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Remembering Solferino

Posted Oct 03 2010 10:39am

When Austria first issued its ultimatum againt the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont on April 23, 1859 demanding the demobilization of their army, the Sardinian government asked the French emperor, Napoleon III for help (they had a secret alliance).    Since Napoleon III was already at odds with the Austrian emperor Joseph, coming to Sardinia's aid was a good political move and the Second War of Italian Independence (a.k.a. the Franco-Austrian War)  was on.   Marked by a horrendous involved a series of fierce battles fought by the armies of France and Sardinia against the Austrian empire, the eventual cost in lives is still hard to grasp today.

After the bloody battle of Magenta on June 4, 1859 with the French army beating back the Austrians, the Austrian army retreated eastward while the combined French and Sardinian armies mobilized in Brescia.  On the morning of June 23, the Austrian army, led by Emperor Franz Joseph himself, recrossed the river Mincio to solidify their position.  Given that the number of soldiers on both sides amounted to 300,000, what followed was the most massive land battle in decades.  It was also the last battle in which the actual heads of state took direct command of their troops (Napoleon III was there as well).  The Battle of Solferino Battle of Solferino on July 24, 1859 was largely unexpected and chaotic (neither side thought it would begin as soon as it did so no elaborate tactical strategies were possible).   Although centered around the village of Solferino, the line of battle stretched over fifteen kilometers.  In describing the fighting, one prominent eyewitnes s later wrote that, "the unending combat rages incessantly and in every place with fury.  Nothing stops, nothing interrupts the butchery.  They are killing one another by the hundreds... A rain of cannon balls is sending death to the distant reserves of Austria.  Their ranks are ceaselessly reforming....The French cavalry flings itself on the Austrian cavalry...The rage is so great that in some places after the exhaustion of the cartridges and the breaking of the muskets, they fight with fists and beat one another with stones". 

While the battle only lasted nine hours, the fighting resulted in enormous casualties.  All told, there were more than six thousand soldiers killed on both sides and over forty thousand wounded.  Despite attempts by the Austrian army to evacuate their injured, thousands of soldiers had to be abandoned as their troops withdrew.  Combat hospitals were set up in nearby farmhouses, churches, and public buildings to tend the wounded but they were often targeted during the fighting and many physicians and care workers were killed along with their patients.  Even after the fighting was over, the situation was desperate for the wounded due to the lack of water, food, and medicine.  There was a terrible shortage of French and Sardinian doctors and, despite recent experiences with the Crimean war, there was no organized medical corps to handle the influx of injured and dying soldiers. Those wounded soldiers who could still walk headed for the nearby village of Castiglione to seek what help they could.

Fortunately for the soldiers, there was some help available there.  Henri Dunant , a Swiss businessman with an interest in humanitarian causes had been in northern Italy to petition Napoleon III regarding a business opportunity and was hardly deterred by the ongoing war.  Arriving in Solferino, he became an eyewitness to the bloody battle and its horrifying aftermath.  Organizing the local villagers, he set up a field hospital in nearby Castiglione.  Under his guidance, the hospital was established to provide medical aid to soldiers on both sides of the conflict and Dunant also arranged for Austrian doctors to be released from French custody to help with the wounded.   In the moving memoir that he wrote afterward,  Dunant described the horrors that he witnessed in tending to the injured soldiers, "the lack of water becomes greater and greater.  The sun is burning, the ditches are dried up. The soldiers have only brackish and unwholesome water to appease their thirst."  He described how the bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave by soldiers and paid villagers.  He also adds that, "Unfortunately, it is possible that because of the unavoidable rapidity of this labor and because of the carelessness and inattention of the paid workmen, more than one living man is buried with the dead."  Austrian and French soldiers were buried separately and prisoners-of-war were taken to Brescia under guard.  Although some French soldiers tried to attack the enemy soldiers who had been Jean Henri Dunant
captured, Dunant managed to dissuade them.

The Battle of Solferino had a profound effect on everyone involved.  At Napoleon III's insistence, Emperor Franz Joseph agreed to an armistice and the removal of all remaining Austrian troops from Italian territory.  He also never led an army into battle again. Austria's withdrawal cleared the way for Italy's unification in 1860 and Solferino would likely be little more than a historical footnote today. 

Except for Henri Dunant, whose book, Un Souvenir de Solferino (Memory of Solferino) was published in 1862.  Describing the horror of the battle in graphic fashion. the book also contained recommendations for the future.  He called for the establishment of "relief societies for the purpose of having care given to wounded in wartime" based on "international principles".  He concluded the book by pointing out that future battles would become more lethal due to improvements in the various "weapons of destruction" that were used leading to far more casualties than battles of previous centuries. 

In the years following the publication of his book, Henri Dunant's lobbying efforts helped inspire the 1864 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War establishing the first international guidelines on the treatment of enemy soldiers.  Initially ratified by twelve nations (the United States ratified it in 1882), the treaty also called for organized medical aid to help wounded soldiers in the field (laterexpanded to include civilians and wounded soldiers at sea).  In 1863, Dunant and four other prominent Swiss activists established the groundwork of what would become the International Red Cross , the neutrality and independence of which was guaranteed under the first Geneva Convention. 

Although Henri Dunant's involvement with the Red Cross would end after a few years due to internal squabbling over his vision of how the organization should be run, his involvement in humanitarian causes would last for the rest of his life.  Often neglecting his own business with his various crusades, he lived much of the next few decades in relative obscurity and deeply in debt.  In 1901, Henri Dunant was awarded the first ever Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.   He died in 1910 and is buried in Zurich.  

Visitors to Solferino, Italy can still see the museum there commemorating the battle.  There is also an ossuary stacked high with the bones and skulls of the dead soldiers gathered in the years following the battle to provide them with a suitable memorial.  There is also a monument to the Red Cross at the Mount of Cypress with memorial plaques and pennants from many nations.  The nearby town of Castiglione also has a museum dedicated to the International Red Cross and the events that led to its formation.

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