White Feathers

Discussion in 'World War 1' started by liverpool annie, Dec 29, 2008.

  1. John

    John Active Member

    Just found an Australia soldier who had won a VC on Gallipoli, but was wound and returned to Australia.
    He was William Dunstan and one day in 1915, while on a tram in Melbourne, he was handed a white feather by a female. William said and just accepted it. William's injuries were around the eyes.
    What a cruel act to a hero.

  2. liverpool annie

    liverpool annie New Member

    I'm sorry to say it happened a lot John ! ...

    and you can see by Andy's posts in their minds they thought they were being patriotic ! ... at least thats their excuse !! :confused:

  3. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    Sex, romantic love, heroism, and cowardice are all entwined in this story of misidentification. The girl's patriotism and bravery win her the attention and admiration of the man of her dreams, whose prowess in war is paralleled and mirrored by his prowess in love, just as his white feather foils his Victoria Cross. Though "The White Feather" is unusual in presenting a positive view of the practice of handing out white feathers relatively late in the war, it may offer some insight into the way women envisioned this practice themselves.
    The story was published in a popular woman's magazine and is adamant in its depiction of Molly as a brave, enticing, and patriotic girl whose nationalistic gesture sets her on the path of adventure and romance. In doing something for her country Molly reaps the rewards for herself, as an impertinence justified by the exigencies of a national emergency leads to her own engagement to one of the greatest heroes of the war. In the linking of patriotism and romantic imagination, the story offers some insight into why the categories of courage and cowardice, which become the foundation of women's romantic war literature, seemed to have inspired patriotic action in an assortment of women during the war.
    In a context where waging war was regarded as the single most important task, the paradigm of courage and cowardice made it possible for women to envision national service in sexual terms. In turning women's fantasies into supreme public duty, a variety of stories, songs, and patriotic appeals promised women a vicarious attachment to the front through the honour of the men they inspired, while elevating such amusements as the selection of beaux into taks of national and imperial importance. This aspect of white feather giving comes across with remarkable vividness in a variety of accounts written by men who received white feathers during the war. Bill Lawrence, writing from an old peoples' home in Warwickshire many years later, remebered being upbraided by a lasy milliner on a train for not offering his seat to a wounded soldier. "I got up straight away........and took my trousers down so far, I had a pad of thick cotton wool and a bandage I had had a severe wound in the back.......it was a bit smaller than a wallnut and all jagged edged and poisoned." Mr. Lawrence then warned the women that if he'd been a nasty tempered man she may have got what they call a smack in the gob," but quickly notes that "she was a very good friend afterward" when she took him to her shop. Leaving the girl to manage the store, the women took Mr. Lawrence to her room, "put a bottle of whisky at the side of the bed took off all her clothes and got in bed and said do as you like you earned it."
    Although Lawrence's tale of patriotic female sexuality is seen through the eys of a man, he is not unique among those who remember a decidedly erotic dimension to female recruiting. About a year after the war had begun, Mr. H. Symonds was listening to a ginger haired girl giving a recruitng speech at Hyde Park Corner. He was seventeen at the time but eager to go "so when ginger gently tucked a white feather into my buttonhole I went off to the recruiting office putting two years on my age, joined up." Although Symonds saw nothing unusual in this incident, he did believe that the experience was unique in one respect: "I believe I am the only recipient of a feather, who had it taken back by the giver and was given a kiss in return!.....When, some three or four days later in uniform I again stood in Hyde Park and listened to 'ginger' she recognized me and in front of the crowd round her stand she came up to me and asked for the return of her feather. Amidst mixed cheering and booing I handed it to her. She had tears in her eyes as she kissed me and said 'God Bless.' "
    Symonds's account of the receipt of his white feather is quite rare. His ability to exchange the white feather for the kiss of a lovely woman turns what men generally regarded as a hostile taunt into an erotic event that won the bestower admiration and inspired the recipient to enlist willingly. AsSymonds explains, "Few people realize that those women who gave feathers were not just flighty empty-heads, but had a far deeper insight into mysterious man that is generally supposed. I was wounded twice but never regretted the quietly given push from a girl that sent me to the recruiting station."
    Ginger's insight into "mysterious man" and Symonds's starry-eyed response to her red headed beauty and tearful patriotism offer a rare moment of insight into the cultural configuration of female recruiting in its most erotic form. On the one hand, the event turned Ginger's beauty to political use as she imitated the public call to arms now frequently on the lips of actresses, music hall satrs, and other popular women who "coaxed thousands to the colours"; on the other, she drew on and, through her success, legitimated a romantic tradition of female patriotism initiated well before the war.
  4. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    Although white feather giving is generally remembered as an event that excited enormous hostility, it is thus possible that at the time women like Ginger received a certain amount now forgotten encouragement. Not only did both the official and the unofficial production of the voluntary recruitment movement brandish female sexuality as a means of shaming men into uniform, but popular fiction, musical theatre, and advice literature frequently asserted the military efficacy of sexual desire even after conscrition made such incentives redundant. Those few women who have since commented on their recruiting activities remeber feeling an anger toward men who appeared to be shirking their duty entirely in keeping with the sentiments expressed in vast sections of the press as well as by scores of patriotic Britons. As Mrs. Thyra Mitchell recalled years later, she gavea white feather to her acquaintance Jack Mills, because she "was very angry" and "felt he should be doing his bit." Within a social context where people displayed the most extreme hostility towards conscientious objectors, shirkers, and those regarded as cowards, and where few propagandists shied away from employing women to make these points, the white feather campaign should not come as an entire surprise, despite the criticism it interrmittently provoked.
  5. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    White Feathers and Wounded Men

