becomes for the French and Austrians a vast temporary hospital. The Hospital of Castiglione, the monastery, the Barracks of San Luigi, the Church of the Capucines, the stations of the police, the churches of Maggiore, San Giuseppe, Santa Rosalie, are filled with the wounded lying crowded on the straw.
Then, melancholy scenes occur. There is water; there is food; and nevertheless the wounded are dying of hunger and thirst. There is much lint [gauze], but not enough hands to put it on the wounds! The greater number of the army of physicians must go to Cavriana; the hospital orderlies make mistakes, and hands are lacking at this critical moment. A voluntary service, good or bad, must be organized. I succeed in collecting a certain number of women of the people, who assist, as best they can, in the efforts made to help so many thousands of wounded men who are without succor. Food must be given, and above all, drink, to the men who literally are dying from hunger and thirst. Wounds must be bandaged, blood-stained bodies, covered all over with dirt and vermin, must be washed, and all this must be done in the extremely hot weather, in the midst of the suffocating, nauseating stench, and of groans and cries of pain.
The women go from one soldier to the other with jars and pitchers full of clear water, which serves to appease the thirst and to bathe the wounds. Some of these improvised nurses are good-hearted old women, others are charming young girls. Their gentleness, goodness, compassion, and their attentive care restores a little courage to the wounded. The women of Castiglione show the same kindness to all these men of such different origin and who are to them all equally strangers. “Tutti Fratelli,” they repeat with compassion. “All are brothers.”
I send my coachman to Brescia to bring back supplies. He returns after some hours with his cabriolet loaded with sponges, linen, pins, cigars, tobacco, camomile, mallow, sambuca, oranges, sugar and lemons. This makes it possible to give refreshing lemonade, wash the wounds with mallow water, put on warm compresses and renew the material of the bandages. I distribute, without distinction of nationality, tobacco, pipes and cigars in the hospitals where the tobacco lessens a little the fears of the wounded before the amputation of a limb; not a few are operated on with a pipe in the mouth.
Henri Dunant—translated by Mrs. David Wright

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