Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Project/RSR Ideas: The Order of the White Feather

Stuck for a project idea? Every time I come across something interesting I'm going to post it here to help people in need of something good to research.


I never watched Downton Abbey while it was on, but lately I've begun watching through the whole series. It's quite an interesting show from a history teacher's point of view, as it illustrates very well the comfortable life of the upper classes in Britain, and the challenges faced by the working class. Whether you're a Junior Cert student looking at social history and life in industrial England, or a Leaving Cert student looking at the First World War or Britain's fortunes after it, it's a decent show to gain some insights from.

One insight I got it from it concerned people's attitudes to the war. In one episode, the family are hosting a concert to raise funds for the war effort. It starts off nicely, until two women suddenly get up from their seats and walk around handing white feathers to the civilian men present. The feather is meant as a symbol of cowardice, and the women's aim is to shame the men for not having joined the fighting. This incident spurs one of the recipients, footman William Mason, to enlist.

I hadn't heard about this before, so I looked it up and found that it was quite a common practice. The Order of the White Feather was established after the beginning of the war by an admiral, Charles Fitzgerald, and an author, Mrs. Humphrey Ward. The Order's aim was indeed to shame men who hadn't enlisted to fight in the war - although if you think about it, it would be very unrealistic to expect every man to do, when there are many essential occupations that people couldn't just abandon. The British government was quick to cop on to this, and gave male employees in the civil service with "King and Country" badges to show that they were "doing their bit" for the war effort. The white feather movement was also adopted by prominent suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst.

Of course, it's completely incorrect to label men who did not want to enlist as cowards. Many were conscientious objectors who did not want to risk their life fighting in a war that in the end, would change nothing for them. A very interesting resource is The White Feather Diaries, a collection of writings from those who refused to enlist.

If you're interested in pursuing this as a project topic, look for sources that deal with World War I, attitudes to the war at home, and the suffragette movement.

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