    In spite of the extravagent promotion of gendered patriotism in wartime popular culture, historical understanding of the white feather campaign has been shaped less by the domestic situation in which it occurred than by the manner in which those who survived the war perceived and committed to memory these civilian acts. While receiving a white feather must have been deeply mortifying even in the heady days of "war fever," an encounter that might have been dismissed as foolish, trivial, or vulgar in 1914 became part of a more ominous symbolic shorthand in the years that followed, particularly as increasing numbers of men were wounded in the war. Although men did not "invent" white feather stories, returning soldiers increasing endowed them with ironic significance, especially when women's insulting gestures seemed to suggest feminine oblivion to their own masculine pain.
    As we have seen, women's reading of the signs of manhood relied on that external emblem of courage - the military uniform. Though exemption badges, medical certificates and armbands were meant to protect exempted civilians from feminine taunts, men frequently complained that these signs of goodwill were invisible to those patriotic women whose only measure of a man was the fabric of his clothes. Not only did women sometimes mistake "starred" men for "shirkers," but, in incidents that caused still more outrage, they inadvertently bestowed their tokens of shame on wounded men recuperating in civilian dress - a mistake that occurred as late as 1918.
    For men resentful of the paradigm of courage and cowardice manifested in the marked distinction between the man in uniform and the supposed coward in mufti, masculinity was more than a series of external symbols but part of essence of a man who had served or been willing to serve as a soldier or officer at the front. The ironic contrast between the authentic bravery of men who fought and women's sartorial reading of male courage thus fills narrative accounts of the white feather campaign, endowing this descriptive medium with rich retributive possibilities.
  6. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    Michael MacDonagh's "well authenticated" version of the most famous of white feather stories vividly illustrates the way women's patriotic actions could in retrospect become their own revenge. According to his diary, "A gallant young officer was recently decorated with the V.C. by the King at Buckingham Palace. Later on the same day he changed into mufti and was sitting smoking a cigarette in Hyde Park when girls came up to him and jeeringly handed him a white feather........He accepted the feather without a word and, as a curiosity, put it with his V.C. It is said he remarked to a friend that he was probably the only man who ever received on the same day the two outstanding emblems of bravery and cowardice - the V.C. and the white feather. Within a week he had returned to the front and made the Great Sacrifice."
    In stories like MacDonagh's, women recruiters not only miss the signs of a masculine willingness to brave death - an exemption badge, a stump, or a wound - but in the most famous emblem of their wrong-headed activities they are unable even to distinguish courage from cowardice, the very feminine discrimination on which the eugenic health of the nation was supposed to depend. The official symbol of courage is bestowed by the king at the palace, the feminine symbol of cowardice is bestowed by a group of girls in the park; they are both orders, and the presentation of one mocks the bestowal of another. The recounting of the tale thus avenges the gesture as the shame cast on the soldier is thrown back on the women who are narratively and morally hoist on their own petard.
    As women used the uniform to identify the soldierly spirit and manly will inherit in every British Tommy, soldiers, military rejects, and conscientious objectors all began instead to assert personal suffering as the locus of true manhood. The language of the khaki uniform thus became highly ironic, especially in retrospect. As women, intoxicated with that enthusiasm for soldiers known as "khaki fever," saw in the glamour of the uniform the mark of a true soldier, men home from the front regarded this superficial remnant as only a vulgar symbol of the signs of manhood written on the body. P.C.S. Vince of Surrey remembered the vast discrepancy between the external emblems of military duty and the hidden wounds of battle to which civilians, particularly women, seemed almost incomprehensibly blind. Vince was wounded on April 24, 1917, and was waiting to be admitted to Roehampton Hospital to be fitted for an artificial leg. He used to go to Victoria Station to await troop trains coming from France, and he went in his civilian clothes. On one occasion, however, his experience was different. A woman, who boarded the tram at Brixton, failed to notice his crutches and handed him a white feather. Vince reacted swiftly: "Having on my overcoat and my stump covered up, I did no more but stand up on my good leg and put my stump right into her face, and her eaction was awful and she did no more than flew off the tram."
