The Turkish Red Crescent, established 150 years ago as the Hilal-i Ahmer, continues to serve in the name of the Turkish nation with the same mission as the first day it was established. With a century and a half of history, the Turkish Red Crescent has fought against the effects of war, natural disasters, earthquakes, famine and poverty, representing mercy and compassion in the region.
Swiss author and businessman, Jean Henry Dunant (1828-1910), witnessed the misery, slaughter and extreme anguish of the wounded during the Battle of Solferino (1859). Upon returning to his own country, he decided to establish a society that would be trained during times of peace to treat the wounded, without discrimination, during times of war. After the war he took action, and with the Geneva Convention, in which 16 different nations participated, became the forerunner to the establishment of the Red Cross. The establishment of the Red Crescent in the Ottoman state stretches back to the time when the Red Cross was established. The Ottoman government, which established Salib-i Ahmer (Red Cross), did not send a delegate to participate in the Geneva Convention. However, on July 5, 1865, after signing the Geneva Convention, Miralay Abdullah Bey, instructor at the Mekteb-i Tıbbiye (Medical School) was assigned to participate in the Medical Conference in Paris in 1867 and join the International Red Cross Health Conference. The Directorate of International Aid for the Wounded gave Abdullah Bey authority to apply the Geneva Convention; on June 11, 1868, with the efforts of Dr. Abdullah Bey, the Serdar-ı Ekrem (Commander in Chief ) Ömer Pasha, Marko Pasha and Kırımlı Aziz Bey, the Mecrûhîn ve Marda-yı Askeriyeye İmdat ve Muavenet Cemiyeti (Ottoman Wounded and Invalided Soldier Aid Society) was established.
After the crescent was proposed as the symbol of the organization by Dr. Besim Pasha first in London and then at the Lahey Conference, it was officially approved by all the states at the 9th Washington Red Cross Conference held on May 10, 1912.
The Turkish Red Crescent, which is an active member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement today and also holds the vice-presidency of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was established in 1868 as the world’s first Red Crescent. The Hilal-i Ahmer established to help the soldiers in the most difficult period of the Ottoman Empire, contributed the “Red Crescent” emblem to the international organization and thus, presented the “Crescent” to the world.
Hilal-i Ahmer During the Ottoman-Russian War
Since the first day it was established, the Ottoman Red Crescent Society played an active role in assisting those wounded in war, and passes its first major test with the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War (93 War). The society set up nine mobile hospitals behind the frontline and four hospitals in Istanbul where more than 25,000 injured and sick were treated.
Within a year, aid began to be provided in the name of the society, both within the country and from some Muslim countries; with this aid and the money that was collected, hospitals like the Anadolu Kavağı Hospital, Beylerbeyi Hospital and Yıldız Hospital were opened.
The society, which carried out very effective activities during wartime, rented two steamboats during the 1897 Turkish-Greek war and transformed these into hospitals. It was thus possible to transport wounded and ill soldiers to Istanbul.
Restructuring During the Years of the Constitu- tional Monarchy
After the declaration of the Second Constitutional Monarchy, the society began to be very effective. The Ottoman Red Crescent Society was restructured during this process, and factors such as including influential people from the society and every walk of life, as well as physicians among the founding council members and the establishment of a Women’s Center enabled the Hilal-i Ahmer to be embraced and known by all sectors of society in a very short time.
The wars that broke out in the Ottoman territory and the large waves of migration during the first years of the 20th century meant that the wounded had to be treated quickly. The growing need in this matter led the Hilal-i Ahmer Society to open nursing courses and to make arrangements in the structure of the organization so that women could provide services behind the front lines. In 1911, Besim Ömer Pasha organized 4 to 5-month long nursing courses in the Kadırga Veladethane for women and men, thus temporarily fulfilling the need for nurses during time of war.
