Roger N Morris
The white feather
It sits within my palm,
As weightless as a wish,
White as a snowflake
Before it melts into a tear.
Creating the Centena
I came across Robert Greaves while researching a novel set in the early months of the First World War. At that time, military service was on a voluntary basis and not everyone was quick to answer Lord Kitchener’s famous call to arms. The practice of giving men white feathers to shame them into enlisting began in Folkestone and before long spread to other parts of the country. It was taken up with great enthusiasm by many women, including some prominent suffragettes.
At the age of 30, Robert Greaves cut his own throat after someone posted a white feather through his letterbox. The inquest into Greaves’ death in Harrogate was reported sympathetically in a number of newspapers, which I was able to access online through the British Newspaper Archive. I also received details about Greaves’ life from Every Day Lives in War.
The evidence showed that Greaves was “a man of a very sensitive disposition.” It was said at the inquest that no doctor would have passed him for the Army. It seems likely that Greaves was suffering from anxiety. Possibly he even had paranoid tendencies. Today, we would say that he had mental health issues.
We don’t know whether Greaves knew who delivered the white feather that led him to kill himself. But in my centena, I speculate that he at least had an idea.
We tend to see war in terms of its heroes. We memorialise those who carried out exceptional acts of valour or endured appalling conditions with fortitude, resilience and humour.
I am also drawn to the people who lived less than heroic lives, those for whom war was an overwhelmingly terrifying experience. I ask myself “What would I have done? How would I have conducted myself?” I’m not a hero. I’m quite possibly a coward. Would I have been at the head of the queue outside the recruiting office? I’m not sure. Maybe I would have been one of the men handed a white feather instead.
I certainly sympathise more with those receiving white feathers than those handing them out. For me, Robert Greaves is as much a casualty of war as any of the men who died on the Western Front.
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