The Novel That Started A Shameful Movement


Occasionally a novel can have an unexpected influence that extends beyond its publication; such was the fate of AEW Mason’s most famous work.

Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was the creator of Inspector Hanaud, described as the first major fictional police detective of the 20th century. Hanaud was based on two real-life heads of the Sûreté and first appeared in a 1910 story, ‘At The Villa Rose’. He’s said to have helped shape Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Mason briefly served as a Liberal Member of Parliament and later worked in naval intelligence, setting up counter-espionage networks. His Vanity Fair caricature portrayed him as a monocle-wearing Edwardian dandy, but those who remember him at all do so for the single novel that stands out from his other thirty-plus books.

The Four Feathers was a popular adventure novel written in 1902. Set against the backdrop of the Mahdist War, its hero Harry Faversham quits the army just before his regiment heads for the Sudan.

As a consequence he receives four white feathers, public marks of cowardice, including one white ostrich feather from his mortified fiancée. To redeem himself Faversham dons an Arabic disguise and saves his friends’ lives, winning back his girl.

The book is packed with colour, incident and an abundance of sub-plots, and has been filmed at least seven times, the most rousing version being the one made in 1939 by Zoltan Korda.

But twelve years after it was written the book’s continuing popularity gave it a darker influence.

In the autumn of 1914, self-righteous women all over the country began handing out white feathers to men who failed to enlist and wear the King’s uniform. The Order of the White Feather had been founded in August by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, after Mason had popularised the idea.

Soon roving bands of militant females became part of the government’s propaganda campaign to encourage enlistment, but in doing so they also targeted the disabled, shell-shocked and wounded, or those who were ineligible to fight because of advanced age and infirmity.

The campaign was initially taken up with great fervour across the nation but ultimately backfired, as many men were compelled to sign up out of fear and subsequently suffered cruel unnecessary deaths.

The government attempted to distance itself from the White Feather movement but by this time it had come to mean that a man who would not fight was effeminate. Mason’s most patriotic adventure passed into history – possibly for the wrong reasons.

19 comments on “The Novel That Started A Shameful Movement”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    I became a pacifist at 16. I met and got to know men who registered as conscientious objectors in the 2nd world war. Some of them went to prison rather than do alternative service that freed others up to fight. Some subsequently withheld tax equal to the proportion spent on the defence budget, or deliberately limited their income to below the tax threshold. They suffered for their actions, and were widely despised and ridiculed as cowards. It wasn’t just in the 1st world war that this happened.
    Every Remembrance Day I wear a white poppy to symbolise all, civilians and combatants, who were slaughtered in war. A white poppy, the same colour as those white feathers.

  2. eggsy says:

    I wear a red poppy to commemorate all those who suffered in war. There is no political statement attached to the poppy itself, just remembrance. Individuals may like to add politics, but its not required. (Not any sort of criticism of Liz’s choice at all: ones conscience is one’s own. But just because some opt to wear white – and some famously refuse completely, doesn’t mean the red poppy wearers are somehow opposite).
    If I was French, I’d wear a blue cornflower. Pity the Germans for whom remembrance is even more difficult to separate from notions of support.

    There was such a run on khaki that recruits had to be given badges, and later “Kitchener Blues” – a substitute uniform, to prevent harassment of non-khaki-clad young males.
    The treatment of conscientious objectors was awful, but also worryingly random.
    Similarly, for those who had served and couldn’t take any more, your future could include a firing squad, OR a nice visit to a rest home. Bruce Bairnsfather, for example, was invalided out. Others were shot for cowardice, and I’m sure rank/class/family connections had nothing to do with that decision.

  3. Brooke says:

    See Jacqueline Winspear’s fiction (?) dealing w aftermath of white feather gang’s actions–the sufferings of shamed young men, their families, and ultimately the self-centered, self-righteous women themselves. JW also tackles the “poor moral fiber” folks in another novel.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    The majority of these women were, or were to become, Suffragettes.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    I read this book at school. It didn’t leave a good impression. Brainless, upper-class women manipulate brainless, romantic men to behave in the most stupid way: a horror version of a Wodehouse story. The goodwill, the humour, and the resourceful Jeeves are replaced by violent outcome and risk to life and limb. Why didn’t Faversham tell her to get stuffed?

    In my youth there were men still alive from the First World War. I recall a man whose leg had be blown off and walked with crutches, another with wounds that were still raw and unhealed after 40 years; and these were the more fortunate. I certainly buy red poppies to remember their suffering and help all veterans. Some, seem to find it easy to send young men to death and destruction. There’s the inspirational non-quote from John Wayne: “It’s goin’ to be rough. It’s goin’ to be tough. And most of yah won’t be comin’ back. I’m only sorry that I’m not comin’ with yah.” My grandfather had some conflict and exchange of thought with our government at the start of World War II. He questioned the wisdom of curtailing the lives of teenagers operating, what were then, the ineffective tail guns of our ineffective bombers, especially when there were, to use his own words, useless old men like himself perfectly capable of squeezing a trigger.

