You’re walking down the street and you see this girl. And you look at her, and she looks at you… So you smile at her and she smiles at you. You saunter over towards her – and she hands you a white feather, saying, “You should be in uniform.”
In late 1914 and in 1915 that scene was happening every day, all over the country. Were the women who handed out emblems of cowardice to strangers just obsessed patriots? Were they “flappers” who had caught “khaki fever”? Or was there more to it than this? I want to try to understand the phenomenon by looking at the stories that people told each other.
The term “white feather” came from cock-fighting. Some game birds had white feathers in their tail, and so to show the white feather was to turn tail. “Showing the white feather” was a term used for human cowardice throughout the nineteenth century. The OED dates the usage from 1795.
There doesn’t seem to be any reference to anyone presenting feathers as a sign of disapproval until 1902, when A.E.W.Mason published The Four Feathers. This has been an enduringly popular story, and over the century has been filmed at least six times, but to understand it we need to remember that it was written at the time of the Boer War, when there were considerable anxieties about the fitness of recruits for the British army, and the quality of British manliness.
The story goes like this. Harry Faversham decides, for practical reasons, not to go with his regiment when they leave to fight in the Sudan. His fellow-officers see this as cowardice, and three of them send him a white feather each, together with their cards. His fiancé Ethne discovers this, and she too plucks a white feather from her boa, and breaks off the engagement.
Harry is forced to scrutinise his motives, and recognises that cowardice played a part in his decision. Silently, he decides to regain his reputation, in his own eyes and those of others by going secretly to the Sudan. He redeems himself by acts of gratuitous courage, by enduring suffering, and by rescuing some of his old officer comrades from a vile Sudanese prison. Having proved his manhood and returned the feathers to their donors, he returns home to reclaim his fiancé and the approbation of his estranged father.
It is a book full of silences. Harry Faversham cannot tell his father, the General, how he feels about a military career; the family friend is prevented by convention from beginning a conversation that might have relieved Harry from his sense of isolation. The book is full of undelivered messages and people unable to declare their feelings. Yet within this culture of reticence, heroism triumphs.
In the context of the Boer War, The Four Feathers can be read as a consoling fable – Harry Faversham realises that he is found wanting, but he does something about it. So can England.
The degree to which this story had resonance for the age can be judged from the way in which it echoes through popular culture. In 1908, for example, the two most prestigious boys’ papers, The Boy’s Own Paper and The Captain both ran serials called The White Feather. The more interesting of these is the serial in The Captain, an early piece of fiction by P.G.Wodehouse, which transfers the pattern of The Four Feathers to a public school. Sheen, a scholarly sixth-former avoids involvement in a fight between some of his fellow students and some ghastly common oiks from the town. He is sent to Coventry by the school, and, facing that silence, redeems himself by recognising his fear, secretly learning to box, and achieving honour for the school in the Public Schools boxing championship at Aldershot, before the approving eyes of the military. Like Harry Faversham, he proves himself by his own efforts, pursued in secrecy and silence.
We can take it that everyone knew the meaning of a white feather in September 1914 when a retired Admiral called Charles Penrose Fitzgerald organised thirty women in Folkestone to hand out white feathers to any men that they saw not in uniform. This was reported in the press, and the custom spread, so fast that it actually worried the authorities – they wanted recruits, but they didn’t want a popular movement that might get out of hand. It certainly worried a lot of men, as we can see by the stories they began to tell.
These stories can be represented by a passage I found suddenly appearing in the preface to a book called The Minor Horrors of War, which is actually about insect life – the lice and fleas and so on that afflict soldiers in trenches. It is a comment on:
“…the half-hysterical ladies who offer white feathers to youths whose hearts are breaking because medical officer after medical officer has refused them the desire of their young hearts to serve their country…”i.
A different version of the story appears in the Union Jack comic for December 26th, 1914, in which “a girlish figure wearing a badge of some sort on her breast” sees a young man wearing tweed and a heavy overcoat. Her mother, sensing the young man’s “troubled look”, tries to stop her, but the girl says, “I don’t care, mother… I think it’s a shame that any healthy young man should be lounging here while his countrymen are training themselves, ready to meet the enemy.”… and the scrap of white was thrust into his buttonhole. What the insensitive girl doesn’t know is that the young man is really desperate to fight, but is being prevented from enlisting by his selfish father.
