In the months after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, there was a tumultuous national response to the call to arms. Many hundreds of thousands of young men flocked to recruiting stations up and down the country, determined to play their part in the great adventure that was war.
Equally though, many hundreds of thousands of men did not flock to enlist; they stayed right where they were and carried on with their lives. The reasons for this were varied; many did not want to be involved in a war; many had well paid jobs and a family to support and many men contributed to the war effort in a civilian role. There was a large portion of society, however, that strongly felt that every able bodied man should be in uniform and weren’t shy of voicing their opinions in public.
An anonymous letter to the Yorkshire Herald on September 5th, 1914 makes no bones about the ‘cowards’ who remained at home:
Sir, I wonder if any of you men realise how very grave this war is. I think all men read newspapers. How you can sit quietly at home when you read how very terribly they are treating the English soldiers and the poor women and children. That should be quite enough to make men’s blood – young and old – boil and eager to help. Those who hold back have not one spark of manhood in them. Go all of you and be soldiers and men and not cowards. You need not be afraid; your people will not be forgot. It is a very paltry excuse. If some of you would spend less on drink and pleasure and give the money to your mothers and wives you would be all the better for it. Don’t hold back, but go all of you and offer to be a solder and do your best for your country.
From one who wishes you all the best of luck.
Six months later, the tone of anonymous letters remains unchanged with this ‘YORK GIRL’S HINT TO THE YOUNG MEN OF THE CITY in the Yorkshire Press:
Sir – Will you allow me a space in your valuable paper as regards the young men of York? It is a great shame to see so many able-bodied young men lurking about the streets, standing at street corners, and passing unpleasant remarks to passers by while so many of our brave men have sacrificed everything for our dear country. Every girl who honours her country should think it a downright shame to be seen talking with a young fellow without a khaki uniform and should try and get as many to join the Army as possible. There are many young women who would gladly take up their work if they did their duty to their fighting comrades.
I hope those who read this will take the hint from one who honours the soldiers – Yours etc J.R.
It’s interesting that most letters of this kind are both anonymous and from women. They are equivalent to issuing white feathers, which was usually done completely at random. This particular letter prompted a string of outraged replies from those were supposed to ‘take the hint’.
“She writes nothing but piffle” “I am one of those who are assisting York for the Government and, like the employees at the Ordnance Depot, Fulford Road and the Clothing Depot, Leeman Road, khaki uniforms are not supplied to us” (A YOUNG MAN WITH A SWEETHEART)
“As for those who are medically unfit, would she dare to say that they must join when they have been rejected twice?” (J W COOPER)
But perhaps the most damning response comes from a local government employee:
“I suppose by her letter, J.R is one of those persons who would be quite at home stood at the street corners handing out white feathers to anyone not in uniform.” “Does JR think that those men found medically unfit want to walk around wearing a placard on their backs with ‘medically unfit’ written on?” “Let me remind JR that there are thousands of young men working practically night and day, untiring and unceasingly, and who are doing as much as our brave lads in the trenches-but have not the honour of wearing a uniform” (GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE)
It seems exceedingly simplistic to suppose that a man in uniform was serving his country, whereas a man in civilian clothes was not; but by early 1915, soldiers were being instructed to wear their uniform at all times when in public with a view to shaming civilian men into enlisting. This kind of action led people into believing, through some ignorant notion of patriotism, that while uniform represented bravery, civilian clothes represented cowardice.
It was an incredibly divisive time that saw men constantly having to defend their masculinity and explain their medical background or employment status to anyone who challenged them. For those men who had tried to enlist, but had been rejected for medical reasons, it must have been particularly humiliating.
Although they may not have donned a uniform and fought in the trenches, most of the men who remained behind contributed to the war effort in coal mines, factories, offices and more. Fortunately, when we look back on the Great War, we do so with a great deal more common sense and understanding that some of the anonymous letter writers who plagued the community with their opinions via the local press.