The dreaded women of the order.
Although the handing over of the white feather for cowardice had been used prior to WW1, it is from 1914 that it really became a household term.
It is supposed from folklore in cock fighting that a cockerel with a white feather in its tail was a coward and not as strong as its opponent.
The Order Of The White Feather was founded in August 1914 by Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald and he encouraged women in the main, suffragettes, to hand out white feathers to young men who had not as yet signed up for the Forces. A scheme wholeheartedly Supported by Lord Kitchener. This was a job that was taken on with some enthusiasm.
It was with such vigour these feathers were being handed out that it came to the attention of the Government when the then Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna was himself handed a white feather. This prompted the Government to issue badges ‘King & Country’ to those in the employ of the state.
It has been suggested that some women issued feathers to boyfriends and husbands in the wish to rid themselves of them. Even boys aged 14-15 and younger were not safe from these ladies ‘on a mission’.
Men who had previously been rejected for military service could also have been targeted but after the criteria for service was lowered in 1916, some of these men stepped forward to serve. To be given a feather when unnable to serve became quite the problem.
A notable occasion of a feather mistakenly given was that of George Samson. The same day he received his Victoria Cross from King George, he was accosted and presented his badge of cowardice.
George Samson VC. Earned his VC 25/4/1915, Cape Helles, Gallipoli.
Another story told is that of one chap who when asked why he wasn’t in a British uniform replied and his answer won him his feather too. His answer?
Since just before WWII, the white feather has been seen to be used by other movements such as pacifists and in other countries such as the US, it has been used to symbolise courage.