#whitefeather diaries

The white feather diaries project

As the white feather diaries draws to a close Jane Dawson, Advocacy and Public Relationships Team Lead for Quakers in Britain, reflects on the development of the white feather diaries and why it is important to tell these stories today.

Three years ago, when asked to develop a campaign to mark the centenary of World War I for Quakers in Britain, I was a little daunted. I hadn’t studied history since ‘O’ level and only then covered WWI through war poetry. My knowledge was limited but, as it turned out, this proved an advantage.

The campaign’s aim was to highlight the challenges faced by Quakers as we moved towards corporate opposition to WWI. It would tell the alternative narrative of Quaker work to prevent the conflict and the peace work we continue to do today.

Untold Stories

I was about to have quite a different history lesson to the one taught in schools or written about in books: a story of faith and conscience.

Early on an old friend told me the story of his conscientious objector uncle from Essex. He described the influence of this relationship on his own choice to join the Friends Ambulance Unit in WWII. Not long after I discovered my stepmother had played in a musical trio with one of the ‘Richmond 16’. Norman Gaudie was imprisoned in Richmond Castle for taking an ‘absolutist’ stance and sentenced to death by firing squad for non-cooperation. Later, I was to see his drawings still preserved in the freezing cold medieval cells of the North Yorkshire castle, a moving experience.

Not exposing open wounds

I asked my stepmother why I didn’t know these stories, despite being brought up in the same Quaker meeting Norman had attended. Why was I learning for the first time of Quakers who had suffered the most horrific treatment for following their religious conviction that killing was never justified? Being prepared to die, rather than take another’s life, surely these men were heroes and courageous role models.

“People just didn’t talk about it” was my mother’s reply. “The public had no sympathy for them. They were sacked from their jobs and had to make new lives. They were out of step with the mood of the country and didn’t want to expose open wounds”.

I wanted to bring to the public these stories of people who had been written out of history, so we could witness first hand their horror, as the mood of the country shifted towards jingoism. And for us to experience how the war divided families and presented individuals with harsh choices. I wanted to create a record of the orchestrated campaign against those who opposed the war. I wanted the history to unfold through the words of those most deeply affected.

Reading the newspaper reports of mobs attacking Quaker meeting houses, the violence directed at individuals and the abominable white feather campaign (designed to shame men not in uniform into enlisting), I began to understand why. Friends House Library in London has a file full of hostile letters from writers who had absorbed the propaganda and turned their hatred and anger towards conscientious objectors. One of these, from a rector of the Church of England, writes of the Quakers, “I will do my best to… help to punish evildoers”.

Following five stories

We had the idea that if we followed the stories of five individuals who had faced the ultimate question ‘would they kill for their country’ and discovered they couldn’t, we might uncover an entirely different war narrative. What we discovered was a story of cruelty and suppression hidden from the history books. And so the white feather diaries came into being. 

Each diarist has a blog and twitter account to tell their story, reminding us that but for the gift of being born in a different time, they could have been us. We wanted readers to put themselves in the shoes of another and to question their own assumptions. What would you have done if compelled to fight? Are there other ways to solve conflict? Is it right to compel people to join the armed forces? What would you do today?

Recognising a right

The white feather diaries has tried to fill a gap in our history and give a more complete picture of WWI. There has been an unprecedented interest in the hidden stories it reveals. It’s realised a thirst to understand the difficult and courageous choices of individuals 100 years ago and how their choices led to the individual freedoms we have today. Our diarists, and people like them, paved the way to conscientious objection being internationally recognised as a human right. I’ve felt humbled learning about such faith and fortitude. I feel proud that Britain led the way in recognising this legal right and that Quakers continue to work for peace today.

Find out more about Quaker work for peace today.

Related Materials

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Conscientious objectors were offered the chance of doing “alternative work of national importance” under the Home Office scheme. John had for a long time been offering to do such work, although others did not agree. Here is John's description of his move from prison to alternative work.

Conscientious objector memorial stone, London
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