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white feather by mike kanner

The small firm of Miller and Son had done well tailoring suits for London’s upper-middle class. In the back workshop, Miller and a few journeymen tailors did most of the work. The front was decorated to give customers a sense of modest elegance. Mahogany shelves lined the walls and were filled with bolts of fabric from merino wool to the satins used for lining to cotton fabrics for shirts mall stand where customers stood while being measured. Three full-length mirrors provided customers with a full viewing experience.  

"You’re not in uniform?” Burton, a middle-aged banker, stood being measured for a new suit.

“No sir, now your arm, please.” Thomas, the son in Miller and Son, was used to this question. In 1915, the War was part of almost every conversation. Young men in civilian clothes were often asked why they were not in the service. Thomas tried to avoid war talk with customers, most of whom were just happy to get a well-made suit.

But some were not. Mr. Burton raised his arm and continued his questioning. “Why not? You seem fit.”

“Quite fit, sir.” Thomas pinched the tape, walked over to a small standing desk, and wrote down the measurement. “I've applied as a conscientious objector."  Then, taking the tape in both hands, he returned to Burton. "Now, if I can measure your neck, please?" 

Burton was staring at Thomas’s reflection in the mirror. "A conchie? I thought you were a Jew. They're not pacifists."

Thomas tempered his initial reaction and tried to respond pleasantly. "Jews are not. I am. I believe war only causes suffering and does not settle anything. Now, if you will please step down so I can measure your neck."

Burton stepped down but raised his hands to block the tape. "No. I think I'll take my business elsewhere."

Thomas politely tried to persuade Mr. Burton not to leave. "Perhaps you'd prefer to be measured by my father? He's served."

Burton donned his brown tweed ulster coat taking his time buttoning the single row of buttons up the front. "No. While Miller and Son have done good work for me in the past, I cannot support an  establishment that is not supporting the War." He cinched the coat’s belt to emphasize his final point and left.

Hearing the door close, Thomas's father, Henry, walked into the front room from the workshop. He frowned at his son. "Thomas. You shouldn't talk politics. It's bad for business."

Thomas avoided his father’s stare by returning the bolts of cloth he had pulled for Mr. Burton. "I was just taking his measurements when he asked why I wasn't in uniform. I thought he wanted a suit, not a philosophical discussion."

"I know, I know." Henry resigned himself to his son’s position.

Having finished returning the bolts, Thomas faced his father. "Papa, it was you who told me how horrible war was. Your experiences turned me against it.

Henry, born Heinrich in Hamburg, Germany, met his son’s gaze. Years ago, Thomas came across pictures of his father as a young soldier during the Franco-Prussian War. His father had told him about the brutality of combat. How he had seen his best friend die, clutching at his stomach after a French soldier cut him open with a bayonet. What it looked like when he fired his rifle point-blank at the French soldier's head.  

"I understand, my boy, but this is not the time, especially for us. Germans and Jews are suspect. That's why I changed our name.” Henry placed his hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “Maybe you should work in the back. Less upsetting to customers."  

Thomas stared at the floor and murmured, "Yes, Papa."  


# # #


Thomas finally received notice to appear before the local tribunal. Though he didn’t have high hopes for the hearing’s outcome, at least his status would be finalized. When he entered the room, his heart sank as he saw Burton seated with three other prominent individuals—all of whom had been customers—and the local recruiting officer. Thomas took a seat, maintaining the pleasant manner he had developed after years of waiting on customers. Mr. Burton opened a folder. "Mr. Miller, you have requested to be excused from military service as a conscientious objector."

"Yes, sir."  

"And this is not for religious grounds?"

Thomas saw this would be a continuation of the conversation in the tailor shop. "No, Sir. As you might recall, I believe war does nothing but cause suffering and settles nothing. If –"

The local recruiting officer interrupted. "It says here you were born Thomas Mueller." He looked up from Thomas's file. "Sounds German."

Thomas sighed; he knew his family’s German origin would not help his case. "It is. My father came here from Hamburg. He changed his name when he started his business. I was born in the East End and lived there my whole life. I would note that His Majesty also has a German name, but no one questions his loyalty."

"Don't be impertinent!" Burton exclaimed. "It is not helping your case.&quot  

Thomas took a moment to control his frustration. "I was merely pointing out that there are many loyal Englishmen with German names. I am loyal to the Crown. I just don't believe I can best serve the King in a war."

The recruiting officer stared at Thomas before continuing. "And your employment?"

"As members of the Tribunal can attest, I am the son in Miller and Son, Tailors."

Mr. Burton addressed the board. "If there are no other questions?" Since none were raised, he told Thomas he could leave while the panel deliberated. Thomas stood and left the room to wait in the hall with the rest of the conscientious objectors. Most sat hunched over with elbows on their knees, heads hung down. Deferments were not often granted. Even if they were, alternate work or service in the Army's Non- Combatant Corps was required of the objectors. Refusal of either option would result in a court-martial and prison.

