During the Great War, several incidences of young ladies presenting a white feather to young men not in uniform, to denote their presumed cowardice, occurred. The romanticised outcome being that the man in question would be publicly shamed into dashing off to the nearest recruitment office to enlist. So what prompted these acts? Was it a random idea that gained momentum as the initial rush to do ones bit subsided? If we dig a little deeper we find that there is much more to the story than a simple shaming gesture.
Popular theory has is stated that the white feather became associated with cowardice as the result of perhaps what could be termed a superstition, backed up by scant evidence in the world of game-fighting. Pure-bred fighting cocks were said to be devoid of any white feathers; when a bird was produced that had white plumage in its tail, it reputedly was a poor fighter, exhibiting signs of cowardice. How much truth there was within the theory is another matter entirely.
Other cultures have different meanings for the emblem of a white feather. In some, it is considered a sign of peace, often associated with a white dove, and therefore pacifism. If we examine certain spiritual beliefs, the white feather is often denoted as a sign of love, many newly-weds incorporate the release of white doves – there they are again – into their wedding service, and it can also represent guardianship, particularly associated with angels, and the visitation of loved ones from the hereafter.
In the USA it is considered a sign of extraordinary bravery and excellent marksmanship. It hasn’t always been considered a sign of cowardice in England either. If we look into the History books, we see anecdotal stories of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales following the Battle of Crecy 1346, plucking three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia and incorporating them into his arms. And they were both arguably anything but cowardly. The likely truth is a little less exciting, the symbol of three feathers was a common theme in the arms of the Hainault’s, his mother Philippa’s line, with several members of the family using it in different ways. Whatever the story, three white ostrich feathers is, as a result commonly associated with the Prince of Wales.
The symbolism of a white feather denoting cowardice appears to have its origins in the British and colonial forces going back to around the 18th Century. A plethora of anecdotal evidence is available although one is never too sure whether the introduction of such a practice has its roots in fact or myth, with the inevitable ensuing examples gathering speed as the story takes hold. In 1902 the concept was lent considerable weight when woven into the fabric of A.E.W. Mason’s popular novel, ‘The Four Feathers’ later adapted into seven versions of the film, the most recent starring the late Heath Ledger in the lead role (2002).
Following the outbreak of war in 1914, there was an immense patriotic rush by Britain’s youth to enlist and join in the nation’s fight. In the opening days over 100,000 of these young men were to fill recruitment centres to add their name and take the ‘King’s shilling’. Others weren’t in such a rush. Conscription was two years away, and many of them were incorporated into the war effort in other roles on the Home Front. Reserved occupations were as important to the smooth running of the war machine, as the need for thousands of fighting Tommies. Unfortunately there were members of society who failed to recognise that important fact.
In late August 1914, Admiral Charles Penrose-Fitzgerald, founded The Order of the White Feather with considerable support from novelist Mary Ward, aka Mrs Humphrey Ward. Fitzgerald was a retired Naval officer whose 47 year career had been spent mainly captaining iron-clads in the Channel Fleet, and whose active service doesn’t appear to have involved much by way of enemy action other than a dabble in the China Station, around the time of the second Opium War of the late 1850’s to early 1860’s and a brief liaison in the Crimean War where his vessel was part of the Baltic fleet, and later the Black Sea patrol. During his later career, and continuing into his retirement, Fitzgerald maintained an active vocal role in naval matters. He was given the task of writing an article for the Deutsche review into British Naval policy. Later claiming the translation was grossly exaggerated, it was his statement that Britain and Germany should go to war sooner rather than later due to concerns over the increase in German Naval resources, that arguably led to the Germans increasing their fleet further. Following the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Danger! Being the log of Captain John Sirius” in the strand in July of 1914, which alluded to Fitzgerald’s perceived threat of German Naval superiority and embellished it with a plot that had Britain in war being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade, Fitzgerald famously said “I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.” Hmmmm, and we all know how that turned out.
But anyway, back to those feathers. At the end of August, Fitzgerald recruited 30 young women in Folkestone to shame men in civilian clothing into enlisting by the public distribution of white feathers. The mission quickly gathered momentum, when seen as a spot of patriotic fun by the naïve young ladies of the time. Supported by prominent members of the Women’s Suffrage movement, particularly Emmeline and Cristabel Pankhurst, who had sworn to put aside their bid for women’s voting rights and associated suffrage, for the duration, in order to offer their full support for the war effort, which they graciously and publicly declared to be the Nation’s Priority, the distributors of the feathers were given active encouragement to use their femininity and sexuality to promote the war effort, by humiliating unpatriotic young men to do their bit. Modern feminists and indeed anti-feminists argue that the practice of handing out white feathers had its roots in feminism.
