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White Feathers

Picture of a white feather

It wasn't an unusual during WW1 for Canadian women to hand out white feathers to men on the street to encourage enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, as Katherine MacNutt did in my novel during her first encounter with Count Jaggi.

The white feather movement was started in England by Admiral Penrose-Fitzgerald to pressure able bodied men to volunteer for the British Army. The movement quickly spread to Canada and other Commonwealth countries.

One of the inspirations for the movement was the adventure novel The Four Feathers, by British writer A.E.W. Mason. The classic novel recounts the exploits of aristocrat Harry Feversham who had resigned his military commission on the eve of the war. His three closest friends and his fiancée had each given him a white feather denouncing him as a coward. To redeem himself, he goes to Egypt where he has a series of adventures forcing his friends and fiancée to take back the feathers.

During WW1, the play The White Feather was very popular in Canada. Based on the British play The Man Who Stayed Home, by Lechmore Worrall and J. E. Harold Terry, the drawing room melodrama depicted British aristocrat Christopher Brent that everyone believes to be a coward. He was actually a British secret agent whose job was to find and expose a network of German secret agents.

The play reflected the pressure Canadian men had to endure during WW1 if they were not in the military. The pressure to volunteer was enormous, and many felt shamed when they were handed a white feather. So much so that many did volunteer after they had been given one.

However, in their enthusiasm to hand out white feathers inevitably mistakes were made. Young boys barely sixteen and wounded men received white feathers. In one famous incident, a Victoria Cross recipient was given a white feather the same afternoon he had been presented with Britain’s highest award for valour.

The Toronto Daily Star reported that at a recruitment drive in Riverdale Park in Toronto, which had attracted over 100,000, two young ladies had handed out white feathers to the men in the crowd.

For some, the pressure became too great. The Globe and Mail reported in 1915 that a suicide had been attributed to the white feathers. A chauffeur in London, England, had tried to enlist but was rejected because of a weak heart. The constant taunting by women on the street eventually led him to take his life.

The handing out of white feathers reached such a crescendo that the British government started issuing badges for men to wear. The badges were designed to inform women that the men were critical for the war effort.

Sources and further reading


White feather - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Silver War Badge - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In Downton Abbey, male servants are taunted with feathers by women for not going to war. So what's the truth about such cowards and their tormentors, the Feather Girls? | Mail Online