    As women read manhood in terms of the wearing of a uniform, accounts like Vince's continually spoke of brave soldiers, wounded men, and recipients of the Victoria Cross whom women mistakingly branded as cowards becuase they were outof uniform. Yet, as men noted, if a uniform could be taken off the wounds of battle could not. These hidden scars - clothed and covered in the romance of a uniform or the ignominious attire of civilian clothes - were the indelible marks of manhood etched deeply into the bodies and consciousness of those who fought. Mr. J. Jones was thus furious when on returning home after being wounded in France he was presented with a white feather. "In those days there was a part of Clarence Pier called the 'Bull Ring' and we used to go there to try and get a girl," Mr. Jones recalled. "I saw a girl I liked and tried to get talking to her but she didn't seem interested and then I saw her talking to another soldier. So next time she passed,......I said 'you spoke to him why can't you speak to me?' She replied 'I don't speak to toy soldiers only those with guts, so you'd better have this' and gave me a feather."
    Jones promptly slapped her in the face whereupon her friend, a local dock worker, challenged him to a fight. "I opened my tunic and pulled up my shirt and showed my wound and told them I had only just come out of hospital after having been in France and done my bit. The bloke apologised.....and the girl just ran off."
    Although he wore a newly issued uniform, the girl rejected Jones as a suitor because the pristine condition of his clothes led her to believe he had not yet been to the front - an apparent defficiency that rendered him an undesirable object of love, unworthy even of address. The tale is one of many that is about women's inability to read men, their attention to superficial detail, and their failure to tell a hero from a coward, even if this distinction should literally "hit them in the face."
  7. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    In stories like these the uniform becomes to the body what language is to meaning - an inadequate approximation of a vast complex of suffering that women, irretrievably fixated with surfaces, fabirics, and colours, could never comprehend. Emblematic of the civilian lack of understanding for what lay beneath the khaki uniform, the actions of women became a narrative medium with which eloquently to display men's hidden suffering. As Reuben W. Farrow recalled of an almost metaphoric event: "a woman scornfully asked a young man in a tram car 'why are you shirking your duty?'.......He quietly withdrew from his pocket a handless stump and showed it to her! In confusion she tried to apologise - and quickly left the car."
    In this incident and others like it, the silent response of the Tommy hints at the idea that the scarred body itself was simply a physical sign of the even deeper scars that could only be understood by those who understood the utter horrors of the front. If a man's clothes seemed to hide the meaning of battle written on his body, the body itself could show only an approximation of what he had been through as a soldier.
    For those men who remembered the white feather campaign, however, hidden wounds were not just soldiers' wounds, but included also the pschological scars receiving a white feather left on many men who did not wish to fight. The advent of the white feather women thus appeared to MacDonagh to be "almost as terrible to the young male who has no stomach for fighting as an enemy army with banners - and guns. At the sight of them he is glad of the chance of being able to hide anyhow his diminished head." In this rhetorical turn, the emotional wounds inflicted by women at home mimic the physical wounds inflicted by the enemy in battle. Although MacDonagh is speaking figuratively, such metaphorical usage of the language of combat took a quite literal form in the recollections of many men who survived the war.
    G. Backhaus tell the story of two friends of his who received white feathers, claiming that "unfortunately both the men I know who suffered that terrible fate, died because of it." Relating the story of how his underaged cousin had enlisted as a result of female taunts and was "blown to pieces" and how an overaged friend of his "died of madness" as a direct consequence of these insults, Backhaus makes it clear that women, rather than the enemy, were responsible for these tragic deaths. As Backhaus concludes, in rhetoric reminiscent of that used to describe death in the trenches, "the look in his eye has haunted me ever since.........The cruelty of that white feather business needs exposing."
  8. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    Backhaus's impression is not exceptional. Earnest Barnby also believed that such a gesture resulted in the premature loss of his brother who, in spite of his Derby armband, "was presented with a white feather by some scatty female and as a result was seized by a depression which developed into tuberculosis which killed him." And Granville Bradshaw bitterly claimed that his friend Basil Hallam, who was famousfor his song "Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Nuts," was de facto killed by white feather women. According to Bradshaw, the two men were walking down Shaftsbury Avenue after Hallam's show when "we were both surrounded by young, stupid, and screaming girls who stuck white feathers into the lapels of our coats.......When we extricated oursleves Basil said, 'I shall go and join up immediately' - he did........I heard a few weeks later that my friend Basil Hallam had been killed."

