Celebrating a milestone of the International Committee of the Red Cross

February 2013 marks an important milestone in international history. It was 150 years ago, on Feb. 17, 1863, that Henri Dunant, a young Swiss businessman, helped to found a volunteer commission that soon evolved into the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The origins of the Red Cross actually go back a bit more than 150 years. On June 24, 1859, Dunant was in Solferino in Northern Italy, immediately after an enormous bloody battle. Dunant was appalled by the suffering of the thousands of wounded left on the battlefield, with little in the way of medical relief for them.

Dunant wrote a book on his experiences. He pushed for independent, neutral organizations that would help the victims of war. He also advocated that a binding international agreement be adopted that would obligate armies to assist all of the wounded and sick, regardless of which side they had been on.

Hence, a committee was formed in February 1863 in Dunant’s home city of Geneva, Switzerland to advance these ideas. In October 1863, an international convention was held to formalize the creation of national societies. In August 1864, another international conference was convened to create the legal framework for humanitarian care in times of war. This is now known as the Geneva Convention.

It was essential in the turmoil of war that a simple, but highly visible symbol be used so that those assisting the injured and sick could be easily identified. Hence, a red cross on a clean white background as adopted as the universal distinctive emblem. Consequently, the organization and its national affiliates took the name ‘Red Cross’. Actually, the symbol was created by reversing the colours of the Swiss flag.

In 1896, Dr. George Sterling Ryerson founded the first overseas branch of the British Red Cross in Canada. In May 1909, the federal government incorporated the Canadian Red Cross as the official organization “To provide volunteer aid in Canada in accordance with the Geneva Convention”.

A branch of the Red Cross was first established in Red Deer on Sept. 3, 1914 a month after the First World War broke out. One of the first matters of discussion was whether the local Red Cross should assist ‘the poor of the town’ as well as the men who had volunteered for active service and their families.

Since the local Salvation Army and the Women’s Institutes were supporting those in distress, the Red Cross decided to concentrate on help to those connected with the military. Membership fees were set at 25 cents, but members were encouraged to donate more if they were willing and able to do so. In less than a week, more than $100 was raised. Several times that amount was collected in the following weeks.

On Nov. 13, 1914, the Red Deer branch of the Red Cross was given its charter.

Several other branches were soon organized in almost every rural community in the district. Support for the Red Cross also came from such organizations as the local Women’s Institutes, I.O.D.E. and numerous local church groups.

Bandages and medicines were collected for the overseas military hospitals as well as for the Red Deer Memorial Hospital and the Soldiers’ Sanatorium on the east hill. The most important activity, however, was the assemblage of care packages for those serving overseas. These packages consisted special food items, warm clothing and other necessities not likely to be provided by the military.

For a few years following the end of the First World War, the Red Cross continued its work of supporting the Red Deer Hospital and assisting those in need in the community. However, gradually the Red Deer and other local Red Cross branches fell dormant.

They were quickly revived in October 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Again, the Red Cross provided invaluable support for those on active service and particularly for those who were interned in Prisoner-of-War camps.

Unlike the situation in the 1920’s, the Red Cross remained very active locally after the Second World War ended. Currently, the local Red Cross provides disaster support and services and numerous other vital services for those in need.