The Order of the White Feather was founded in Britain at the start of the the great war (1914/17) by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald. It encouraged women to hand out white feathers to young men not in uniform in the hope of shaming them into enlisting.
The feather symbolised cowardice and effeteness – a scornful statement that they were not real men because they were not fighting in defence of their country.
The white feather movement became very popular, spreading to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Mindful that many men on the home front were either engaged in essential war work or permanently invalided out of the army, the government issued the Silver War Badge or lapel badges to distinguish them from ‘shirkers’.
But how did white feathers come to signify cowardice? The story originates in England at the turn of the 18th century, when cockfighting was a popular sport. Some of the birds tossed into the ring had white tail feathers. In no hurry to fight, they would turn away from their opponents, displaying these feathers – hence their association with cowardice.
Personal accounts illustrate the impact on some men of being given a white feather like this from a letter published in The Guardian in 2008:
“My grandfather’s attempt to volunteer was turned down in 1914 because he was short-sighted. But in 1916, as he walked home to south London from his office, a woman gave him a white feather. He enlisted the next day.
By that time, they cared nothing for short sight. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28. My Mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice. She treasured his letters from the front, as well as information about his brothers who also died. She blamed the politicians. She blamed the generation that sent him to war. But most of all, she blamed that unknown woman who gave him a white feather.”
The Guardian , 11 November 2008