24 June 1859

For the battle that took place around the northern Italian towns of Solferino and San Martino in June 1859 between the armies of the Austrian Empire and those of France and Sardinia-Piedmont, explanations often centre on innovations – such as the use of railways to bring in reserves, or the development by the French of the rifled artillery gun, which increased range and accuracy remarkably. But the real innovation that arose from this battle was supplied by Henri Dunant, a young Swiss businessman, who arrived in the aftermath of the battle and was shocked by the plight of the thousands of wounded soldiers lying untended on the field. Four years later, Dunant hosted the founding meeting of what became the Red Cross organization, committed to helping the sick and wounded on both sides. This commitment was enshrined in the first Geneva Convention, which was signed by the majority of the states of Europe on 22 August 1864.

The French Foreign Legion, dressed in their distinctive zouave uniform of baggy red trousers, charge towards the Austrian troops during the Battle of Solferino–San Martino. Losses were very high on both sides – 17,000 French and Italian, and 22,000 Austrian.

The battle that Dunant witnessed was the final confrontation in a war that began on 29 April 1859 when Austrian forces crossed the border between Austrian Italy (the provinces of Lombardy and Venetia) and the independent Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. The conflict was really over the creation of an Italian nation, an aspiration that had been crushed by the Austrians during the revolutions of 1848–49. A decade of military reforms made the army of Vittorio Emmanuele II of Piedmont a more modern and effective force, but it was still not strong enough to confront the vast Austrian army. The Piedmontese prime minister, Count Camillo di Cavour, persuaded the new French emperor, Napoleon III, nephew of the great Napoleon, to give military support to the effort to expel the Austrians. Some of the senior commanders in the French army had fought with Napoleon III’s uncle and saw the conflict with Austria as unfinished business. Napoleon agreed with them. The Piedmontese strengthened the frontier with Lombardy, and when they refused an Austrian demand to disarm, war was declared.

The balance strongly favoured the Austrian 2nd Army, commanded by Field Marshal Ferenc Gyulai, which outnumbered the Piedmontese by two to one. But confusion over what strategy to adopt gave the French time to mobilize and to arrive in strength, thanks to the railway, by mid-May. The Austrians were defeated at Montebello, Palestro and a major battle at Magenta, and Gyulai was forced to pull back from the Lombard capital at Milan and concentrate Austrian forces on the ‘Quadrilateral’ of major fortresses at Peschiera, Verona, Legnago and Mantua. He resigned after his failure to halt the French advance and was replaced by Field Marshal Count Schlick, a veteran of the wars against the first Napoleon. The Austrian emperor, Franz-Joseph, now insisted on assuming overall command himself. The Austrian 1st Army, under Field Marshal Franz von Wimpffen, joined the 2nd, and 119,000 infantry, 9,500 cavalry and 429 guns moved onto a wide plain stretching from Lake Garda to Mantua. The forces were centred on the town of Solferino, protected by its high walls and the ridges and hills of the surrounding area.After inflicting so many defeats, the French and Piedmontese had been uncertain about Austrian intentions. On 23 June, they could see Austrian activity in front of them as they crossed the River Chiese south of Brescia, and Napoleon III, like Franz-Joseph the overall commander-in-chief, ordered an advance during the night to avoid the scorching sun of the day.

On the north wing, 38,600 Piedmontese, including Giuseppe Garibaldi’s irregulars, advanced towards the village of San Martino; in the centre and south, 83,000 French infantry and 9,000 French cavalry, supported by 240 of the new rifled cannon, moved towards Solferino and, further south, towards Guidizzolo and the Plain of Medole. At 5 a.m., while many Austrian troops were still breakfasting, the two armies clashed. The battle divided into three. The Piedmontese tried all day to dislodge General Ludwig von Benedek’s VIII Corps, who were ensconced on a hill around the village of San Martino. French armies in the centre, led by General Patrice MacMahon and Marshal Baraguay d’Hilliers, pushed into Solferino and its surroundings, while French armies in the south, heavily outnumbered, tried to force the Plain of Medole.The battle was won in the centre, where determined French attacks, aided by more effective artillery and cavalry (though won in the end at the point of the bayonet), pushed the Austrians out of Solferino by the early afternoon. The Austrian commander ordered a retreat and by 3.30 p.m. the French had occupied the town of Cavriana, which shortly before had been Franz-Joseph’s headquarters. Once the breakthrough was achieved in the centre, the position of Austrian forces on both wings deteriorated.Despite their fierce defence of San Martino, Benedek was forced to withdraw by the early evening to avoid complete encirclement. In the south, the battle was sharper and the Austrian 1st Army fought desperately to hold onto a line across the Plain of Medole.

The Swiss businessmen and philanthropist Henri Dunant (1828–1910) was so shocked by his visit to the battlefield at Solferino in June 1859 that he set about establishing an international organization to help wounded men. The result was the founding of the International Red Cross, in 1864.

French artillery fire and cavalry drove the Austrians slowly back, and the loss of Solferino released more support for the southern wing. By 4 p.m., the French were threatening Guidizzolo on the far side of the plain. Suddenly the fierce sunshine that had tortured the men of both sides with unendurable thirst gave way to a spectacular storm of rain, hail and thunder. Under the darkening skies, the Austrian 1st and 2nd Armies withdrew across the River Mincio, abandoning permanently, as it turned out, the whole of Lombardy.The battle was fought at close quarters with bayonets as deadly as any more modern handheld weapon. Losses were high, 17,000 for the French and Piedmontese, 22,000 for the Austrians. It was the wounded from the battle that Dunant saw that evening. He had come to petition Napoleon III personally for help in a business venture in Algeria, but found himself an onlooker to the fighting.

He was sickened by the stench of battle and the cries of the wounded, more than a third of whom required amputations. There were few medical facilities and the Austrians had withdrawn many miles away. Dunant immediately began to organize local villagers to supply water and clean linen for the wounded of both sides. On 27 June, he ordered from Brescia, the nearest large city, lemons, camomile, sugar, shirts and tobacco. Men from both sides were helped – ‘all brothers’, Dunant told his suppliers. The neglect of the wounded and the prisoners affected him so much that he gave up his business (Napoleon had refused to help him anyway) and devoted himself to recruiting Europe-wide support for the idea of formal medical assistance on the field of battle for sick and wounded soldiers. Of all the innovations associated with Solferino, this was the most important and most enduring.