Several leading figures of the day gave added weight to the project, although many chose to stop short of the white feather aspect, denoting it as a shameful, disgusting act of young women with loose morals, for them to openly approach men and be so publicly lewd. Instead they felt the pressure should be offered by way of the ‘with-holding of affections’ for any man who wasn’t prepared to honour his girl by fighting to protect her, while other young men did.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result of numerous cases of these ladies handing white feathers to soldiers, home on leave from the front, wounded casualties recovering from injuries, and members of reserved occupations, led to a public outcry regarding the practice. Famous stories include several concerning amputees, after suffering the horrors of war, and losing a limb, being home going about their lives as best as they can being approached and publicly denounced as a coward before a white feather is forcefully pressed upon them by a self-righteous young female, only to be confronted by the inevitable demonstration of the missing limb.
There are at least two incidents to my knowledge involving Victoria Cross recipients being home to be awarded their decoration for the ultimate in valour, by the King himself, being presented with the feather, one of which took place in Hyde Park when the gentleman concerned was on his way home from Buckingham Palace after his presentation and stopped for a smoke. He was later said to have been rather amused by the incident and chose to tuck the feather into the clasp of his Cross. He returned to the front, and was killed in action a week later.
As public opinion swayed alarmingly against the White Feather Brigade, as they were known, particularly following conscription in 1916, the practice seemed to continue, with the targeting of those in uniforms that were considered too neat and tidy to have been worn in combat, and therefore it was assumed, often incorrectly, that the wearer had recently joined up because he was forced to, and was therefore still a coward, worthy of shame. Generally the neatness of the uniform represented the battle the soldier’s poor wife had recently undertaken with repeated washing and ironing of the kit in an effort to remove lice.
As workers in reserved occupations were increasingly targeted, often leading to the subject to dash off to join up, with often horrifying consequences. There were also alarming examples of men who had been approached, and feeling such humiliation had gone off and taken their own lives. As a result the Government became forced to issue “for King and Country” badges for those reserved fellows to wear, and similar “wounded in action” badges for recuperating injured soldiers, and discharged disabled men to wear. These, however, were often overlooked, ignored or simply unrecognised by the eager young idiots. It seems the key to the receipt of a feather was the wearing of civilian clothing, whatever your particular circumstances. Exemption was not even offered to those who had tried to enlist and been turned down for a number of valid reasons, particularly bad eyesight or some other health issue, even underage youths were targeted.
One incident of this involved a young man who had joined up at just fifteen years of age, fooling the recruiting sergeant, passing his training and serving on the Western front, until he was wounded in action. During his time in hospital recovering from quite substantial injuries, his true age was discovered and he was shipped home to recover, and await discharge. Following his recovery, still aged only 16, he was approached by a large group of females who berated him loudly in front of many passers-by. He argued that not only was he underage, AND had already done his bit, AND been wounded and discharged, this wasn’t enough for the pack of girls, who demanded he re-enlist immediately. He ran for the recruitment office, but luckily was recognised by the sergeant on duty, who escorted him tearfully home.
The practice continued almost until the end of the war, however with less support from the public, who began to see more incidents of mistaken identity than genuine cowardice. Socially the perpetrators were frowned upon, viewed as distasteful and immoral. Many leading figures in the subsequent years have played down the practice, even denying its existence as anecdotal. Virginia Woolf was one such person who Historian Nicolette Gullas claims believed that ‘the white feather campaign was more a product of male hysteria than of actual female practice’ and that as a result, and lack of solid basis in fact this may be why the feminist movement have striven to keep the association from history.
Despite its distasteful presence in the Great War, there were several attempts to revitalise the practice during the Second World War, which met with considerably less enthusiasm, quite possibly as a result of the harsh lessons learned from the Great War, both in terms of those committing the deed, who may have matured and recognised the huge shame in their actions, or indeed become mothers of young men themselves who faced the same treatment as they used to mete out, and those who were wiser to the horrors of war, and not as enthusiastic for young men to rush off to suffer the same. The practice is now considered by the majority, who have a greater awareness of bravery in terms of social context as well as acts of valour, to be distasteful and abhorrent and a period of history that should be left to quietly die in the shadow of its own shame.