Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(8) The Mysterious Scotsman

  On 8th July 1915, this now famous warning appeared in the personal columns of The Times, "jack F.G. If you are not in Khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead, Ethel M." Before military conscription was introduced in Britain, a few carefully chosen words printed in the personal column of a newspaper, were sometimes enough to compel a man to enlist.

Another method of making your displeasure known and at the same time cause instant humiliation was to present a so-called ‘slacker’ with the "order of the white feather."

In the streets, bands of over zealous young women distributed a white feather - a symbol of cowardice. Any man of military age not in uniform was considered by them to be a legitimate target for feathering. In October 1915, Michael MacDonaugh of The Times witnessed such an incident."The victims," he said, "were two young men who were rudely disturbed from their reading of the evening paper by the attack of three young women." One of the girls said, "Why don’t you fellows enlist? Your King and Country want you. We don’t." She then dishonoured one of them by sticking a white feather in his buttonhole.

Sometimes these silly girls got it all terribly wrong. Not long after the king had awarded "a gallant young officer" the Victoria Cross, he changed into civvies and was sitting on a bench in Hyde Park quietly enjoying a cigarette. A group of jeering girls approached and handed him a white feather, without a word he accepted it and put it with his V.C. Later he said to a friend that he was probably, "the only man who ever received on the same day the two outstanding emblems of bravery and cowardice – the victoria cross and the white feather." He returned to the trenches and was killed. MacDonough said. "These tactics seem to me to be uncomprehending…only some were 'shirkers' evading their duty as citizens."


ww1 White Feather card

A most unusual method of feathering occurred in the autumn of 1916 and was equally as public as that mentioned previously. The postcard illustrated above (not a picture postcard but nevertheless quite intriguing) was mailed from Edinburgh on 12th October 1916, to an address in the same city. It is an extraordinary card and the words on it speak for themselves. It was mailed to ‘D. McCormick’, but marked ‘c/o Prof. Alexis Thomson.’

Thomson was a famous surgeon of the time and served on the Western Front from 1914-18 as a Consulting Surgeon to the Third Army. Thomson employed McCormick as his chauffeur.

When military service became compulsory in Britain in June 1916, people in ‘reserved occupations’ were not obliged to present themselves to the military authorities, the post of chauffeur to a man in the position of Thomson came under that classification. Also, when war broke out, McCormick according to the anonymous writer, was a member of the “Dandy Ninth”, they were the 9th Royal Scots.

The writer expressed great hatred for McCormick and signed himself "Yours contemptuously Scotsman". He accused him of changing his nationality from British to American to evade being ‘called-up’, and questioned if in fact he was a chauffeur! Almost a hundred years on, one can only speculate the reason as to why the card was sent.

At the time, the Battle of the Somme was still in progress; perhaps the ‘Scotsman’ had recently lost a friend or relative there, and maybe felt bitter that McCormick was not doing his duty by enlisting? Perhaps he simply did not like him.


ww1 message on a White Feather postcard

Whatever the reason for sending it, the card was as public and as humiliating as any white feather. However it is quite possible – in fact probable – that McCormick never saw the ‘Scotsman’s’ card at all. It was found in 1990 still residing among some papers, which were addressed to Professor Thomson. It seems he never passed the card on to his chauffeur.




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