White Feather Women

The “white feather” women of the First World War were not a spontaneous movement of women trying to “do their bit” to encourage men to enlist, but rather part of the Army’s own recruitment drive. Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather in August 1914, asking women to hand white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, to men who were not in uniform.

The short story on my blog is based upon a real set of circumstances (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/11/first-world-war-white-feather-cowardice). It fascinates me as to the reasons why any woman would attempt to humiliate a man into joining the Army, particularly after 1915 when it became apparent that, contrary to initial popular belief, the War would not be over quickly. The numbers of dead and wounded in the horror of trench warfare were also starting to accrue. Women were not permitted to enlist themselves yet many would have been aware of what was happening in Europe as a result of the involvement of their own male relatives.

The Order was not popular in Britain. White feathers were given to enlisted soldiers who simply happened to be wearing civilian clothing on leave, or who had been discharged from military service due to illness or injury. Others were aware of the high casualty rates and resented the pressure being put on their relatives. Many of these men were not cowards but were exempted from service, or in reserved occupations.

One theory is that it was a rare occasion upon which ordinary women were given power and a voice in a public place (http://the-white-feather-movement-worldwarone.wikispaces.com). In Britain at the time women could not vote, nor could a married woman hold her own property. Many of the women were very young and perhaps a little bit of power, mixed with a lack of insight or education, led them to behave as they did.

Compton McKenzie, a writer and serving soldier, suggested these women were simply after getting rid of boyfriends of whom they had tired (http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWfeather.htm).

A friend of mine suggested they may have simply been a manifestation of the martial women, encouraging their men to fight, recorded as far back as classical antiquity.

The women were widely reviled during the War, by soldiers and by men and women who remained in Britain, and subsequently very few were prepared to speak about what they had done or their reasons for doing so. I approached this story from the view of power, both between the man and woman, and between them and the government of the time, who were literally the “men in charge”.

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The White Feather

Her eyes gazed directly at his downturned face.   She felt herself smile as his cheeks reddened and his words began to form, halting and at first imperceptible.   “I did that”, she thought triumphantly to herself.   Made this man blush and stammer, showed him up for what he is in front of all these people.   Out here, on this corner.

 

But he’s not really a man is he?   If he were a man, he wouldn’t be here.   He would be away, with a regiment, fighting for me.   For all women.   Like the recruiting posters said, if he neglects his duty to his country, one day he will neglect YOU.   He’s not a real man.   Rather, a coward.   The white feather she had just thrust towards him had drifted to the ground.   Harmless, gentle.   Yet able to wound like an arrow straight to the heart.

 

Which is exactly what it is, she thought.   The weapon of her righteousness, her just cause.   Her confidence was rising with every passing moment, drawing its strength from the weakness of the man before her.   I can’t fight but this man can.   My voice is silent where it matters most.   I can’t make things happen, I can’t stop the enemies.   But he can.   So why isn’t he?

 

“Women of Britain say ‘go’”-that’s what the other poster said.   He must have ignored that as he’s ignoring me.   And I’m one of those women.   Well, nearly.   Old enough to be out of school but only just.   She drew her shoulders back further, tilted her chin.   She suddenly wanted to look older than her years, more sophisticated.   More of the world.   A woman.   Take on this coward of a man, that’s what a real woman should do.

 

“So why are you not in khaki?”.   She tried her best to sound strident.   A warrior.   One without the voice which counted but with righteousness on her side.

 

He could give her so many reasons.   How he’d got to Mons.   How adding a year to his age had got him to Ypres.   Places whose names he could not pronounce, his education had finished 3 years before he reached those sodden, filthy trenches and the likes of him didn’t need to be told about the world.   His sort didn’t need to know about the power struggles, the colonies, the war machine.   Just about numbers and letters and God.   Until the men who run the country decided it was his duty to serve it, in that dismal ground, far away.   In hell.   No sign of God there, though heaven knows, he’d implored Him enough.

 

He went in with the lads and retreated with them.   Lay on a blood-stained blanket as his fever rose and fell.   Go home lad, they said.   You’ve done your part now.   Your ma will be pleased to have you back.

 

The man who had seen so much and the woman who did not see, no matter how much she looked.   Both voiceless and powerless, she the woman and he the working man.   Doing as they had been bidden by the men who run the country.   Who led them from behind to the fiery pit.

 

The feather rested, as neither of them could.

The Lights Go Out In Europe…

It was the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War on Monday of this week, August 4th. I’ve been doing some research about my own ancestors who were caught up in that conflict, for a trip to northern France in November.

Two of my maternal great-great-uncles were killed in 1916. One was killed aged 37 years, in July of that year, and is buried in a military cemetery at Bouzincourt, near Arras. He was a volunteer, rather than a conscript, despite his age. The other died in August of 1916, at the age of just 16 years. The family story is that he ran away from a father and stepmother who treated the children of my great-great-grandfather’s first wife neglectfully after her death. For that reason his brother is recorded as his next of kin. Heartbreakingly, his body was never identified and so he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, again in the Arras area.

It’s quite easy to hearken back to the “good old days”, the days when summers were long, everyone behaved respectfully, family breakdown was unknown and there was no crime. Unfortunately that’s also a fairy story. I’ve been reading Selina Todd’s “The People”, a history of the working class in Britain over the past 100 years or so. Poverty, lack of power and personal autonomy, very poor living conditions and even poorer life chances were the lot of the vast majority of the British population from the First World War until after the Second World War. My great-great-uncle Joseph was killed as a child, far from his home, probably in painful and terrifying circumstances and leaving no identifiable remains. There were many more like him between 1914 and 1916, from many nations.

One young man brings home both the enormity of the event and perspective on the society in which I am fortunate to live today.