On March 20, 1912 the “Ottoman Hilal-i Ahmer Women’s Center” was established as part of the Ottoman Res Crescent Society. In this organization, women could participate in the activities of the Hilal-i Ahmer in a more intense and effective manner. Hundreds of women worked day and night, with no expectation of compensation, to sew clothing, undergarments and bedding for soldiers, and to knit them gloves and scarves. The women who were members of the center looked after soldiers on the front and took care of all the soldiers’ needs, including food, clothing and health matters. They gave aid to civilians behind the front, and produced solutions to the problems experienced by the thousands of immigrants who were seeking refuge in Ottoman territory.
The Women’s Center organized certain activities that would form an income for the society, and sold postcards, tickets, rosettes and flowers. It organized exhibitions and shows. Among the Hilal-i Ahmer’s volunteers who left a mark in Turkish history, and played an active role with their duties were Halide Edip Adıvar; Safiye Hüseyin Elbi, the first Turkish nurse; Fatma Hüseyin Elbi; Fatma Seher Hanım; Selma Rıza Feraceli; İhsan Raif Hanım, one of the first female poets; and poet Nigar.
The Hilal-i Ahmer in Wars from Tripolitania to the War of Independence
When Italy invaded Tripolitania, two health teams were sent to Benghazi and Homs. Here, 3,013 wounded and ill soldiers were treated. During the war, the Hilal-i Ahmer Hospital in Derna, treated a patient that years later was to change the fate of the Turkish people. In January 1912, this patient was serving as the commander of the Eastern Front Corps in Derna. This commander, that was treated in the Hilal-i Ahmer Hospital, was Mustafa Kemal who years later was to name the society “Red Crescent.”
With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, the society took on new activities to provide aid to the wounded soldiers, immigrants, poor, widows who had been driven to immigrate due to the war, and orphans; it also combated the contagious diseases that were spreading due to the poor conditions. Soup kitchens were opened in Cerrahpaşa, Topkapı, Eyüp, Üsküdar and Cibali in Istanbul. The wounded were treated in 15 different Hilal-i Ahmer hospitals, many of which had as many as 1,000 beds, and the Gülnihal steam ship was transformed into a mobile hospital.
Hilal-i Ahmer was the state’s most important representative during the First World War, in terms of dealing with the health issues, treating the wounded, providing food and clothing for the soldiers when the Ottoman state fought on many fronts. Throughout the war, the society operated under difficult conditions on a vast geography of three continents, and constantly offered support to the soldiers and civilians. All these operations were carried out in the vast geographies of the Ottoman Empire. Hilal-i Ahmer sent healthcare committees to the Battle of Gallipoli, and also to all the fronts including Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Eastern Front. The hospitals that were set up in Erzurum, Erzincan, Sivas, Samsun, Gelibolu, Şarköy, Tekirdağ, Medina, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Damascus and Istanbul, as well as field hospitals (tent hospital), teahouses, convalescent hospitals and hospital ships all tried to provide uninterrupted services.
After the First World War, during the years of the War of Independence which had broken out in Anatolia, the Hilal-i Ahmer reached the pinnacle of selfless services. This was the most glorious period for the society and it provided services without cessation, 24 hours a day. The population of Anatolia was decreasing day by day due to fighting and poverty; during the War of Independence 33, 172 wounded and ill patients were treated and in many places Hilal-i Ahmer hospitals, convalescent hospitals, dispensaries, soup kitchens and teahouses were quickly established. Despite the extraordinary conditions of this era, in which there was a dearth of medicine and goods, the society became the greatest supporter to the Turkish nation, whose wounds it bound.
Since the day it was established the Red Crescent has continued to operate over a period of 150 years, acting as a representative of compassion and mercy during times of war and exchanges of populations; In the past, the Ottomans carried out activities over three continents; today people all over the world ben- efit from the Red Crescent. Wherever there is a disaster, the Red Crescent runs to bring aid in the name of the Turkish people. The Red Crescent continues to collect blood and provide social services and international aid in times of disaster and migration, provid- ing first aid, health, education and youth services in a way that is in keeping with its history.