17 February 2008

In February 1781 there was an uprising in Geneva. The revolutionaries demanded liberty, equality and republican government of the city based on the American model. The French King Louis XVI sent troops since he thought the uprising would be a bad example to his own people. The revolutionaries were crushed. In 1782 about 1,000 people fled the city.

These were the circumstances that led to Guillaume-Henri, the future General Dufour, being born at the town of Constance on the Swiss/German border on 15 September 1787, since it was here that his family had taken refuge. When he was 2 years old the French Revolution broke out and a more liberal government came into power in Geneva, so the Dufour family returned.

In 1798 the French Army occupied Geneva and it became the administrative capital of the department of L?man. This meant that, now a French citizen, Guillaume-Henri Dufour could apply for admission to the prestigious ?cole polytechnique in Paris. In 1807 at the age of 20 he was admitted 140th out of a class of 144, and two years later graduated in fifth place. He continued his education at the military engineering and artillery school in Metz. In 1811, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, he completed his training and was sent to fortify the island of Corfu against attacks by the British Navy. On 27 June 1813 in an exchange of gunfire with British warships he was badly wounded. In fact, the British captured all of the Ionian Islands, except Corfu. Four years later he resigned from the French Army.

From this moment on Guillaume-Henri Dufour appears to have been blessed with uncommon energy and uninterrupted good fortune in a wide variety of enterprises. In 1817 he married Suzanne Bonneton and they lived in a house in the Parc des Contamines, which lies opposite the Natural History Museum in Geneva.

In that same year he became cantonal engineer for Geneva, a post he was to occupy for thirty-three years From the 1820s onwards he directed the construction of several enormous projects that modernized the harbour area and established the quais, giving Geneva its present shoreline. The Ile Rousseau was given its present form and gas lighting installed in the city’s streets. He built some of the first suspension bridges. He was involved in planning the routes of Swiss railway lines, particularly that from Lyon to Geneva completed in 1851.
In 1819 Dufour started his political career by being elected to the Geneva Council as a liberal. In the 1840s he was to play a leading part in the government of the city and was particularly opposed to the radical policies of James Fazy. He was also elected several times to the Parliament in Berne, sometimes representing Geneva and sometimes the canton of Berne. In 1843 he was placed in charge of the Genevan military in a crisis that opposed the radical and conservative elements. The situation was resolved peacefully.

Dufour was co-founder of the Military School at Thun and taught military engineering there until 1831. One of his pupils was Louis-Napol?on Bonaparte, who would afterwards become Emperor of France (see Henry Dunant). Later, Dufour became a colonel in the Swiss Federal Army and was made responsible for organizing the defence of Switzerland. He published several books on military tactics and history, as well as on fortifications. During times of crisis in the 1840s and 1850s, Dufour was appointed to be Commander-in-Chief of the Swiss Army.

Dufour was also one of the founders of what would eventually become the International Committee of the Red Cross, and he was president during its first year of activity in 1864. For several years, he also sat on the board of governors of the Swiss Protestant church.

Among his most prestigious accomplishments was the preparation of the topographical maps of Switzerland. During the Napoleonic Wars the importance of accurate maps had come to be understood. In 1832 he persuaded the authorities that the mapping of Switzerland could only be carried out if he was provided with sufficient funding and adequate manpower. In the face of considerable difficulties, the project was completed in 1865 and became well known throughout the world for a level of accuracy "never before achieved". At first, Berne was used as the origin of the measurements, but the point of reference has now been fixed on the Pierre du Niton, a glacial erratic bloc in Geneva Harbour. (Dufour set a brass plate in the larger rock furthest from the left bank at 373.64 metres above sea level.)

It was, nevertheless, the Sonderbund crisis of 1847 that was to make Dufour a national hero (see box). When six Catholic cantons seceded from the federation, Dufour was placed in charge of a national army to bring the erring cantons back into the fold. He had more and better trained soldiers, better guns and better equipment, and he used them to decisive effect to overcome the rebels in twenty-five days. A grateful Swiss government gave Dufour 40,000 Swiss francs for his role in this affair, which he partly distributed to the wounded on both sides. Many European governments (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom) condemned Switzerland for this action, but by an unfortunate coincidence these governments faced revolutions of their own in 1848, which meant that Switzerland could-and did-ignore these protests.

Dufour was opposed to any form of vanity or excess and became known for always seeking le juste milieu-the middle course-even if it sometimes placed him in an uncomfortable position. The indefatigable champion of national unity, described as conservative, upright and unselfish, died in his family home on 14 July 1875. We may nowadays admire the equestrian statue of General Dufour in the middle of Place de Neuve in Geneva.

* eleves/ Rues-de-vevey/nou.general-guisan.htm



The origin of the Sonderbund Crisis lay in the canton of Aargau where in 1840 the Catholic minority were required to swear an oath of loyalty and rose up in protest. On 13 January 1841 the cantonal government dissolved the eight monasteries that had started the revolt. However, the Federal Pact of 1815 had specifically protected the monasteries and placed them under federal, not cantonal, control. The Catholic cantons protested and a guerrilla war broke out between Aargau and Lucerne. On 11 December 1845 the Catholic cantons of Fribourg, Lucerne, Schwytz, Unterwalden, Uri, Valais and Zug formed themselves into a secret confederation-the Sonderbund [separate alliance]-to insist that the terms of the Federal Pact were observed. Apart from Fribourg, which was completely isolated, these cantons formed a contiguous territory in the agricultural and mountainous heartland of Switzerland. They invited Jesuit priests to take charge of religious teaching. The opposition, centred on the cantons of Berne, Geneva, St Gallen, Solothurn, Vaud and Z?rich, began to organize itself. The federal Diet meeting in Berne in July 1847 voted by a majority of twelve out of the twenty-two cantons to dissolve the Sonderbund. Appenzell Inner-Rhoden and Neuch?tel declared their neutrality (and were subsequently fined for this). The Sonderbund War began on 4 November 1847. Fribourg capitulated almost without a fight. The last canton-Valais-surrendered on the twenty-fifth day. The loss of life was modest and the victorious troops were ordered by Dufour to refrain from any acts of vengeance. The Jesuits fled.