06 April 2011

Cowards: Order of the White Feather

By Delia DeLeest

Today's post isn't necessarily about cowardice as much as people's perception of who is a coward.

There are many reasons, even during wartime, why a man would be denied access into the military--medical, mental, a pressing need to remain home for family, etc. Every person has their own story, and only they will know all the intimate details. It's not for an outsider to make decisions regarding another person's life, nor is it their duty to criticize the decisions made by others, especially when they don't even know that person. None of these facts seemed to bother the members of The Order of the White Feather.

The signification of a white feather to mean cowardice came from the world of cockfighting. A purebred gamecock will not have any visible white feathers, so if a fighting bird displayed any white plumage, especially in the tail feathers, it was believed to be inferior. In a sport where determination and aggressiveness in an animal is highly prized, to have an animal display any sort of cowardice was the worst sort of plight. By the turn of the twentieth century, a white feather became commonly known as an accusation of cowardice among men as well.

In 1914, at the dawn of World War I in Great Britain, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, along with support from author Mrs. Humphrey Ward, initiated The Order of the White Feather. This organization's sole purpose was to coerce able-bodied men to enter the military. When they saw a man out in public in civilian clothes, women were asked to hand them a white feather in order to shame them into doing their civic duty and take up arms against the Kaiser.

Right or wrong, the campaign was affective. So many men were pressured to join up that the government was having a hard time keeping enough men on the home front. Soon, Home Secretary Reginald McKenna began issuing King and Country badges to government employees to indicate that they too, were serving the war effort, though at home. Before long, he realized that veterans also needed to be protected from the feathered onslaught and issued the Silver War Badge, indicating that its wearer had been honorably discharged from the military due to injury or illness.

Not everyone supported the Order. Writer Compton MacKenzie had no patience with these judgmental feather handlers and claimed that "idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired." One noted pacifist at the time claimed he received so many feathers he had enough to make a fan.

Whether you agree with their actions or not, it can’t be denied that The Order of the White Feather definitely did their part to swell the ranks of the British military during The Great War.

Delia DeLeest is fascinated by all things 1920s. She suspects she was once a flapper or, more probably, a bootlegger in a previous life. Her third 1920s era book, NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, is available now from The Wild Rose Press.

3 comments:

Jen B. said...

That is good knowledge. I had heard a reference to handing out white feathers but I didn't understand the history. Thanks!

librarypat said...

Interesting. I had not heard of this before. It is not for anyone else to judge a person's reasons for serving in the military or choosing not to serve. Personally, a charge of cowardice needs to have hard evidence to support it and not serving in the military is not sufficient. The fact that the government felt they had to issue badges to employees and veterans for their "protection" from harassment says more about the tactics of those handing out the feathers than anything else.
Never knew that little tidbit about fighting cocks.

Anonymous said...

This article is surprisingly similar to the Wikipedia entry on the same subject. You may as well have simply provided a link to the original article. Or, at least, supplied a reference to it. It's highly relevant that Ward and Pope, the key literary supporters of the white feather, have been completely overshadowed by the anti war poetry of Owen and Sassoon.
See Dulce et Decorum Est. Here's a Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulce_et_Decorum_est