The hit play on the London stage in 1915 was a comedy thriller, The Man who Stayed at Home by Lechmere Worrall and J. E. Harold Terry – so popular that it was later turned into a novel. This features a silly-ass character called Christopher Brent. Everyone is saying he ought to join the army, but he pretends not even to understand them. We, the audience, know that he is really a spy. The scene that made the biggest impact is one where an earnest young woman gives him a white feather; he uses it to clean his pipe, and then cheerfully hands it back to her. We know that he’s really the bravest of them all. The silly girl has been misled by appearances.
Urban legends abounded, too – the stories of what happened to a friend of a friend, so they’re definitely true. There’s the woman who gives a feather to a man in civilian clothes on a bus, and when he stands up everyone sees that he has only one leg. There’s the story of the girl who gives a man a feather, not realizing that he’s just been awarded the V.C. The typical structure of these stories is very different from that of the Four Feathers, as you can see from this table:
|Woman sees the sign of cowardice||Woman sees the sign of cowardice|
|Man recognises his cowardice||Man knows he is not a coward|
|Man retreats to silence, then proves his courage||Man speaks, or shows wound as sign of courage|
|Woman recognises his courage||Woman recognises his courage|
|Man and woman marry||Woman retreats|
|Man has more status than before||Man has more status than before|
Surely the widespread need to tell such stories suggests a considerable anxiety, as well as hostility to the women who gave out the feathers. So why were men so very disturbed by this practice? Why did women continue giving white feathers in the face of such hostility? Which women did it?
It’s hard to find out which women were involved in the practice. In the 1960s the BBC were making a documentary, and appealed for people who remembered white feathers being distributed. According to Nicoletta Gullace, hundreds of men responded with anecdotes like the ones I’ve mentioned, or with stories of men who died after being recruited this way. Only two women admitted to having presented feathers, one of whom described herself as a “chump” for doing so.
The women have disappeared. Contemporary accounts often call them “flappers”, but that was a term generally used to belittle women that someone disapproved of. It is likely that many of the givers of white feathers were young girls of the type described by Angela Woollacott in her article on “Khaki Fever”. The outbreak of war led to a huge interest in soldiers among teenage girls, who sometimes became “aggressive and overt”x in their attention to the military. Sometimes they even hunted in packs; Woollacott describes “Colonials running for their lives to escape a little company of girls.”
Is that the whole story? I don’t think so. The important factor is that for many women the war was understood as a gender issue.
Britain’s main stated reason for entering the war was the German invasion of Belgium, which broke the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality – the famous “scrap of paper”. On August 8th, The Nation magazine could say, “It is a passionless war. No one hates anybody, not we the Germans, nor the Germans us.” There was no such anger, the magazine said, “as was evoked against the Boer Republic in the summer of 1899.”
But then the atrocity stories began. The massive German army, heading into hostile territory, was troubled by memories of 1870, when French civilians had acted as franc-tireurs (free-shooters), and had engaged in guerrilla sniping against the invaders. They took punitive action against any hint of civilian activity, shooting hostages, burning buildings, and so on. Some soldiers indulged in their own individual petty vengeances against the hostile population, too. There were thefts, there were petty acts of vandalism, like defecating on people’s carpets, and there were some rapes.
It was these that inflamed the imagination of the British public. The war changed from being about the violation of a treaty to being about the violation of women. (It is hard to be completely certain, but this seems to have been a grassroots, bottom-up redefinition., coming from popular feeling about newspaper reports and rumours, before it was a theme picked up by the official propagandists and poster artists.)
Discussion of this was made more potent by circumlocution, by reminders that it was something that could not be discussed. What the Germans had committed were unspeakable acts, or “deeds so terrible that they could only be whispered from man to man”, as the Labour Politician J.A. Seddon called them. And of course, as they were whispered, Chinese-style, they grew in scale and horror.
Here is another image, from a march in favour of the war effort organised by the Women’s Political and Social Union, a woman dressed to symbolise suffering Belgium. As Michael McDonagh described her: “She carried aloft the flag of her country, torn and tattered but still beautiful… She walked barefoot through the slush of the roadways… and on her face there was an expression of pride and sorrow and devotion, all of a high degree…”
The Women’s Political and Social Union was run by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and was the most prominent militant Suffragette organisation, which might remind us that disturbing images of male violence to women were not unprecedented in this period. The issue of The Suffragette printed the week before war was declared looked like this –
Suffragettes were no strangers to militaristic thinking; for several years they had been treating Britain as a war zone. Inside this issue there is a double page of reports of window-smashing, arson and other activities. It is headed “News from the Front”.
