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White Feathers

Picture of a white feather

The handing out of white feathers to men on the street to encourage enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), as Katherine MacNutt did when she first meet Count Jaggi, was not an unusual event in Canada during WW1.

The white feather movement was started in England by British Admiral Fitzgerald to pressure ablebodied 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. When he resigned his military commission on the eve of the war, he received four white feathers denouncing him as a coward from his closest friends and his fiancée. To redeem himself, he goes to Egypt, where he has a series of adventures, thus forcing his friends 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 Christopher Brent, a British aristocrat everyone believes to be a coward, but is actually a British secret service agent. His job is to find and expose a network of the German secret agents.

In certain ways, the play reflected what men who were not in the military during WW1 in Canada had to endure. The pressure to volunteer was enormous, and many men felt shamed when they were handed a white feather, so much so that many did volunteer when they received one.

However, in their enthusiasm to hand out white feathers people inevitably made mistakes. There are many stories of young boys barely sixteen and wounded men receiving white feathers. One story tells of a man in England who was given a white feather the afternoon after he was presented with a Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valour.

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

For some the pressure became too great. The Globe and Mail reported in 1915 a suicide that was 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 they were involved in the war effort.

Sources and further reading

Web

White feather - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Silver War Badge - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ross King on the Group of Seven: White Feathers and Tangled Gardens - Canadian Art

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