Ryerson Red Cross Flag flown during Battle of Batoche

Date / Period
1885
Place
Ottawa
Object Type
Textiles and Uniforms
Credit
Canadian Red Cross
Topics
International Humanitarianism and Presence Innovation

May 12, 1885:  During the Battle of Batoche, future Canadian Red Cross founder Dr. George Sterling Ryerson created this flag to identify his medical transport. In the process he gained first-hand experience of the value of the Geneva Conventions in modern battlefield medicine.

Ryerson was a surgeon with the Tenth Royal Grenadiers, a militia unit sent west to help quell an uprising by Métis and Aboriginal peoples protesting the expropriation of their land by Euro-Canadians. Now known as the North West Rebellion, this conflict highlighted the poor quality of medical provision in the Canadian militia at that time.

Ryerson later wrote of having to operate on wounded men lying on stretchers on the ground, lit only by a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle. In such less-than-ideal conditions, medical personnel had to improvise. 

Ryerson hastily sewed together this homemade Red Cross flag in order to visibly identify his work for the sick and wounded. “I had a spring wagon drawn by two horses in which we carried the stretchers and other medical equipment,” Ryerson wrote in his memoir Looking Backward (1924). “To distinguish it from ordinary transport I made a flag of factory cotton and sewed on it a Geneva Red Cross made from pieces of Turkey red which I got from the ammunition column.”

"I made a flag of factory cotton and sewed on it a Geneva Red Cross made from pieces of Turkey red which I got from the ammunition column."

The flag was initially preserved by Ryerson, eventually finding its way to the national office of the Canadian Red Cross.  It is often mistakenly believed (including by Ryerson himself) to be the first Red Cross flag flown in Canada but is in fact the third:  Alfred Codd and a group of medical personnel from Toronto had already used their own in earlier battles. Even without its claim to being “first,” it remains a treasured artifact because of its association with Ryerson.

There was no Red Cross Society in Canada in 1885, but the use of three Red Cross flags in the same conflict, each created independently of one another, makes it clear that some understanding of the Geneva Conventions had taken root in the Canadian militia by this point.

In 1864 the International Committee of the Red Cross sponsored the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty that conferred neutrality on medical personnel tending to sick and wounded combatants. The emblem of a short-limbed Geneva-style red cross was designated to distinguish these medical personnel.

Ryerson Red Cross Flag flown during Battle of Batoche

Battle of Batoche magazine advertisement
Magazine advertisement explaining early Canadian Red Cross history, placed by corporate partner Gooderham & Worts Distillery of Toronto (date unknown)

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