Q&A: Were conscientious objectors in the Second World War given white feathers?

In the First World War some young men not in uniform were approached by ladies and given white feathers as a token of cowardice. Did this also happen in the Second World War?

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In August 1914 Admiral Charles Fitzgerald deputised 30 women in Folkstone to hand out white feathers to men not wearing military uniform. The gesture was designed to publicly humiliate conscientious objectors (COs), those men who took a moral stand by refusing to fight in the First World War, and was emulated across the country.

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During the course of the Second World War more than 60,000 men applied for exemption from service on moral grounds. Bitter experience of divisive tribunals during the previous war meant these COs did not suffer as severely as their predecessors. The government was more tolerant. But they were still seen as cowards, and faced open hostility. They were lambasted, spat at and shunned. The worst possible humiliation, however, was to receive a white feather, in person or in the post.

Julia Lloyd, a child during the war, remembered how “those few lily-livered call-up dodgers were put to shame with symbolic white feathers sent in envelopes”. Another who lived through the conflict recalled how one man, on leave from the Merchant Navy, was targeted: “One day, when out walking on the beach, a woman came up to him and spat in his face, called him a coward and gave him a white feather”. For many, then, the white feather remained a potent symbol.

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This Q&A was answered by Daniel Cossins, freelance writer.