Finally, Thomas was called back in. The chair he’d sat on during the hearing had been removed, forcing him to stand. Mr. Burton read out the decision.

"The tribunal has granted an exemption with alternate service in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher-bearer. You are to report on Monday to the London Hospital for training. Failure to do so will result in your arrest and jail."

"Yes, sir."


# # #


Although not religious, Mr. Burton’s reference to his religion and the probability of serving in the trenches inspired Thomas to attend synagogue that weekend. The reading was from Deuteronomy about the conquest of Canaan. The Rabbi explained that while Jews were peaceful people, they were not pacifists.

"While peace is a virtue, so is justice. When faced with the atrocities we have seen coming out of Belgium; and the murder of innocents such as Edith Cavell, who wanted no more than to serve her fellow man and relieve his suffering, it is time for good men to stand up. To do otherwise is to be on the side of evil. As Joshua said, "Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”

Members of the small Jewish community in his part of the East End knew Thomas had refused to fight. Many avoided him, choosing to say hello only to his parents. So, it was exceptional when Reb Mordechai approached. As the head of the local yeshiva, he had taught Thomas religion for years. When he was in front of Thomas, Reb Mordechai spat in his face and gave him a white feather.

Thomas took out his handkerchief and wiped the spittle off. He stared at the feather for a moment and then placed it in his jacket pocket. "Don't mind that," his father said. "His only son was killed last year. He still says Kaddish for him."


# # #


On Monday, Thomas reported to London Hospital. He and the other recruits were met by a sergeant whose ribbons showed he had already served in France. The burn marks and absence of his left ear partly explained why he was assigned to the hospital. "All right, you lot, you are here because you are not willing to fight for your country. Well then, you will get a chance to bleed for your country. Stretcher-bearers have a nasty habit of getting themselves killed." The coughing spell that followed explained another reason for his current assignment. He was a gas victim. Seeing this living example of the war’s horrors reinforced Thomas’s objection to the brutality of warfare.

Once he recovered, the sergeant came back to attention. "RIGHT FACE.” Thomas and the other recruits pivoted right. The sergeant continued. “We will now proceed down this hall to get you your uniforms. You are now part of the King's Army. FORWARD!"

The first weeks were spent learning what it took to be a soldier – how to march, set up their bunks, and maintain their equipment. Thomas and his fellow trainees had mixed feelings when told they would not receive rifle or bayonet training. "What do they think, sending us to the battlefield without learning how to defend ourselves?" Thomas's bunkmate was an avid socialist who saw the conflict as a rich man's war.

"You can step down now and hand me the pants."

Uniforms rarely fit well, so Thomas reworked them for the other trainees. He started the alterations using thread and needle from their issued sewing kit. "That's part of being an objector. Because we don't want to fight, they think they shouldn't waste the bullets teaching us how." After a few minutes, he finished the stitching and cut off the extra thread. "Now, here's your pants. They shouldn't grab you anymore."


His friend put on the pants and did some squats. "Oh, that's a marvel. You're a real whiz with that needle."

Thomas grinned at him while he put away his sewing kit. "Come by our store after the war, and I'll give you a discount on a suit."

Medical training followed their military training. In addition to basic first aid, they were taught how to carry a litter, improvise litters, and move soldiers without litters. Those who knew how to drive were selected for additional training on ambulances. At the end of their training they were turned over to the Royal Army Medical Corps and given their specific assignments. Thomas was assigned to the 12th Infantry Brigade, already stationed near Ypres, Belgium.


# # #


At brigade headquarters Thomas was told his battalion was already at the front. He was given a map that showed the route through the reserve and communication trenches and sent out to find his way.

Once in the forward trench, he saw a sign that said, Aid Post hanging on a reinforced dugout. Relieved at finding his post, Thomas paused and took in his surroundings. This was not the pristine view from the London papers or postcards. The odor almost overcame him. The trench smelled like the open sewer it resembled. Mud spattered everything. Wooden slats and chicken wire held back the dirt and muck. That battle was being lost in several areas despite soldiers shoring up the breaks.

Next was the noise. There was nothing quiet about this quiet sector. Distant artillery echoed off the clouds while the trenches were filled with conversations, snores, and the groans of the men in the Aid Post  awaiting evacuation. The real horror was that the clay soil kept the blood from draining, so the mud had a red tint, and the air smelled of copper.

 Two soldiers were tossing lime and dirt on a pit filled with amputated limbs. Thomas turned away, feeling nauseous.

Outside the dugout, a soldier sitting on an upturned ammunition crate was smoking a cigarette. His tunic was off, and his shirt's right sleeve and cuffs were covered in blood.

