Books: Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross by Caroline Moorhead HarperCollins pounds 24.99: Angels of the battle field

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LAST YEAR the caravanserai of moral indignation briefly alighted upon Switzerland, personified by the gnomes of Zurich hoarding ill-gotten "Nazi gold". Caroline Moorhead's absorbing, stylishly written, and thoroughly researched history of the Red Cross is a timely reminder that Switzerland's humanitarian record is more distinguished than most. Dealing effortlessly with dozens of countries and war zones, this wonderful book charts the progression from 19th- century idealism to the bureaucratic, moral and political complexities of modern humanitarian relief, although Moorhead never loses sight of the fact that somewhere, right now, altruistic representatives of this remarkable organisation are risking life and limb to help the predominantly civilian casualties of increasingly vicious little wars.

The Red Cross was the brainchild of a young Genevan called Henri Dunant. In 1859 Dunant sought out the Emperor Napoleon III for assistance with a business venture in Algeria. Dressed in a light tropical suit - the prototypical "man in white" - Dunant wandered into the middle of the battle of Solferino, where the French and Italians were fighting the Austrians. Appalled by the fate of the wounded, Dunant galvanised local people and passing tourists into consoling both sides' maimed and dying, undertaking himself to write to the relatives of those drawing their last breath. Here, in essence, was "Dunant's dream".

Dunant's published memoir of Solferino called for a set of principles to cover treatment of wounded soldiers, and for the peacetime creation of nationally based societies of volunteers who would spring into action whenever war threatened. These ideas appealed to Geneva's Protestant patrician elite, who almost by hereditary right, provided generations of members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which osmotically absorbed their most salient characteristics, namely caution, detachment, prudence and an aversion to anything remotely reeking of politics, a stance well- suited to the non-ideological 19th-century world.

By cleverly espousing neutrality and eschewing pacifism, the Red Cross duly won the enthusiastic backing of the governments of Europe, which also subscribed to the Geneva Conventions, the first modern attempt to regulate the conduct of war. National societies proliferated, most the handiwork of philanthropically minded aristocratic ladies. Although Dunant's wayward way with money resulted in his ejection from the International Committee, the organisation he had dreamed of distinguished itself during the Franco-Prussian war: 347 foreign doctors from 14 countries tended 340,000 casualties, volunteers manned mobile and stationary "ambulances", and an information service based in Basle processed news from, or about, prisoners of war and missing soldiers.

The Boer war, in which 26,000 Boer civilians - the majority being juveniles - perished in British concentration camps, highlighted two problems which were to bedevil the Red Cross throughout the 20th century. None of its existing codes of conduct covered women and children, and it had no sanctions against governments which chose to flout conventions they had previously acknowledged. But these were still distant clouds on the horizon, for in another turn-of-the-century conflict hope sprang eternal. Russians captured by the Japanese (whose Red Cross society was the largest in the world) during the 1904-05 war convalesced amidst lotuses and maple trees, received prostheses donated by the empress, and dined on fish, soup, vegetables and white bread. News of Russian naval defeats was tempered with presents for hospitalised Russian prisoners from the Tokyo naval ministry. As Moorhead remarks, "at every turn the Japanese had proved courteous and fair." This was a tradition not destined to last.

During the First World War, the Red Cross extended its work from care for the wounded to monitoring the treatment of prisoners and affording succour to refugees. Redoubtable figures, such as the 47-year-old Millicent, dowager Duchess of Sutherland, thought nothing of a 10 kilometre hike - "one very nearly does that in a day's golfing" - before dragging off tunics soaked in blood from the 45 wounded men delivered to her field station in the first 20 minutes of a battle. Intrepid Swiss volunteer delegates inspected prisoner of war camps, sometimes involving journeys of 25,000 kilometres to Siberia or Turkestan. The 28 million members of the American Red Cross knitted 10 million garments, while workshops turned out light metal face-masks, with copper-thread eyebrows and lips slightly parted to fit a cigarette, for men whose jaws and noses had been shot away. In Geneva, a specialist tracing agency forwarded millions of letters, and compiled huge databanks, to bring certainty to those whose brothers, husbands and sons were missing in the war.

The organisation acquired a less salubrious reputation in dealing with the two totalitarian regimes of the first half of this century. Swiss gentlemen proved to be not the only gentlemen ill-equipped to deal with government by radicalised gangsters. Delegates of the International Committee could do little when national Red Cross societies went ideologically native, in the Bolshevik case denying the existence of millions of political prisoners in the gulags, in the Nazi case explaining the "faultless organisation of the concentration camps" to the rather credulous delegate, Carl Jacob Burckhardt, the Red Cross's panjandrum if ever there was one. Attempts to jog the German Red Cross to do something on behalf of camp inmates were nullified by the fact that the acting president of that organisation was head of the medical services of the SS.

Although the Red Cross had knowledge of the Holocaust, it eschewed public denunciation of policies of genocide, ostensibly lest it interfere with its programmes for prisoners of war. The men in Geneva were also shocked by the alacrity with which another nation, like Germany once in the vanguard of humanitarianism, systematically ignored every humane precept. The Japanese Red Cross became a purely military medical service, while the Tokyo regime rubuffed all efforts on behalf of Allied internees and prisoners of war. Again, local Red Cross delegates, most of them modest Swiss businessman, took enormous personal risks to assist those languishing in Singapore's notorious Changi jail.

Since 1945, the Red Cross has been gradually upstaged by various United Nations organisations or the more radical Amnesty International and Medicins sans frontieres. Its decision to pay the price of public silence in return for constant witness in the case of regimes in colonial Algeria and Israel which tortured terrorist suspects did not enhance its reputation in the Moslem world. But it has also helped traced the disappeared in Pinochet's Chile and Saddam's Iraq, mounted massive relief programmes in Biafra and Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge murdered all but 55 of the country's 500 pre-war doctors, while its young volunteer agents - from banking, business, medical and academic backgrounds - risk death or kidnap in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda and Somalia, conflicts of whose horrors, directed primarily against innocent civilians, the remarkable Henri Dunant could not have dreamed. That he would have instinctively tried to do something is the uplifting conclusion of Caroline Moorhead's humane and remarkable book.