Gentle readers, Downton Abbey, Season 2 will be shown on PBS, Sunday, January 8, at 9 PM local time. I will be writing a series of posts to help illuminate some historical details that might help the viewer who is not familiar with the events of this era. World War I’s connection to Jane Austen is poignant: soldiers in the trenches and those who were shell-shocked or recovering from injuries read Jane Austen’s novels to escape the horrors of war and relive a gentler, more civilized time. Here then is meaning of the white feathers. In the interest of not spoiling the plot, certain facts will not be revealed.
World War 1 was meant to last only a few months in the eyes of Great Britain, who entered the war to support its allies, France and Belgium. The mighty British empire had an army second to none, and had resoundingly defeated the Boers in South Africa using battle tactics that had been finely tuned by generals since the Napoleonic wars a hundred years before. At the start of the Great War, Englishmen enlisted in droves. Men were not conscripted at the time and enlistment was wholly voluntary.
Almost from the very beginning, British Admiral Charles Cooper Penrose-Fitzgerald created the “Organization of the White Feather’ as a means to pressure men to enlist in the army. At first able bodied men served willingly, but as the war dragged on and the staggering losses of life and limb added up in vast unforeseen numbers, the need for fresh troops became vital.
There were perfectly good reasons for men not to enlist: many were needed at home to oversee crucial jobs, such as farming; others had medical conditions that precluded them from serving. This was the case with Rudyard Kipling’s son, Jack, who was so short-sighted that he needed glasses to see clearly. (Vehement in his patriotism, Kipling was able to cut through red tape so that his 18-year-old son could serve. Sadly, Jack was reported missing in action and his body was never found. Kipling found solace in reading Jane Austen’s novels to his wife and daughter as they awaited word of Jack’s fate and penned a short story about the Janeites, who found respite from that terrible war by reading Jane’s books.)
In Downton Abbey, two able-bodied characters were officially exempt from serving: William Mason, the footman, and Moseley,Matthew Crawley’s butler/valet. Two women rose from their seats in the middle of a concert at Downton Abbey to benefit the hospital; they began handing out white feathers to the men not in uniform, starting with William.
The expression of the woman at right (above) is one of disgust at those who they thought shirked their responsibilities to serve. This scene occurs in 1916, when it became clear that the war could only be won through slow stubborn attrition and by the side that lasted longest with men, ammunition, food, and sheer will power. Men were hunkered down in miserably uncomfortable circumstances in the trenches and died by the tens of thousands in order to claim a few hundred shell-pocked yards of enemy territory. The slaughter was immense and of a proportion never before seen in civilized society, for new horrific weapons had been designed to kill and maim from a distance (flame throwers, mustard gas, machine guns, bombs dropped from airplanes). Fresh troops were needed to replace those who were killed or wounded.
As early as 1915, a mere year after the war started, pressure began to be placed on able bodied men who did not serve, and the practice of handing out white feathers stepped up. The pacifist Fenner Brockway quipped that he had enough feathers to make a fan.
Men who wore no uniform, including soldiers on leave, were targeted to receive white feathers. Home Secretary Reginald McKenna authorized a badge that bore the words “King and Country,” which told onlookers that the man wearing it was excluded from the pressure to enlist. - First World War.com
Read my posts for Downton Abbey, Series One in the sidebar.