Thomas swallowed to quash his nausea and cleared his throat. "Can you tell me where the Medical Officer is?"

The man looked at him and drew on his cigarette. "Why? You look healthy."

"I'm the new stretcher bearer."

"Really? Who did you whiz off?" The soldier tossed his cigarette into the mud.

"My tribunal. I'm an objector."

 The man stood up and grabbed a tunic hanging from a bayonet jammed into the side of the Aid Post. "I object to this shite also, but here we are." He turned around, pulled on his tunic and shouted. "SERGEANT!"

A middle-aged man with sergeant stripes came out of the Aid Post. "What now, Sir?"

"I've got your new bearer." When the man turned around with his tunic on, Thomas saw he was an officer. He began to salute, but the officer grabbed his arm. "We don't do that out here. Tends to shorten the lives of us officers." Turning to the sergeant, he said, "Get him settled and put him on the rota starting  tonight. I'm going to get some kip before the next go-round." The officer set off down the trench and disappeared into a dugout.

"Well, you've met the doctor," the sergeant said. "He's not bad as they go. But don't get underfoot when he's working, or you'll catch the blazes."

 They walked a few yards until they reached a flap of canvas hanging over a chamber dug out of the side of the trench. The sergeant pulled back the canvas and pointed to a bunk."Here you go. Just pack up the stuff on that bunk, then report back to the Aid Post."

"It looks occupied. Won't he mind?"

"No, he's not goin' to mind anything ever again. We just ain’t had time to pack his kit and send it home. Bring it up with you when your report for duty." The sergeant left Thomas to settle in.


# # #


Thomas had just laid out his kit when a lance corporal and a private came in. The corporal spoke up. "So, you must be the new man. Sergeant Hawkins said we got a replacement."

Thomas put his hand out to shake the two men's hands. "Thomas Miller, I'm assigned as a stretcher-bearer."

"Well, you're up for a job," said the Lance Corporal. "The names Jones by the way. The youngster's name is Ryan."

The younger soldier chimed in. "Yeah, nothing like crawling through the mud, hauling a body to make you wish for your own Blighty. Nothing major, mind you, just enough to get home and have the girls more friendly."

Thomas couldn’t imagine wishing for a wound to escape the war. With no idea how to respond, he changed the subject. "So, what's it like here?"

Corporal Jones loosened the collar on his tunic and lay down on one of the bunks. "Not bad. Better than last time."

"Last time?" Thomas asked.

"We were here last November. Got pushed back. Retook back in April. Been here ever since. The only difference is more dead and more mud. Say, where's your weapon?"

Thomas shrugged. "I refused it when it was issued."

"Refused it! What kind of idiot are you?"

Thomas didn't know what the reaction would be but went ahead and told the Lance Corporal. "I'm an objector. I don't believe in harming others. This is my alternative service."

Corporal Jones leapt to his feet. "A Bloody Conchie! Hell! Well, don't expect me to save your ass if you won't save your own." The corporal stormed out into the trench.

"Don’t mind him,” Ryan said as he unwrapped his leggings. “He lost a lot of mates the first time he was here. Got a few holes himself. He’ll be okay in a bit.”

“And you?” Thomas asked Ryan.

“I just want to get through all this. As the Frenchies say, Cest la vie.” Ryan had his boots and socks off and was inspecting his feet. "We'll see how long your objections last when the Krauts start shooting at  you."


# # #


There was no assault that night, but patrols were still out, cutting wire and mapping German trenches' locations. It was quiet until one of the patrols accidentally detonated an old shell. The call for “Medic” and “Bearer” introduced Thomas to the reality of his situation. He and Jones used the shouts of the wounded to guide them as they moved in the dark. Suddenly, they were bathed in white light.

"FLARE!" Jones shouted.

Thomas dropped to the mud just before bullets flooded No Man's Land.

In between the bursts, Jones crawled to where Thomas lay. "You okay?"

Thomas was panting from the adrenaline rush that came with being shot at. All he could do was nod. "Okay.”

Jones waited while he recovered. “Well, it won't get any better. Let's push on."

They crawled over to the soldiers. Sporadic machine gun bursts hampered their advance. They eventually reached the patrol, which had taken shelter in an old shell crater. One of the men was dead; his tags would be collected, and the body left there. Another had superficial wounds that Jones field dressed. Unfortunately, they also had two wounded that could not walk and only one stretcher. Jones had to decide which would be carried back, knowing that the other man would probably die before they could get back to him.

"We can put one on the stretcher, and I'll carry the other," Thomas suggested.

"You're daft," Jones said. "Fritz has the hole pegged. You'll be dead as soon as you stand."

"I'll crawl out. You go first with the stretcher. I'll follow a few minutes later."

