It didn’t take long for Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald to blot his copybook. In the month the War broke out, he founded the Order of the White Feather. The idea was based on traditional cock-fighting lore that a cockerel with a white feather in its tail was a coward. The Order encouraged women to give out white feathers to men you had not volunteered. The Admiral deputized thirty women in his home town of Folkestone to give out white feathers to any men not in uniform. His idea swept the country.

“The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defence, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him until he had done his part in licking the Germans.” (Lord Kitchener)

To the Young Women of London (Art.IWM PST 4903)

The Daily Mail hoped the White Feathers “would shame every young slacker” into enlisting. However, the feathers often ended up with the wrong men – men on leave, in reserved occupations, or wounded. On the same day Seaman George Samson had been presented with the VC at Buckingham Palace, for rescuing 30 sailors at Gallipoli, he was handed a white feather on his way to a party in his honour. No doubt the dozen bullet wounds he received hurt more. The writer Compton Mackenzie, serving, riposted “these idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired.”

The Government started to worry when these ‘misfires’ included state employees. Hundreds of feathers were given to civil servants, factory workers and others who were contributing to the war effort. Calls to have members of the Order arrested were ignored for “conduct likely to disrupt the police.” But the Order was too successful at recruiting. However, the Home Secretary did arrange for badges to be issued either a Silver War Badge which indicated the wearer had served and been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness or confirming that state employees were serving “King and Country.”


Volunteers and Conscription

When the War began Britain was the sole power not to enforce conscription. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey believed we could rely on a volunteer army. Despite the readiness of many young men to swop their dull lives at work for the adventure of war, by May 1915 Lord Edward Derby was appointed Director General of Recruitment. His solution was the ‘Derby Scheme.’ It encouraged men to register their name in the knowledge they would only be called up when necessary. They might wear a blue armband with a red crown. One man reported “This told people you were waiting to be called up, and that kept you safe, or fairly safe, because if you were seen to be wearing it for too long, the abuse in the street would soon start again.” The scheme failed and was abandoned in December 1915. Only 350,000 men had signed up.

The Military Service Act January 1916 laid down that single men between 18 and 41 were liable to be called up. But the losses continued to leave the Government limping along behind events. Within four months married men, men previously declared unfit and time-expired servicemen were brought under the Act. Britain was at last on a “total war” footing.

And still the demand for men was insatiable. In April 1917 ‘Home Service Territorials’ might be drafted abroad, a revised list of reserved occupations was published, men who had left military service for ill-health or wounds were to be re-examined. Still the barrel was being scraped. In April 1918 the upper age limit was raised from 41 to 51.

The Railways

John Giles has a collection of the First World War badges issued by the railway companies “I have a lifelong interest in anything railway-related. I first saw a railway service badge around 50 years ago. I was intrigued, why was there a need to produce such a badge? I soon found the white feather connection and I started to collect them, my own grandfather having been an LNWR railwayman during the First World War. I now have 35 named badges plus some used by the smaller railways without company names. As far as I can ascertain, I now have all the named ones. At the start of the Second World War a railway service badge of an oval design was introduced, but by then there were far fewer railway companies.  All such war service badges have become collectible – prices from £40 upwards and much more for the rarer ones!”



After the GPO the next six major employers were the railway companies. Soon 100,000 railway men had volunteered. By the end of 1917, some 180,000 had enlisted from the railway companies. It was typical of the laissez-faire attitudes which prevailed at the outbreak of war. And yet prior to the growth of road transport the railways and their men were vital. They transported the soldiers to the channel ports, the horses and their fodder. The nation had to be fed. Drivers, firemen, signalmen were skilled and the training prolonged.

In October 1914, the Railway Executive Committee, charged with running the railways during the War, formed a Sub-Committee for Recruiting. In work the employees wore overalls or uniform. To protect their men from the harpies with their White Feathers the companies issued all staff with numbered badges to be worn in the lapel of their jackets. Each badge was recorded in a register. Their use was overseen by the War Office’s Committee on War Service Badges. After conscription was introduced holders of the badges were required to hand them in on leaving the service. Misuse of a badge, passing it on to someone else was a crime. Technically so serious it warranted the death penalty but that was never implemented. The GWR published this policy: ‘It has been agreed by the railway companies to issue badges to those of their servants to whom it has not been possible to accord permission to enlist on the account of the requirements of railway service. It has been laid down that the badges are only to be granted in cases where there has been a bona fide intention to enlist on the part of the member of the staff, of military age and in all respects suitable for military service, provided further that he signs a declaration of intention to enlist should changed circumstances enable permission to be given. The badge will bear the name of the railway issuing it, together with the words ‘Railway Service’ in the centre. We reproduce a photograph of the type which is being issued by the Great Western Railway Company. The badge takes the form of a button with white enamel centre and blue enamel surrounding, the crown and lettering being of gold’.

By John Giles & Keith Pybus