Solferino, 24 June, 1859 : A tiny village in undulating countryside, just south of Lake Garda. Close by, a swirling, intense territorial battle involving troops from Piedmont, Sardinia and France confronting Austria’s army. Ten hours of volleys of cannon fire, cavalry charges and hand-to-hand fighting among almost 250,000 soldiers. The aftermath – more than one-tenth of them dead or wounded.
This bloody event one hundred and fifty years ago has had many consequences. In territorial terms, the Franco-Sardinian victory paved the way for Italian unity and for defining Italy’s northern frontiers from east to west.
In humanitarian terms, the conflict has similarly had a profound and enduring impact. A witness to the distress of the wounded arriving in great numbers in the neighboring village of Castiglione delle Stiviere, was Henry Dunant. Appalled by the lack of medical facilities and relief for the wounded, this Swiss entrepreneur (who was in the area on business) rallied support for them irrespective of their military allegiances. Soon, he was to be instrumental in founding the Red Cross.
Dunant, in effect, drew attention away from a popular perspective of the ‘glory’ of war to a down-to earth viewpoint of the victim. In the words of ICRC historian François Bugnion: ‘But what was important was not his [Dunant’s] personal role in Castiglione, but rather the two ideas he drew from this experience: the creation of voluntary relief societies – the birth of the Red Cross – and a treaty protecting medical staff on the battlefield – the start of the Geneva Conventions’. These treaties also embody Dunant’s spirit of neutrality and impartiality in tending to victims of war.
Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers from all round the globe gathered in Solferino last week to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. An estimated thirteen thousand of them, red candles in their hands, symbolically traced steps that the victims had followed in desperate search for medical attention – medical attention that had been both inadequate and unprotected on the battleground on that horrific day in June 1859.
It may be an exaggeration to say that the surge of 13,000 volunteers thronging through the archways of Solferino’s Piazza Castello last Saturday night evoked scenes in that same square a century and a half ago. But it was impossible not to be moved by the commemoration. The terrors and consequences of face-to-face, soldier-to-soldier warfare exhibited in Solferino’s small museum and ossuary – the bayonets, the swords, the chilling array of skulls and bones – speak silently and grimly to us still about mortal combat as they have done in other parts of the world.
And the other victims of conflict: the civilians? The Battle of Solferino, by some accounts, produced a single civilian death. Modern conflicts, however, fought so often in densely populated urban rather than rural areas, take a high toll on civilians. In a survey of people affected by current conflicts published by the ICRC to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, 44% of the respondents said they had personally experienced armed conflict. Almost 30% of those directly affected by fighting said a close family member had been killed during fighting. 56% of the people directly affected by conflicts had been displaced, over half had lost contact with a family member and one in five had lost their livelihood. These figures are dramatically higher in some countries!
There are many victims of warfare, whether they are civilians or military or the dependents of those killed, maimed or traumatized in battle. Solferino – through Dunant – has been salutary in engendering an approach that views armed conflict through the prism of humanity.
But the humanitarian approach is not only about the promotion of the principles of the Red Cross or international humanitarian law. It is also about the promotion of international norms in support of humanitarian objectives more broadly. This includes prohibitions on the use and production of weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or, like landmines and cluster munitions, affect civilians and combatants without distinction, and that have wrought so much misery and deprivation on civilians. It means seeing disarmament as humanitarian action and bringing human security perspectives to bear in moving the disarmament agenda forward.
The enthusiasm for the cause of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement that marked the celebrations in Solferino, and its undertone of empathy with the victims of warfare, shows that the lessons of the past are not always forgotten. This is truly an example of Kipling’s ‘Lest we forget’ , in a practical, not a glorifying sense.
This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.
Photo Credit: ‘Perspectives at Piazza Castello, Solferino, 150 years apart’ by Jill Caughley.
- Henry Dunant, ‘A Memory of Solferino’, ICRC, 1986.
- ICRC, ‘Our World: Views from the Field’, Summary Report, Opinion Survey, 2009.