    I don’t believe military action, war or pacifism should be settled with ethics or philosophy. It may sound cold-blooded and heartless, but I prefer government decisions based on cost-benefit to the nation. Which action leads to the best, ultimate financial outcome or, more pertinently, which leads to the smallest loss of life. It may sound cynical, but it would keep us out of a lot of trouble. It’s definitely a perspective where the “but he was a bad guy” argument carries zero weight.

  6. Jan says:

    Yes Brian Evans you beat me to it there a surprising number of these women did become sufragettes. In the same vein one of the first Met woman police inspectors had been part of the suffrage protest movement. Which I always found pretty weird. You wouldn’t have thought a future in law enforcement would have beckoned her would you?

    There’s something I am obviously not twigging about your statement “many men signed up out of fear and suffered cruel unnecessary deaths” Do you mean because they were not really fully fit and shouldn’t really have signed up for and been accepted into the army Chris?

  7. Bonnie Ferguson says:

    I agree with Brooke’s recommendation of Winspear’s book which includes this issue. I don’t know of any such organized actions occurring here in the States.

  8. SteveB says:

    Interesting. Never heard of him or the book or the films!! Remember the Biggles story The White Feather though!!!

  9. Ian Luck says:

    It’s a disgusting part of British social history that too few people nowadays would know about. In the recent (and, I found, beautiful) novel, ‘The Toy Makers’, by Robert Dinsdale, one of the main characters, who has a perfectly valid reason for not fighting in the war, is given a white feather by one of a mob of righteous women who invade his toyshop, handing them out to any men not in uniform there. It’s a very unpleasant scene. And all too true, sadly.

  10. Brooke says:

    @ Peter T. I think I agree with you; the important point is cost/benefit for the nation (not just the few). I’m reminded of Lincoln’s recognition that the US Civil War would be won by the side willing to sustain high loss of life.

  11. snowy says:

    I fear we are going a bit astray with our history.

    Suffragists [NUWSS] 1867 onward, non-violent campaign, [primarily political.]

    Suffragettes [WSPU] 1903 onward, direct-action, [slashing paintings, window smashing, this would escalate first into arson and then the wheels came of completely when they acquired a supply of dynamite and blew up Lloyd George’s new house. They also had a plan to blow up a canal near Birmingham. [They blew quite a lot of things, but it is seldom mentioned in modern accounts, championing people that carried out domestic-terrorism – bit of a no-no PR-wise].]

    Both immediately suspended activities on the outbreak of hostilities. [It is the Suffragists, not the Suffragettes that would finally prevail as the war wound down, wringing a concession out of Lloyd George, who had by then become PM and moved out of his bomb-crater into Downing Street.]

    There may have been some small overlap in personnel between those campaigning for the right to vote and those involved in shaming/bullying men into enlisting in the Armed Forces, but the two are not connected.

    [Not to mention the moral gulf between: asking for a law to be changed and asking somebody to put their life at risk.]

  12. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Agreed, Snowy.
    My great aunt was a suffragist, and had no wish to send young men to their deaths.
    She lost her only child in 1916 after conscription had started.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    The Tyranny of the Majority. Of course the bands of women would not have the same righteous air today as you could just ask why have they not joined up themselves. Equality has many hidden benefits. As far as I’m concerned there should be more equality.

    There are many shameful things that were done in the name of the nation state and tradition. The current growing intolerance across society in all areas is something we should be on the guard against.

    The ’39 Ralph Richardson is the best, a proper ripping yarn. I always think of Beau Geste with this, a film version in ’39 to and family dishonour meaning you have to go off to kill people in far of places or die trying to forget or restore face and family name.

    Oddly enough Dad’s Army covered pacifism in a thoughtful and funny way, one of the few war programmes that did.

    Another book that had a longer reach than expected is Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race which still influences hollow earth thories in Ufology and the Nazi occult side plus Vrill was influential in these realms; Madam Blavatsky names it and Vril society makes interesting reading. Black Sun by Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke is fascinating on post war neo-Nazis and their ideology, especially the occult and mythological side (Hitler as avatar, the pagan far right is an interesting study and quite frightening as well.) As for Vrill the obvious influence in the UK is Bovril which is now a ‘High Protein Beef Paste.’ The old-new watch word in physical culture ‘high protein’ for stuff that was seen as unhealthy, fattening and old fashioned, like eggs and dairy products.