Famously, Mrs Pankhurst at the start of the war called off her campaign of militant law-breaking, and threw herself and her movement into energetic support for the war effort. Angela K. Smith has shown how this U-turn can be explained in three ways:
A genuine patriotic belief in the war
A sense that the tactic of extreme militancy was becoming counter-productive, and would become more so in wartime
A sense that war was a chance to re-define women’s role, and to re-define the meaning of citizenshipvii
From September 1914, Mrs Pankhurst advocated “War Service for All” – conscription for men and compulsory war work for women. At this time, the Government did not want conscription (They had more volunteers than they could train) and male writers wrote about “The insult of conscription” because it implied that British men would not fight unless forced to.
Mrs Pankhurst was adamant, though:
“The least that men can do is that every man of fighting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women, and to make ready to do his best, to save the mothers, the wives and daughters of Great Britain from outrage too horrible even to think of.”
She drew attention to the fact that some women were doing a great deal for the war effort, while some men were not, calling into question the basis on which the right to full citizenship was judged.
We need not totally believe Sylvia Pankhurst, who as a pacifist had disagreed with her mother on this issue, when she caricatures the war efforts of her mother and Christabel:
“Mrs Pankhurst toured the country making recruiting speeches. Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress, and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards, “Intern Them All.”
As Nicoletta Gullace has said, “The spectre of Belgian atrocities greatly enhanced women’s authority to speak to men in this way.” It gave permission to ignore the rules of conventional behaviour at a time when conventions were strict – not merely talking to strange men in the street, but assuming that a woman had the right to inform a man of his duty
It would be wrong to think that the suffragettes were “behind” the white feather movement, or that their participation was more than a small part of a far wider phenomenon.
These soldier-worshippers may seem very different from suffragettes suspicious of male power, but as Woolacott says, “This assertive behaviour by young working-class women threatened a subversion of the gender as well as of the moral order.Handing out white feathers was even more subversive.
What is significant about the involvement of the suffragettes is that it makes explicit what was otherwise unspoken – women were claiming the right to inform males of their duty, and were demanding that they fulfil the obligation implied in the restriction of full citizenship and the franchise to males, the obligation to defend their womenfolk..
Many men must have been made to feel very uncomfortable. During the years of peace it had been possible to think of oneself as manly without being in any way military, but now gender stereotypes were shifting, and in a way that left men little room to manoeuvre. Even young girls were encouraged to think of themselves in a militaristic way; all sorts of women were urging men to enlist, not just the predictable conservative patriots like Mrs Humphrey Ward. Now even the suffragettes, who before the war had seemed to offer a different kind of thinking about gender, were joining in.
Men must have felt themselves the subject of a formidable female gaze, which left some little choice but to enlist. They did so in silence. Time and again in narratives by men, the moment of enlistment is not spoken of.
“What the psychological processes were that led to my enlisting in “Kitchener’s Army” need not be inquired into. Few men could explain why they enlisted”, says Patrick MacGill at the beginning of The Amateur Army.
This is dramatized very well in a Dornford Yates short story. The hero has just heard about the outbreak of war:
“Leisurely he began to fill his pipe, and a moment later he fell a-whistling the refrain whose words they had been singing together. Abstractedly, though, for his brain was working furiously. Dolly Loan never took her eyes from his face. He did not look at her at all.”
In that silence, under the female gaze, he makes his decision and joins up. Otherwise he’d have had to award himself the white feather.
- Nicoletta Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons (Basingstoke, 2002)
- Angela K Smith : Suffrage Discourse in Britain during the First World War, 2005
- Angela Woollacott, “ ‘Khaki Fever’ and its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Moralityon the British Homefront in the First World War”, Journal of Contemporary History Vol 29 (1994) 325-47
- Shipley, The Minor Horrors of War, London 1915
- Union Jack, December 26th, 1914.
- The Suffragette April 23rd, 1915
- Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement, 1935
- Patrick Macgill The Amateur Army (1915)
- Dornford Yates, “And the Other Left” collected in The Courts of Idleness (1920)