by Susan Platt
Some business trips don’t go quite as planned. Take Henry Dunant, for example. The 31-year-old Swiss businessman from Geneva was on his way to meet with Napoleon III in Italy, to discuss water rights in Algeria, when he reached the small village of Solferino. He was met with a sight so harrowing that it would forever change his life and subsequently that of hundreds and thousands more.
Dunant arrived on the evening of 24th June 1859, the very same day that a battle of epic proportions had been raging between the allied French and Sardinian armies against the Austrians in the second Italian War of Independence. Some 300,000 soldiers, malnourished and exhausted, are believed to have fought in the sweltering heat, clad in heavy armour since before the break of dawn. By the time Dunant arrived, it was all over. After 15 hours of bloodshed, the allies had won and the armies had moved on, leaving behind some 39,000 dead and injured—whom they were unable to attend to—covering fields, roads and ditches.
A few years later, Dunant would recount the unfathomable horrors that he witnessed, down to the most gruesome and graphic details, in his book A Memory of Solferino. It takes a certain amount of self-discipline to make it through those pages, which describethe aftermath of the slaughter, telling of infected wounds in the heat and dust, and the young men shot, trampled, cut up or otherwise badly maimed, in dire need of water—of which there was barely any—and lying in the dirt, waiting for days for help from their brothers-in-arms that never came.
Henry Dunant’s business trip ended that night. Shaken to the core by what he saw, he started tending to the wounded and held hands of the dying. He gave away his food and goods, cut up his shirts to make makeshift bandages. He stayed on to help organize supplies and care for those who needed it, assisted by local volunteers made predominantly up of girls and women from nearby village Castiglione delle Stiviere.
He was deeply moved to see them tending to all the injured, no matter which side they had fought on during the battle. They had put ‘human’ before banner, nationality and language. “Sono tutti fratelli,” the women said. They are all brothers.
Something in Dunant stirred.
In the aftermath of this event, Dunant returned to Geneva. Unable to forget what he had seen, he decided to write about his experience, perhaps becoming the first-ever embedded war reporter of our time. He self-published the book in 1862, entirely at his own expense, and went on to distribute it to European leaders to help them understand the cost of war.
“Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?” he wrote.
The book was the impetus for the formation of the International Red Cross in 1863 and led to the signing of the First Geneva Convention one year later. Because of Dunant’s passionate dedication to his ideals, he neglected his business and went bankrupt, spending most of his life in poverty and obscurity until he was rediscovered by a journalist in 1895. He went on to become the joint winner of the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 (together with Frenchman Frédéric Passy) for his lifelong dedication to humanitarian causes.
I am standing on this ground, in Solferino, this summer. I am here for the second year in a row. There is something about this place that speaks to me, that draws me in. That humbles me. For out of all this excruciating pain and suffering that happened right here, on the very soil that was once drenched in blood, pus, sweat and tears, something incredibly good was born.
I find myself standing at the Red Cross Memorial, during a time that most of Europe is grappling with an unprecedented heat wave. I am red haired and fair skinned. My body does not cope well in these temperatures. Despite the applied sunscreen, slathered on earlier that day, my skin blisters in the unrelenting afternoon sun. I cannot fathom what it must have been like for those soldiers over 150 years ago. I push the thought to the back of my head and sit on the steps near the large, luminescent red cross.
This is an incredibly humbling place. A small marble plaque is mounted on a wall for each of the 191 nations currently participating in the Red Cross network that counts some 17 million volunteers these days. There is room for more.
This place, this wall, reminds me of all that is good and right with our kind. Because it appears that when the chips are down and we’re hard up against the odds, that is typically when we manage to put our differences aside and pull our shit together. And yet, at the same time, we manage to somehow magically catapult ourselves back into dire straits. Again. And again. And again.
A passage from an e.e. cummings poem springs to mind:
“Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down
That same evening, after pasta and wine, I stand in a field on a small ‘agritourist’ holding where we are staying with friends. The farm sits at the foot of the hill where the battle raged more than a century and a half ago. We are all looking up at the sky. It is July 27, the date of the longest total lunar eclipse in a century. I can feel goose bumps at the back of my neck, as the moon turns a deep red. How very fitting to stand on this hallowed ground during a blood moon.
I think of all the people looking up at that same blood moon, wherever they are in the world, standing on their own battlegrounds. Some of them close and dear to me, struggling with illness or atrocious circumstances that are beyond their control. Much like the soldiers left behind, they, too can only hope that their suffering will end one way or another. They, too, can only hope that help will come.
I think of Henry Dunant and how he encountered the cruellest side of human nature, and managed to turn the experience into something good. Something real. He met despair with grace and grit and in doing so sparked the world’s largest humanitarian network into existence. And I can’t help thinking that even though he was a long way from home, on that evening in June 1859, he was, clearly, exactly where he needed to be. He was right where he belonged.
I look up at the blood moon and think of the things that connect us. Our obligation towards each other. And that it really doesn’t take that much to be a little bit like Henry Dunant. All we need to do when we see someone struggling on their battlefield, when we see a wounded soul, is to stop and ask if we can help. For, whoever we are, wherever we are, no matter what the circumstances and the hand that fate has dealt us, we belong to this very moment in time. Together. And that’s what really counts. That’s what really matters.
Or, as 13th-century Persian poet Rumi put it: “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.”
You can extend a hand and fly the flag for hope anywhere.
It doesn’t have to be Solferino.
A PDF of Dunant’s book A Memory of Solferino can be downloaded free of charge, in several languages, on the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross
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