“A Memory of Solforino”: The Story of an Idea

Every dark cloud has a silver lining… the depths of despair has the seeds of great human acts. Here is a true story which exemplifies it

 ..A 31-year old Swiss  Geneva banker travels to Algeria to take charge of the Swiss colony of Sétif. He started the construction of a wheat mill, but could not obtain the land concession that was essential for its operation. After travelling to Tunisia he returned to Geneva, where he decided to approach Napoleon III to obtain the business document he needed. 

So on June 24, 1859, this young banker reaches Solforino in Northern Italy where Napoleon is commanding the Franco-Sardinian forces  as they confront  Austrian troops  along a 15-kilometer frontline. 


The decisive battle involving over 300,000 for Italian unity was to be the most horrific bloodbath Europe had known since Waterloo. This was to be the last major European battle directed in person by reigning monarchs -Emperors Napoleon III of France and Franz Josef of Austria. Austria’s loss in the battle was a major step in the establishment of the modern state of Italy.

It was a terrible carnage.  In ten hours of artillery fire, cavalry charges and fierce hand-to-hand fighting, nearly 40,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth, it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over the roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches of Solferino were literally thick with dead. 

This was how this young man came to be be present at the end of the battle of Solferino, in Lombardy. He was immensely moved by the lack of adequate medical care and helped soldiers for three days at the nearby town of Castiglione delle Stiviere.

What was important was not his 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.

The man behind this Story of an Idea- the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901…

…Jean Henri Dunant

Returning to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino , which eventually led to the creation of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, the future International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Dunant was a member and acted as secretary. He was now famous and was received by heads of State, kings and princes of the European courts. But his financial affairs were floundering and he was declared bankrupt in 1867. Completely ruined, he was in debt for almost a million Swiss francs (1860s value).

As a result of the scandal which this bankruptcy caused in Geneva, he resigned from his post as secretary of the International Committee. On 8 September 1867 the Committee decided to accept his resignation not only as secretary but also as a member. Dunant left for Paris, where he was reduced to sleeping on public benches. At the same time, however, the Empress Eugénie summoned him to the Tuileries Palace in order to consult him on extending the Geneva Convention to naval warfare. Dunant was made an honorary member of the national Red Cross societies of Austria, Holland, Sweden, Prussia and Spain.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he visited and comforted the wounded brought to Paris and introduced the wearing of a badge so that the dead could be identified.

Years of poverty

An international congress for the ” complete and final abolition of the traffic in Negroes and the slave trade ” opened in London on 1 February 1875, on Dunant’s initiative. There followed years of wandering and utter poverty for Dunant: he travelled on foot in Alsace, Germany and Italy, living on charity and the hospitality of a few friends.


Finally, in 1887, he ended up in the Swiss village of Heiden, overlooking Lake Constance, where he fell ill. He found refuge in the local hospice, and it was there that he was discovered in 1895 by a journalist, Georg Baumberger, who wrote an article about him which, within a few days, was reprinted in the press throughout Europe. Messages of sympathy reached Dunant from all over the world; overnight he was once more famous and honoured. In 1901, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Henry Dunant died on 30 October 1910. The date of his birth, 8 May, is celebrated as World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day.


A similar war and carnage the Kalinga War (c. 261) was fought in what is now India between the Maurya Empire under Emperor Ashoka and the state of Kalinga, an independent feudal kingdom located on the east coast, in the present-day state of Odisha in India. The Kalinga War included one of the largest and bloodiest battles in Indian history. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalinga_War)

A historian noted that “No war in the history of India as important either for its intensity or for its results as the Kalinga war of Ashoka. No wars in the annals of the human history has changed the heart of the victor from one of wanton cruelty to that of an exemplary piety as this one. From its fathomless womb the history of the world may find out only a few wars to its credit which may be equal to this war and not a single one that would be greater than this. The political history of mankind is really a history of wars and no war has ended with so successful a mission of the peace for the entire war-torn humanity as the war of Kalinga.”

Ashoka looking at the carnage had change of heart. which according to oral histories of the region occurred  after the war when a woman approached him and said, “Your actions have taken from me my father, husband, and son. Now what will I have left to live for?”

This battle prompted Ashoka, already a non-engaged Buddhist, to devote the rest of his life to ahimsa (non-violence). The spread of Buddhism to the entire Far- East and South-East Asia and China goes back to the fateful battle at Kalinga.





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