    There was an old veteran who used to collect for British Legion poppies in the 70’s, I used give the money but as things were bad financially, even to the making of poppies, I’d go without the poppy. He was delighted with this and told me the problems with supply and how some people would not donate without getting a poppy. try telling that to some adults today, I still have the habit of donating without accepting a poppy.

    Eggsy, the poppy is political, the money goes the British Army veterans of all conflicts including Northern Ireland and the middle east. As a branch of the government it is political, as a civil servant even at a low level there are politics in what we do and are told we represent the government so be careful what you say.


  14. Helen Martin says:

    A branch of the government? The Canadian Legion is the handler of poppies here and the dispensing of proceeds. It provides comforts and aid to veterans (as you say) of all service, but not at the direction of the government. Surely the British Legion has the same autonomy. Our Legion extended it’s funding into breathing conditions, probably because there were so many suffering after effects from gas, but it spread into non-veteran sufferers. They also went into limb replacement and therapy, something which became more connected to veterans once the military were faced with explosive devices.
    My father’s family (Scottish coal miners) were pacifist, my father deliberately spoiling his qualifying rifle target, but once war was declared he offered himself. He was refused because he was only 5’1″ but he offered. He always maintained that governments all made stupid choices from 1918 onwards and the League of Nations was never given the power it needed. He said that he disagreed with those choices, said what he could (although protest was harder in those days it seems to me) but when it came down to it he couldn’t let the fascists take over. There were a lot of criticisms I could have made and I’m aware that Grandpa might well have been making remarks about staying out of politics. I liked the suggestion that “useless old men” could have been used as tail gunners, although a death is a death. I remember it being said that getting women into parliaments would end war. That doesn’t seem to have worked.
    It is all very complicated, it really is. There was a lot of “that was then and this is now” going on.

  15. eggsy says:

    Thanks, Helen. Wayne, as the soldiers can be considered victims of their government, I remember their (and by extension others) suffering. The money supports those who are left unsupported by their government. The money does not go to support a government’s actions.
    And political – Humpty Dumpty territory I’m afraid, the symbol means exactly what I want it to mean and no more. I do not wear it to speak to the living, if you see what I mean.
    I am also not brave enough to be a pacifist.

  16. snowy says:

    Wayne may be slightly incorrect, but for completely right reasons.

    The poppy isn’t political, but it has been politicised, [in the UK].

    The Royal British Legion is an independant charity that was formed from the merger of several Ex-Servicemens Organisations post WWI. The Poppy Appeal raises funds to support former members of the Armed Forces. [The RBL regularly picks fights with governments of all stripes.]

    The politicisation of ‘Poppy wearing’ started around about GW1, when newspapers and tedious politicians started using the wearing or not wearing of poppies as a weapon to attack their opponents as ‘warmongers’ on one hand or as ‘unpatriotic’ on the other. [Utterly disgraceful, the previous generation would never have stooped so low.]

    [The rest of us regarded these antics with distaste, and carried on, the poppy is worn to remember all those who died, not those who sent them to their death.]

  17. snowy says:

    Jan, if you go poking about looking for links between the WSPU and the Met, you will be unable to avoid mention of Mary Sophia Allen.

    [There are some extremely naughty people that would suggest that she has provided the role-model for every female police officer over the rank of Superintendant ever since. Let’s just say they don’t make them like that anymore.]

  18. Peter Tromans says:

    To be fair to my grandad, the ‘useless’ was more a cynical comment on the treatment of men over retirement age. He was far from useless himself. A big, powerful but jovial man, he’d spent his working life as an ironworker in a gang that always ran a man short, yet found the spare time to farm a few acres and stand in for the vet when required. He played football into his 50s. During WWII, considered too old for anything else, he kept pigs and chickens and grew vegetables. In his younger years, he used to be invited to be present around visiting dignitaries including Lloyd George and the Prince of Wales.

    His son was conscripted into the RAF, fortunately not as a tailgunner. After a period scrubbing floors, they discovered that he had some mechanical skills and was a strong swimmer. He spent his war mainly repairing flying boats. Fifteen years after the end of WWII, my uncle developed a nerve wasting illness. The RAF Association heard about it by chance. They were absolutely wonderful in helping him, organising trips and holidays. An RAFA poppy is money well spent.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    I always wear a Poppy come Remembrance Day. One word describes why: Respect. I was told, when very young, at primary school, by the Headmaster, who was a good man, that millions of people died to ensure that we could say what we liked, think what we like, go where we like, be friends with whoever we like, read what we like. We used to wear little Poppies in our jumpers. Nobody thought it was odd or somehow wrong. Nobody. It was simple respect. Did itake us five and six year olds warmongers? Of course it didn’t. It takes a very skewed and sick mindset to think that. Interfering ‘do-gooders’ with no concept of real life, that’s who have these warped ideas. The bastards.

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