3/20/09 - the white feathers of cowardice

In today's excerpt - British men enlisted in droves at the outset of World War I, in part because British women handed men not in uniform white feathers, symbolizing cowardice, and ministers and priests encouraged the idea that the war was a holy war. The fervor quelled as war casualties mounted to an unprecedented 23 million:

"Why then did British men volunteer in such numbers? Five motives suggest themselves:

1. Successful recruitment techniques. The efforts of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee ... built up an impressive organization of 2,000 volunteers who managed to organize 12,000 meetings at which some 20,000 speeches were delivered, to send out 8 million recruiting letters and to distribute no fewer than 54 million posters, leaflets and other publications. ...

2. Female pressure. There is ample evidence of women handing men not in uniform white feathers symbolizing cowardice. Government propaganda capitalized on this. The PRC poster, with its clever implication that the addressee's husband or son would survive either way, was well-aimed: 'When the war is over and someone asks your husband or your son what he did in the Great War, is he to hang his head because you did not let him go?' ...

3. Peer-group pressure. There is no doubting the importance of the so-called 'Pals' Battalions', in getting groups of friends, neighbours or colleagues to join up together. ... As if to confirm the British thesis that the war was a game, there was even a footballers' battalion and a boxers' company. To begin with, exclusivity was possible: some battalions even demanded an entry fee of up to five pounds. ...

4. Economic motives. ... There is no question that the peak of enlistment in Britain coincided with the peak of unemployment caused by the August financial and commercial crisis. Nine out of ten of the working men laid off in Bristol in the first month of the war joined up; enlistment rates were clearly lower in areas where business quickly picked up again. Men were not wholly irrational in 1914.

5. Impulse. Finally, as Avner Offer has pointed out, allowance must be made for the fact that some men volunteered impulsively, with little thought of the consequences for themselves, much less the causes of the war. ...

"As is well known, many ministers and priests encouraged the idea that the war was a holy war, often in a quite grotesque way. ... The most egregious example of militarist churchmanship in England was the shocking Advent sermon preached in 1915 by the Bishop of London, A. F. Winnington-Ingram (later published in a collection of his sermons in 1917), in which he described the war as: 'a great crusade—we cannot deny it—to kill Germans: to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world.' ... The Germans, wrote [Michael Furse Bishop of Pretoria] were 'enemies of God.' ... Billy Sunday [included in] his prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives ... that 'If you turn hell upside down, you'll find 'Made in Germany' stamped on the bottom.' ...

"For many, the First World War was thus a kind of war of religion, despite an almost complete absence of clear denominational conflicts; a crusade without infidels. ... [The sense] that the world had arrived at the Biblical Armageddon was the most powerful of all the 'ideas of 1914.' And how like Armageddon it proved."


Niall Ferguson


The Pity of War: Explaining World War I


The Penguin Group


Copyright 1999 by Niall Ferguson


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