Thursday, 25 June 2009

150 Years of the Red Cross

The story of the Red Cross is the story of modern warfare. Nothing illustrates this better than the tale of the charitable organisation's founding. The Battle of Solferino - a decisive battle between the armies of Piedmont, Austria and Napoleon III - was fought in 1859. In its bloody wake lay twisted corpses and desperate prisoners of war.

Ann Hills explains how

Three days later Henri Dunant, a businessman from Geneva, came to the scene and found soldiers dying from their wounds due to lack of medical attention. He returned home 'determined to do everything possible to organise relief of the wounded' and that determination led him to found the Red Cross movement

The charity grew quickly. By the outbreak of the First World War, the Red Cross was the largest and most important charity in Britain. Simon Fowler described how

During the war it raised some £22 million ... Its volunteers left no stone unturned in their efforts to make money. Unlike most other charities of the time they used a great deal of imagination in their fundraising efforts, and developed techniques which are still used by charities today.

During the Second World War, secret messages and symbols were stitched into Red Cross quilts by British women POWs interned in Singapore's Changi jail by the Japanese. Bernice Archer recalls how:

In the jail, communication with their menfolk was banned, writing materials scarce and the written word suspect and incriminating. But by substituting conventional pen and ink with needle, thread and bits of clothing the women skilfully recorded their specific view of internment and eventually circumvented the Japanese restrictions by sending the quilts to the hospital in the military camp ... where they remained throughout the war as symbols of defiance and messengers of cheer and reassurance.
The charity has also had its share of controversy. In the 1980s, a book called Une mission impossible? by Jean-Claude Favez (The Red Cross and the Holocaust when published in English) caused arguments over the organisation's role in publicising Nazism's crimes. Douglas Johnson, in a History Today review, notes how:

Dr Maurice Rossel, a member of the International Committee's Berlin delegation, visited the [concentration] camp of Theresienstadt on June 23rd, 1944, he was greeted by a site filled with flowers. He reported favourably, stating that the camp's inmates were well-fed and that they were housed in clean surroundings. In some respects, he claimed, conditions in the camp were better than those in a town such as Prague.

Next week (June 23-28), thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff from around the world will gather in the town for a week of events commemorating the battle of Solferino and celebrating the work of the movement born out of the conflict.

Among the thousands attending will be 500 specially invited young volunteers from 150 National Societies. A youth declaration is to be drawn up and presented to representatives of the international community in Geneva following a symbolic journey from the battle site.

"Taking part in this anniversary shows the history of the Red Cross movement” said Caroline Sanderson, one of the British delegates. She continued

With so many young people here, it's also clear that the Red Cross and
its values will continue to be relevant long into the future.

In total, 56 British Red Cross volunteers and staff will be attending events in Solferino, culminating in a torchlight procession re-tracing the route taken by farmers transporting injured soldiers from the Solferino battlefield.

More info on both the charity and the 150th anniversary celebrations can be obtained from the homepage of the British Red Cross

The History Today articles quoted above are:-


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