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The Order of the White Feather

One thing that nearly all of the American reviewers have focused on is the handing over of a white feather to young men in World War 1. They were unaware of this happening in England.

There have been some films and television dramas where white feathers were handed to men not in uniform. The Four Feathers and To Serve Them All My Days are ones that I remember. In my researches about World War 1, I came across a number of stories about the handing over of white feathers, which were recounted in the Forgotten Voices books.

What I had not realised before starting my novel was how involved the suffragette movement were in handing out white feathers. Mrs Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement, toured England making recruiting speeches. Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress. As I was interested, I then read a thesis on the subject. The government at the time did not want to bring in conscription. Helping the war effort was therefore the quid pro quo for women being given the vote and part of the war effort involved getting young men to enlist. There are numerous stories about young women mistakenly handing white feathers to soldiers who were on leave and not in uniform. Private Norman Demuth recounted the following story in one of the Forgotten Voices books:

"Almost the last feather I received was on a bus. I was sitting near the door when I became aware of two women on the other side talking at me, and I thought to myself, 'Oh Lord, here we go again'. One lent forward and produced a feather and said, 'Here's a gift for a brave soldier. I took it and said, 'Thank you very much- I wanted one of those.' Then I took my pipe out of my pocket and put this feather down the stem and worked it in a way I've never worked a pipe cleaner before. When it was filthy I pulled it out and said, 'You know, we didn't get these in the trenches', and handed it back to her. She instinctively put out her hand and took it, so there she was sitting with this filthy pipe cleaner in her hand and all the other people on the bus began to get indignant. Then she dropped it and got up to get out, but we were nowhere near a stopping place and the bus went on quite a long way while she got well and truly barracked by the rest of the people on the bus. I sat back and laughed like mad."

Another story related to Seaman George Samson who was handed a white feather when on his way in civilian clothes to a public reception being held in his honour for having been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the Gallipoli campaign.

The writer Compton Mackenzie, a serving soldier, complained about the activities of the Order of the White Feather. He said that "idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired." The handing out of white feather was extremely effective in shaming men into enlisting. However, it started to become a problem for the government as white feathers were handed to men in reserved occupations and the government could not afford to have doctors or firemen, for example, giving up their jobs and enlisting. This led to the Home Secretary issuing to employees in reserved professions lapel badges reading "King and Country" to indicate that they were serving the war effort. Similarly, it was becoming an embarrassment when veterans or injured soldiers were handed white feather. A Silver War Badge was therefore issued in 1916 to prevent veterans from being challenged for not wearing uniform.

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