The First Geneva Convention

Albania #651 honors Dunant and the Red Cross.

On August 22, 1864, twelve nations signed the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.

While on a business trip to Italy in 1859, Swiss humanitarian Jean Henri Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino (part of the Austro-Sardinian War) in which nearly 40,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Shocked by the lack of medical care, Dunant put his business aside and began tending to the wounded. He convinced locals to help without discrimination.

U.S. #1016 was the first bi-colored U.S. postage stamp ever produced on the rotary press.

When he returned to his home in Geneva, Dunant wrote an account of what he witnessed, titled, A Memory of Solferino. In the book, he asked, “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?”

In February 1863, Dunant and four other Geneva leaders founded the Committee of Five to see if his idea was possible. They renamed their organization the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded and began preparing for a meeting with other nations. That October, delegates from around the world met in Geneva and founded the International Committee of the Red Cross.

U.S. #1239 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the International Red Cross.

Early on, the members of the Red Cross realized that while each nation was responsible for the health and well being of its own people, there should also be official agencies ensuring the proper treatment of all people, especially during times of war. To this end, they agreed on the need for a set of rules for all to follow during such conflicts.

Yemen #188A-F – Set of Red Crescent stamps.

So on August 22, 1864, representatives from 12 nations met in Geneva to sign the new convention, which served as “the basis on which rest the rules of international law for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts.” The signatories included four now former German states, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. The document included 10 articles. Some of the major points included that care centers for the sick and wounded couldn’t be captured or destroyed; that civilians aiding the wounded shouldn’t be hurt; and the recognition of the Red Cross symbol.

Item #MP1118 – Set of 50 Red Cross stamps.

Sweden-Norway (the two nations were united at the time) signed the convention that December and other nations later followed. In fact, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton was a driving force behind the United States ratifying the convention in 1882.

However, as warfare and military technology evolved in the coming decades, the Geneva Convention became outdated. A series of new conventions were held:

  • The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were based on the Liber Code, a general order signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War calling for ethical treatment during war.
  • The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies at Sea was held in July 1906.
  • The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was held in July 1929.
  • The discovery of war crimes during World War II led to the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War in 1949.
U.S. #2966 – The Geneva conventions protect the rights of POW/MIAs.

Within a few years, these conventions were already considered to be incomplete, as many wars were internal or involved insurgents that might not follow the convention anyway. New protocols were added to the conventions in 1977 and 2005.

Click here to read the original Geneva Convention and here for a summary of 1949 Geneva Convention and its later protocols.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. I guess I’m a typical American who grew up with the notion that Clara Barton founded the Red Cross. I knew that there was an International Red Cross, but had never known the story of its founding as a result of the the ratification of the Geneva Conventions in 1864. And it was the inspiration for Clara Barton to start the American Red Cross in 1881. Thank you Mystic for filling us in with the back stories of our history.

  2. This is the most interesting and valuable knowledge that I really enjoyed. Learning is a never-ending veenture. Thanks.

  3. As your article informs us, the birth of the International Red Cross (IRC) owes much to the effort of its founder, Jean Henri Dunant, in advocating the idea that a neutral organization should exist to provide care for the wounded soldiers on the battle field, and for which he was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; but one can also point to the pioneering work of nurses carrying out the day-to-day care of the injured under dire conditions.

    Just as Ms Clara Barton (the founder of US Red Cross) did, when she criss-crossed the land bringing succour to the injured fighters during the American Civil War (© 1861), it can be said that the foundations of IRC also rested on the tireless input from Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, and those they trained to tend the wounded/injured during the Crimean wars (© 1854).

    Although Mary Seacole’s initial involvement during the war was to peddle provisions and accessories to soldiers, she also began providing rudiments of compassionate care on the battle field to soldiers taken out of the trenches during the siege of Sevastopol, and organise combattants’ removal to outer barracks where they could be either treated, or repatriated.

    Her work in Crimea was overshadowed by that of Florence Nightingale’s for many years on account of Ms Nightingale’s more systematic drive to improve the practice as a whole. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Ms Seacole’s work, with fresh efforts to properly acknowledge her achievements. A sculpture of Nurse Seacole was recently unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, though not without vigourous opposition from other quarters. In 2007 Seacole was introduced into the National Curriculum, and her life story is taught at many schools in the UK alongside that of Florence Nightingale; and with an annual prize to recognise and develop leadership in nurses, midwives and health visitors in the UK National Health Service named Seacole. Recently there has been a drive to remove the mention of Ms Seacole’s achievement from the primary curriculum, but following a letter to The Times from Reverend Jesse Jackson, and others, the then Minister of Education in Westminster put the matter to rest.

    One of Nurse Nightingale’s most significant findings was that on-site treatment of soldiers, pre-antibiotic days, benefited significantly with the practice of common sense hygiene (hospital ventilation, access to fresh water; sewer evacuation, etc), all basic aspects of convalescence we take for granted today when needing medical attention/hospitalisation. In 1860, Ms Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing with the formal establishment of her nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It was the first secular nursing school in the world, now part of King’s College London, and in the 1870s, Nightingale’s programme provided Ms Linda Richards with state of the art training and knowledge to establish top quality nursing schools on her return to the United States.

    In 1912, the International Committee of the Red Cross instituted the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international distinction bestowed upon a nurse who provided exceptional care for the sick and wounded in times of war and peace. This medal is still awarded today.

    In retrospect, Henri Dunant once remarked “ … though I am known as the founder of the Red Cross, and the originator of the Convention of Geneva, it is to an English woman that all the honour of that Convention is due …” GdR

    The following site chronicles both women life time achievement

  4. I make sure I check all of the emails you send. I feel like I am in an never ending History Class
    and I just hope I pass the test. Thank you for adding more education. All children should look at
    stamps, they would do better in all history classes.

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