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White Feathers & White Poppies – the duality of man(kind)

The Great War may be now outside of living memory, but it is still part of our inherited memory and collective DNA. Whatever the understanding of those who lived through it, the first world war has come to symbolise all that is dreadful, pointless and impersonal in industrialised conflict. It is for this reason that the commemoration of the war is important; not as a historical event, or sepia tinted exercise in nostalgia, but as a consideration of the nature of conflict itself. Our folk recollection of it is also singularly English in perspective; from Kitchener to Blackadder and all that came in between. This means that any such consideration is personal, questioning and emotionally involved. It could be divisive and conflicting – which is perhaps how it should be.

White Feathers and White Poppies.
In considering the Great War I was struck by the links between these two symbols of the period. Both were unofficial expressions of attitudes to the war, both were instruments employed by women but addressed to men, and both used the colour white as a strong statement, but to very different ends.

The White Feather
The Order of the White Feather grew from the patriotic fervour of 1914 and was founded by writers Emma Ward and Baroness Orczy with prompting from Admiral Charles Fitzgerald. The white feather had existed as a symbol of cowardice since the 18th Century (from the days of cock fighting: if a bird refused to fight, it would turn its back on its opponent, showing its white tail feathers). Accordingly, before the introduction of conscription in 1916, the Order encouraged zealous young women to take it upon themselves to publicly present a white feather to any man of service age who was not in uniform. It was effective as an instrument of shame and there are many stories of young men (and not so young) enlisting as a direct result. It was not unknown for a recruiting officer to approach a recipient suspiciously soon after he had been presented with a white feather. ‘You come along with me lad. We’ll show ‘em you’re not a coward’ etc. It was unofficial but tolerated by the authorities who eventually had to provide badges to those in ‘reserved occupations’ to save them from being harassed. It declined after 1916 as war weariness made such gestures distasteful, and those who persisted in handing out white feathers were often given short shrift. The story is told of one recipient on a tram who coolly took the proffered feather, cleaned his pipe with it and returned it to the young woman saying. ‘Thanks. They give us plenty of tobacco in the trenches, but never any bloomin pipe cleaners’ He then hobbled off the tram, obviously wounded. Apocryphal or not the story is revealing.

The White Poppy
The white poppy was introduced in 1933 by women workers in the Co-operative movement. Like many of that generation they had lost sons, husbands, brothers in the Great War.

They strongly felt that the national expression of grief and reflection on Armistice day had become a largely militarized solemnification on Remembrance Sunday – that the feeling of ‘never again’ was being gradually forgotten and old attitudes to conflict were re-asserting themselves. They saw the officially sanctioned red poppy as now inextricably linked with this and wanted an alternative voice and symbol.

In 1936 the Peace Pledge Union took on the sale and production of white poppies and in 1938 over 36,000 were sold. They continue today, despite opposition from some in the British Legion, the Daily Mail and elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher made public her ‘deep distaste’ for them and recently a boy scout was ordered to remove his white poppy as it was ‘not an appropriate symbol for Remembrance day’, which rather misses the point…

John Wade
With reference to ‘Witnessing for Peace – A resource pack for Quaker Meetings’

 

 

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