    In these accounts, the emasculating attacks of women on the domestic front are comparable to the eviscerating assault of the enemy in battle. Insofar as the fear of one prompted men to brave the other, women and the enemy is some sense had become one.

    As the cultural landscape encompassing the white feather campaign was gradually overshadowed by the seriousness of the war, public officials, returning soldiers, and a variety of other responsible citizens increasingly saw this feminine affront as an outrageous disruption of public order rather than as an even marginally legitimate means of coaxing or cajoling men to the colours. In 1915 Cathcart wason warned the home secretary, Reginald McKenna, that state employess were being "subjected to insolence and provocation at the hands of some advertising young women presenting them with white feathers" and inquired whether he would authorize the arrest of "such persons" for "acting in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace." While the home secretary dismissed this extravagent request, its lavish rhetoric suggests a sense of outrage that would only continue to grow as the war progressed.

    By 1916 changes in recruiting had distanced white feather giving from what rationale it once possessed. Not only did passage of the National Service Bill end official recruiting appeals, but rising casualties and the induction of large numbers of men into the army meant that women who continued to upbraid men out of uniform did so without official sanction and at increasing risk of making mistakes. While formal recruiting appeals ended with conscription, however, it is important to remember that public hostility towards unenlisted men in no way subsided. The press singled out conscientious objectors and "shirkers" for especial attack, while the practice of white feather giving continued intermittenly into 1918, nourished by an increasingly bitter atmosphere of suspicion toward apparently unwilling to "do their bit."

    In this conflicted environment, women's patriotic disdain became the source of particular resentment, despite the fact that they were by no means alone in harassing young men. It was Parliament, after all, not women, who disenfranchised conscientious objectors for five years after the war, and it was conscription, not white feather giving, that was responsible for sending thousands of hesitant youths to the front. Why then were women singled out for especial reproach, particularly when only a small, if persistent, minority of them could have participated in this insulting act?
  9. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    As quintessential noncombatants and as the conflict's apparent political and economic beneficiaries, women, as feminist historians have noted, became an object of particular hostility in the aftermath of the war. During the period of voluntary recruiting, white feather women had crossed the boundary of accetable female behaviour in their enthusiasm to enforce what they and the majority of their contemporaries regarded as appropriate male behaviour; yet the cultural environment in which they displayed these sentiments were gradually losing its legitimacy, particularly among those with some knowledge of the war. In an atmosphere of growing male resentment, white feather giving became the guilty emblem of women's complicity and a vivid medium through which men could remember and moralize on the meretricious relationshipof the home front to those who served. Since strident female patriotism contrasted so dramatically with women's nurturing roles, white feather giving became the ironic symbol of a world gone awry - a world where husbands, sons, and fathers were sacrificed by the women back home.

    White feather stories are thus both a description of what actually occurred and an aggressive articulation of masculinity that claimed for those who suffered exclusive custody over the interpretation of the war. In white feather narratives, male suffering becomes an alternative propagandist motif, drawn from experience, to be sure, but wielded in highly strategic ways to reassert an essentially masculine patriotism sacramentally distinct from the discredited female patriotism that once flourished at home. The spirit of the Somme, in this way, superseded the levity of the music hall, endowing bitter meaning on a gesture that, in retrospect, would dishonour the giver far more than the recipient.

    In the process of remembering, the larger cultural context that explained women's actions receded as returning soldiers claimed the authority to interpret the war, its stories, and its evasive moral for themselves and their communities. Caroline Rennles, a young munitions worker during the war, recalled that, being "very patriotic during the First War," if she saw a chap in the street" she'd say, " 'Why aren't you in the army?' " Indeed, she would taunt her unenlisted male colleagues at Woolwich Arsenal because the sight of them used to drive her mad. "I used to call them all white-livered whatsonames I could lay my tongue to." By the Second World War, however, Rennles shunned such tactics and would not "have told anyone to go." While Rennles attributes her changed attitude to maturity, it was also the result of a new way of looking at war and male suffering that turned the risque high jinks of the voluntary recruiting movement into the focus on embittered memory in years to come.
  10. liverpool annie

    liverpool annie New Member

    Thanks Andy for all the time and effort you put into that !! .... I appreciate it ! :D

    I hope it will give "newbies" a good idea of what went on ... it's not a subject that was talked about very much in everyday life !!

    Annie :)
  11. Andy Pay

    Andy Pay Member

    Hi Annie,
    No problem and that's why I placed it on the forum. Very few people seem to actually realise what an atrocious act these women actually involved themselves in or how organised it became. As one soldier said re these women, they did not have to go to war and see men blown to pieces with the soldiers around them covered in their pals blood and bits and pieces of their former pals.


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