#whitefeather diaries

The shame of white feathers

Monday 11 August

Bert mentions white feathers but does not say whether he was given any. It seems quite likely. The prominent peace campaigner Fenner Brockway said that he was given enough to make a fan.

White feathers were associated with cowardice long before World War I. The 'Order of the White Feather' was founded in the early days of the war by Charles Fitzgerald, a retired admiral. He encouraged women to give white feathers to men in civilian clothes to shame  them into signing up.

Teenager Norman Demuth was injured on the Western Front while fighting in the London Rifle Brigade. Sent home wounded, he found he was often given white feathers by people who assumed he was a civilian:

Some were given to me when I was looking in shop windows, others in buses and others when I was walking along the road, even though I had a limp. At the beginning I got very, very angry.

Almost the last feather I received was on a bus. I saw two women looking at me. One leant forward, produced a white feather and said, “Here is a gift for a brave soldier.” I took it and said, “Thank you very much. I wanted one of those.” And I took my pipe out of my pocket and I put this feather down the pipe and I worked it like I have never worked a pipe cleaner since and then I pulled it out and it was filthy. I said, “We didn't get these in the trenches” and I handed it back to her. She got well and truly barracked by the rest of the people on the bus.

Quoted by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum.

For some, the effects of white feathers lasted far beyond the war. In 2008, the journalist Francis Beckett described how white feathers had affected his family:

My grandfather's attempt to volunteer was turned down in 1914 because he was short-sighted. But in 1916, as he walked home to south London from his office, a woman gave him a white feather. He enlisted the next day. By that time, they cared nothing for short sight. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28.

My mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice. She treasured his letters from the front, as well as information about his brothers who also died. She blamed the politicians. She blamed the generation that sent him to war. But most of all, she blamed that unknown woman who gave him a white feather.

Francis Beckett, The Guardian, 11 November 2008

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