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E - 125 : Corfu, Topographic Maps, War Academy and the ICRC

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Corfu in 1716 during the last Ottoman Siege

Working on the last week of our summer sailing made me think of Corfu and how this island, the most forward logistics base of Venice, fascinated me from the first time I set foot on it. Over time I found many connections. Can anybody guess how Corfu, topographic maps, the Swiss War Academy and the ICRC are related? By Switzerland’s first General, Guillaume Henry Dufour. A story worth telling!

Born in 1787 to watchmaker parents who fled Geneva for political reasons, he returned once the town was annexed by France in 1798. Dufour studied drawing and medicine at the new University of Geneva. Only 20 years old, a year after the battle of Austerlitz ,when Napoleon re-ordered Europe, Dufour went to Paris to continue his studies. In his new capital, he read geometry at the Ecole Polytechnique, graduated 1809 and went to the Ecole d"Application to become a military engineer. Dufour was commissioned in 1810 and dispatched to Corfu. The Ionian Islands were at that time French and were under constant attack from the Royal Navy. Dufour was tasked with mapping the island’s fortifications. By that time, France had already lost all Ionian Islands except Corfu and Paxos. His work was important and urgent.

By 1813, the 25-year-old Dufour had been promoted to captain and commanded a company of engineers. Returning from a reconaissance mission on the Albanian coast with his commander and mentor colonel Baudrand, an encounter with the Royal Navy at Cape Blanc on the southern tip of Corfu resulted in Dufour suffering severe burns due to exploding ammunition on his gun boat. Baudrand was sent as a prisoner to Malta and later to Palermo, but the badly wounded Dufour himself released on parole. The British later asked for his extradition which the French refused on the grounds of his being hospitalized. Bad luck wanted that a British officer then encountered Dufour who had recovered taking a walk at the Corfu harbour. He risked being taken prisoner for a second time, but the wife of the French garrison's chief of staff convinced the British admiral Taylor to exchange him against a few prisoners the French held. The admiral said he could not deny the request of a lady. So civilized could warfare be then...(from my friend David) That’s the Corfu connection!

Dufour's map of Corfu's Fortifications in 1811/12 - the Original is in the Depot de la Guerre in Paris

Dufour returned to France in 1814, helped fortifying Lyon, was promoted to Captain and received the Croix de la Legion d’Honneur. Nevertheless, he felt Swiss and decided in 1817 to return to his hometown, where he became Cantonal Engineer and assumed Command of Geneva’s Corps of Pioneers. Geneva had joined Switzerland in 1815. In addition he worked on improving Geneva’s public water supply, built bridges, established gas lighting and was a professor for mathematics. One of his other jobs was building Switzerland’s new War Academy for Staff Officers, the Zentralschule in Thun. Dufour commanded the school from 1819 – 1830, was made Colonel in 1827 and commanded the Swiss Army in several field manoeuvres. This is the War Academy connection!

Dufour's Map of Geneva from 1842 - the old Town Walls and Bastions still standing

For the bundle of energy he was, this was not enough work yet. He simultaneously worked on a new map for the Republic and Canton of Geneva. He used the triangulation methods he had applied to his work in Corfu. The revolutionary results landed him in 1831 a job with the Swiss Government who commissioned a map of Switzerland on the scale of 1:100’000. It was a monumental task which took several decades to complete. From 1842 to 1865, 25 sheets were published under his leadership and still form the basis of modern Swiss map making.

Pierre de Pitton in Geneva - in the centre of the photo - now serves as altitude reference for Switzerland's Siegfried maps which succeeded the Dufour's maps To honour the General, Switzerland named the highest point in the Swiss Alps "Peak Dufour" (comment from my friend Marc-Andre). Dufour's topographic achievement was envied throughout Europe who quickly copied his revolutionary triangulation method. Voila the map connection.

Dufour's Triangulation Method with the Lake of Geneva serving as Level 0

The Swiss Authorities held him in high regard and, not surprisingly, made him Switzerland’s first Four Star General (the term did not exist at the time) when the Catholic Cantons planned to secede in 1847. Dufour led his 100’000 men army in 4 weeks to victory by concentrating overwhelming force against his opponents. Fully aware that he fought a civil war, he stressed that losses must be minimized. After every war there is peace. He knew that building peace was much easier if casualties were light. Dufour’s record was outstanding. By concentrating his forces to the maximum, his opponents often surrender without putting up a fight. The total casualty list did not exceed 111 lives. His foresight made it possible that Protestant and Catholic Swiss Cantons could get back together after the war and live in peace.

Guisan's Federal Troops at the Battle of Gisikon in 1847

It was thus natural that he looked at the wars of Italian Reunification with horror. Modern technology had made the battlefield a slaughterhouse. Together with Henry Dunant and three others he founded the Red Cross in 1863 and launched the Humanitarian movement which is today the largest volunteer movement in the world and intervenes in every armed conflict. Humanitarians cannot prevent wars but they can make returning to peace easier.

Our Operations in Syria - challenging but necessary

My connections to Dufour are manyfold. Born 81 years after his death I used his maps every day during my 35 years in the Swiss Army, attended the War Academy he founded and now serve as Assembly member to the International Committee of the Red Cross which he created. I do not know whether Dufour loved Corfu as much as I do – but knowing that he stayed there for four years, I guess he did.

General Guillaume Henri Dufour, 1787 - 1875

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Mar 08, 2021

I love this blog!!!

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