“White feathers for the slackers… ”

Archival Moment

July 1916

For King and Country, I Offered.

For King and Country, I Offered.

In the early days of the First World War a new word began to slip into the everyday language of Newfoundlanders especially in our poetry and song. The word was “slackers” commonly used to describe someone who was not participating in the war effort, especially someone who avoided military service.

Corporal Vincent S. Walsh of St. Mary’s, St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, Regimental # 1958 in a poem that he penned while on furlough in Weybridge, Surrey, England in 1916 was among those to use the term. He wrote: “Now I pity the poor slackers. When they are forced to go … “

Walsh’s poem was typical of the day, full of patriotic fervor, written with the intention of encouraging (some would say) shaming the young men who had not signed up, to sign up to fight for ‘King and Country.’

The pressure to sign up would have been considerable. One author went so far as to write “There are three things in this world that Tommy hates: a slacker, a German; and a trench-rat; it’s hard to tell which he hates worst.”

In Newfoundland, the determination to identify “slackers’ took the form of shaming the young men. Women  would hand out  or mail “white feathers” the symbol of cowardice, to men not in uniform. The purpose of this gesture was to shame “every young ‘slacker.’

The practice became so so common that the Editor of the St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram, on  29 November 1916  pleded with the “young women and others”  to carefully consider what they were doing.

The young ladies or others who are sending through the mails, white feathers to the young men who they believe are “slackers” should be very careful that the young men in question are justly entitled to receive them , as we know of a number of cases where quite an injustice has been done,. The victims in some cases are so deformed that it is apparent to the average person that they would not be permitted an examination let alone the privilege of wearing a “rejected” badge.

In Newfoundland and other countries in order not to be “called out as a slacker”special lapel pin were  created that read “For King and Country, I Have Offered” or “I Have Volunteered”  or “Rejected”  Upon seeing the lapel pin on the young men the general public knew that this man was not a slacker but had been refused service because of some medical condition.

The enthusiasm for war was so great that even the women in Newfoundland were determined that they would do their bit for fear of being called ‘slackers’. Women in every corner of the province joined knitting and sewing circles or volunteered with various groups involved in patriotic endeavors.

Sybil Johnson of St. John’s wrote in her diary “that she could not bear to be a slacker”   so in December 1916 left St. John’s for England where she joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD’s). She was one of the many young Newfoundland women who received a few weeks of nurse’s training and were then assigned to the casualty and battlefield hospitals in England and on the continent.

The enthusiasm of the war and determination to sign up was the theme of much of our poetry and songs of the First World War such as the poem written by Vincent S. Walsh were typical of the day. He wrote:

A Soldier’s Song

Once I was a policeman

With a billy in my hand,

And little were my thoughts then

of leaving Newfoundland.

Then my King and Country called me,

So I said that I should go

And learn how to use a rifle

To fight the German foe.

Ten thousand have responded,

Their country for to save,

They are the kind of men we want

For there are none so brave.

Now I pity the poor slackers

When they are forced to go,

To cross the foaming ocean,

To fight the German foe.

Now I hope they will take warning

By what I am going to say,

Don’t put of enlisting for another day,

Go over to your J.P. and have

You name put down,

The get aboard the Portia bound

for St. John’s town.

They will be there to meet you

If you have pluck enough to go,

They will bring you up and train you

How to fight the German foe.

Recommended Archival Collection: Distinguished Service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War, this on line exhibition documents the lives and experiences of the province’s soldiers and aims to encourage interest in research on the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The World War I service records of the Regiment are available at the archives on microfilm. Many of the service records are available on line: http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part1_entering_the_great_war.asp

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium   Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

COLLECTING THE GREAT WAR ENLISTING YOUR HELP: The Rooms needs your help to tell the stories of the men and women who served overseas and at home during the First World War and the impact that the war had here. The Rooms staff will be available to collect stories and document photographs and artifacts. Help us preserve stories of the First World War before they are lost. The information gathered will be used to develop a new permanent exhibition on The Great War to open in 2016. More Information:  http://www.therooms.ca/firstworldwar/default.asp