A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: White feather for winner of Victoria Cross

Carnoustie, 12 October 1915: George Samson is humiliated as a coward. A few female patriots liked to humiliate young men they saw on the streets out of uniform. Even a war hero, in his home town, was not exempt

In October 1915, a woman approached George Samson in his native Carnoustie and handed him a white feather. He became one of thousands of men out of uniform who were humiliated on the streets of First World War Britain by being publicly given the symbol of cowardice.

In the case of Petty Officer Samson, it was a slight that could not have been more ill deserved. Within hours of receiving the feather from a stranger, he was the guest of honour at a formal reception in Carnoustie where he was presented with different tokens of esteem – a smoker’s cabinet and a rose bowl.

The occasion was for the Angus town to celebrate the award to one of its own of the Victoria Cross, for astonishing bravery barely six months earlier during the bloodbath of the Allied landings on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.

While helping soldiers ashore from his ship, HMS River Clyde, the 26-year-old seaman attended to a tide of wounded for an entire day, hauling them to safety despite being wounded himself in a constant hail of machine-gun fire. It was only when he was cut down by as many as 19 bullets that the Scot, who had led an extraordinary existence working as a cowboy in South America and a train driver in Turkey, was finally pulled from the battlefield and treated for injuries he was not expected to survive.

The ship’s surgeon, Dr P Burrowes Kelly, commented: “Whether he lived or died, I knew he won the VC.”

The symbolic slandering of a war hero was an extreme, though by no means unheard of, example of a practice which had first emerged as early as 1914 thanks to the efforts of Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, a retired naval officer based in Folkestone, Kent, who founded the Order of the White Feather.

Supported by a number of prominent female writers and leaders of the Suffragette movement, the Order encouraged young women to hand out white feathers to young men spotted on the streets out of military uniform.

At the outset of the war, Britain relied on volunteers to fill the trenches and recruiters were not afraid to harness the power of shame and embarrassment to fill their quotas of men to ship to the killing fields of France and Belgium.

One army recruiting poster, addressed “To the young women of London”, baldly stated: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU!”

The white feather movement unabashedly capitalised on such sentiment and within weeks young men were being confronted by women bearing their symbols of cowardice.The effect was often powerful and immediate.

James Lovegrove was only 16 when he was confronted by a group of women on his way to work. He wrote: “They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did? They stuck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed. I went to the recruiting office.”

Despite initially being told to go away because he was under age, the recruiting sergeant eventually took pity on him and falsified his measurements. Lovegrove added: “All lies of course – but I was in.”

Petty Officer Samson was by no means the only serviceman to be wrongly singled out for a feather, which were also handed out by supporters of Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Suffragette leader, Emmeline.

One, Pte Harold Carter, told how he was handed one while standing outside a music hall in civilian clothes when on leave from the trenches and was then abused by a Royal Navy officer who told him a man out of uniform was “nothing more than a worm”.

Carter wrote: “He made me feel about as big as a worm. I just sat there on my own while people looked at me. I should like to have jumped up and told them I’d just come out of the trenches at Ypres, but I couldn’t. I came out disgusted and went home.”

The distribution of feathers, which was also accompanied by anonymous letters sent to the homes of targeted men, drew a political backlash. Calls were made to the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, to arrest those responsible.

He declined but the authorities came up with a number of badges and arm bands to be worn by men in exempted professions or who were awaiting their call-up papers after conscription was introduced in 1916 to show they were serving “King and Country”.

Others, however, dealt with the attempt at humiliation with humour. A prominent pacifist, Fenner Brockway, claimed he had received enough feathers to make a fan. The prize for chutzpah while under fire from the Order of the White Feather, however, goes to Pte Norman Demuth, of the London Regiment, who was confronted by a female detractor while on a bus. According to an account of the incident, he took the feather and used it to clean his pipe before returning it to the woman and saying: “Thanks very much. We don’t get pipe cleaners very often in the trenches.”

Tomorrow: A British woman in Serbia’s army

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home