White feathers and heroes

White feather

I probably shouldn’t mention white feathers. Not on the eve of Anzac Day. Especially not on the eve of an Anzac Day which will be like no other we have ever experienced. Thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, we will perhaps go to the end of our driveways at 6.00 am and listen to a broadcast program. We’ll wave to our neighbours. Maybe we’ll trawl through television programs about the ANZACS later in the day.

The men and women who gave their lives during wars will be remembered. We’ll recognise our heroes and think about our country but it won’t be the same this year.

Another story, however, one we rarely talk about, runs in parallel with that of the war hero. Some families guard the secret and nurse the shame. The  secret hides the men who didn’t go to war although most of them did other, equally important work. Some of them were heroes, but never sung or celebrated.

In fact, many wonderful Australian men didn’t go to war. Most of them wanted to join their brothers and their mates. They, too, would have liked to serve their country, to be brave and perhaps to have an adventure.

Instead, they stayed home and worked hard. Farmers worked to feed servicemen and civilians. Others manufactured essential goods and kept the country running. They made armaments and uniforms and boots and heavy machinery.

My father, Keith Stone, didn’t go to war. He didn’t make his fortune and received no medals, not even a service medal.  He didn’t get deferred pay or a war-service home or a hand-up to get a university education or a new trade.

My father Keith Stone on his wedding day 1936

My father Keith Stone on his wedding day 1936. 

Instead, my Dad received a white feather in his letterbox.

Declaration of war, 1939

The week after Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced in 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany my father went to enlist. My mother often told the story that I’d been making a noise during that important announcement. Dad had got up from the table and dumped me, without ceremony, into my cot. He closed the door so he could hear the news over the protests of an eighteen-month old child.

You’re no good to us,’ they said at the recruitment office. ‘You’ve got flat feet. You can’t march like a soldier. You wear spectacles, so you can’t be an airman. Or a sailor.’

My father went back to his job making cardboard boxes. His father had made boxes during WW I. By the outbreak of WW II my grandfather was almost eighty, too frail to work. Soon my father was the only man left in the factory. Women had been recruited to replace the men who’d gone to war.

Ammunition, shirts and shoes, tinned bully-beef and surgical supplies were all packed into boxes for shipping to war zones. Red Cross comfort parcels, with hand-knitted socks, cakes of soap and Christmas cakes made by volunteers were also packed in cardboard boxes.

Herbert Stone Pty Ltd, at the time still my grandparents’ cardboard box factory, worked a six-day week. My father worked seven days.

Dad did all the heavy lifting, in every sense of the word.

Japan enters war

When Japan entered the war in 1942, the government again urged Australian women and men to enlist. By then they’d become desperate and far less fussy about who they took to fight in the war.

At the recruitment office this time, he discovered that he’d been officially ‘man-powered’. The Manpower Directorate ruled certain occupations were essential for the nation and the war. Men employed in them couldn’t be freed for active war service.

With their menfolk at away at war, women in our street asked my father to fix their broken taps and put up shelves. The owner of the only car in the street, he drove them in labour to the maternity hospital in the middle of the night. Ten days later, he picked the new mother and baby up and Mum settled them into their husband-less house and fussed after them.

One morning in 1942, my mother found a white feather in our letterbox. That evening, she led my father into their bedroom to tell him what she’d found. When they came out, they’d both been crying.

What did white feathers mean?

That white feather in our letterbox was sinister.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century in Britain,  white feathers symbolized cowardice. My father would have known that Admiral Charles Fitzgerald had initiated the British Organisation of the White Feather, during World War I. It was one way to ‘encourage’ fit men to enlist with the British Army.

Young women handed out white feathers in the streets to men not wearing uniform. They implied the men were shirkers or cowards. The ‘gift’ of a feather meant to shame and offend.

During WW I the British government also developed a badge with the legend, ‘King and Country’, to be worn by those involved in key industries and occupations. They marked the wearer as a person excluded from the moral pressure to enlist.

No one knew who was man-powered because there was no badge in 1942. White feathers were ‘given’ anonymously. Donors denied their targets the right to protest or explain. No one could object on grounds of conscience.

White feathers would have hurt. They were meant to. They’d have caused suspicion. If you got one, you’d have to ask yourself, ‘What bastard would do that? What if it’s someone in our own neighbourhood?’

My father never found out. He  got on with the job. quietly supporting the Australian government at war.

Blokes like him who worked their guts out for the war effort were among war’s unsung heroes.

My mother also played her part in the war effort. Here’s a story about her: The War Effort of One Woman.


I updated this post in April 2020 with our world in upheaval because of the ravages of COVID-19. It seems important still that we recognise the unsung heroes of our world.

6 replies on “White feathers and heroes”

    1. Thank you, Christina. I like that you say I have ‘sung’ my father. He was my hero in many ways.

    1. You weren’t meant to cry! But thank you, anyway. I did want to tell a war story that makes sense to me. So many of them don’t. I posted it when I came home from the Holywood Primary School Anzac Day ceremony. That’s the last time after all these years, because Lara will go to high school next year. xxx

  1. A lovely tribute to your father Maureen.

    My grandfather, who was born in Australia of a German father and Scottish mother, was rejected when he applied to enlist in the Australian Army in 1916. He also received a number of ‘white feathers’. He married my grandmother – who was born in New Zealand – in 1918. Things were still so bad for him that in 1919 he had to leave Sydney, went to Java where my mother and her two sisters were born. They came back to Australia in 1936. In the early 1940s he was inundated with ‘white feathers’ yet again and lots of slurs about his German name – Carl Gotsch.

    I definitely am suffering from Anzackery. I do not celebrate war. Today, I kept myself busy with trips back and forth with a car load of ‘stuff’ to my ‘new’ home which I move into officially this coming Thursday. I had no problems with traffic whilst doing so!!

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. How very sad for your grandparents that they had to move because they weren’t accepted in Australia in wartime. As well, to have received white feathers in two wars must have been devastating for them. Such a cruel, heartless practice by ignorant people.

      I don’t cope well with Anzac Day at the best of times, and this year is is far too over the top. I don’t even understand what it is supposed to mean, although it is obviously important to many people, including some I love dearly. With asylum seekers in detention centres as bad as prisoner-or-war camps, I’m ashamed of what Australia has become. The government seems to be as confused as I am about what fairness, fair go, mate-ship and all that stuff is supposed to mean.

      On a lighter note, it is fabulous about your new home. I can’t wait to see it. What a good way to spend Anzac Day, moving things. Do you need a hand?

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