"You’re a bloody fool." Jones told the walking wounded to grab the end of the stretcher.

Thomas loosened the injured soldier’s web gear and found a discarded bandolier. As he’d been trained, he grabbed the soldier’s uninjured arm, turned so he could hold the arm to his chest, and rolled so the soldier was now on his back. Pushing up, he tied the two shoulder straps of the soldier’s web gear together with the bandolier to secure him to his back.

Thomas spoke quietly to the injured man. “If you would be so kind as not to moan or scream, it would be greatly appreciated. The man nodded grimly, his face wracked with pain.

Jones shook his head and asked Thomas, "You sure you want to do this?"

"Go!" Thomas answered and then threw spare gear to the side of the crater to draw off German fire.

Jones and the stretcher moved out of the crater during the burst of fire. Thomas waited a few minutes before preparing to leave. Taking a breath, he threw more equipment to the crater’s other side and waited for the machine gun burst before clambering over the pit’s lip. He could hear Jones calling from the British lines. Thomas crawled over with the man strapped to his back until he was challenged and recognized by an observation post. Jones and Ryan met him in the trench and carried the wounded man back to the Aid Post. Once in the trench, the wounded man repeatedly thanked Thomas for not abandoning him.

After stand-to, Thomas returned to his bunk and realized what he had done. Crawling through the mud with a man strapped on his back, machine-gun fire impacting all around him. This was not the act of a sane man. But the soldier’s appreciation for not being abandoned confirmed Thomas’s commitment to serving others and relieving their suffering. Over the next few months, patrols or an assault would go forward, and then Thomas, Jones and Ryan would follow to retrieve the wounded. Although many thought it odd that Thomas never carried a weapon (most bearers carried a revolver, at least), no one made any
remarks after the first few weeks.

He acquired the nickname "The Clerk." In his tunic pocket, he carried a small notebook and pencil. He would stay with fatally wounded soldiers so they did not die alone. When he and the soldier realized it was the end, Thomas would ask, “Do you have a message for someone?” He would write down the particulars and then take the soldier's identity tags. If possible, he would bring the body back to their lines. In most cases, it was not. Thomas would close the soldier’s eyes and say a prayer for the dead before crawling back to their trench.

Jones asked him once, “Hey Miller, why do you risk your neck to wait and write all that down?”

Thomas took the notebook out of his tunic and held it. “Because there’s nothing worse than dying alone and unremembered.” He put the notebook back into his pocket. “I’m with them, and I will remember.”


# # #


Thomas and Ryan were in No Man's Land, searching for survivors from that day’s skirmish. It was the middle of the night, but a full moon gave No Man’s Land a gray tint that let them look for wounded but unconscious soldiers. They came across a clump of bodies and separated the Brits from the Germans, finding mostly dead on both sides. Identity tags were taken from the dead Brits so that families could be notified. Thomas also collected letters and pictures to put in his notebook. The next day, he would write notes to the families to go along with the commander's letters and send the effects back to them.

One of the wounded was a terrified young German soldier gripping his stomach. The blood oozing across his uniform indicated that he had a fatal abdominal wound. Thomas’s family spoke German at home so that he could speak to the soldier. "Ich bin ein Sanitäter. Ich bin hier, um zu helfen." Thomas gently pulled the soldier’s hands away and saw that the soldier was holding a kugelgrenade. The brass wire trigger had been removed. He looked at the grenade, knowing that he and the soldier would be blown apart when it exploded. Terror filled his belly.

"GRENADE!" Thomas shouted.

He and Ryan scrambled to escape the hole, but Ryan slipped in the mud and was only partway out when the grenade exploded. Both felt the explosion’s concussion and were showered by dirt, blood and body parts.

Thomas spit out the dirt he had inhaled. "Fuck." He looked over to see Ryan lying in the mud. "Ryan, you alright?"

"No.” Ryan turned over on his back.

Thomas scrambled over.

“Can you pull this bit of bone out of my leg? I don't think it's mine."

Thomas looked down and saw a bone shard with bits of German uniform still on it sticking out just below Ryan’s left knee. Ryan’s leg was a bloody mass with bits of muscle and Ryan’s own bones exposed. His boot was flat, meaning that the foot was no longer attached. Thomas resisted the urge to vomit. He put a tourniquet on Ryan’s thigh, pulled the bone out, and gave him some morphine.

"Looks like I got my Blighty,” Ryan said as the morphine began to work. “It’s back to London for me. And you get to carry me." He passed out after that.

Tying Ryan to his back as he had already done with so many soldiers, Thomas dragged him to one of the forward trenches. From there, he got help bringing Ryan to the Aid Post and placing him on the operating table.

“He’s still breathing. Now get the hell out of my way.” The doctor bent over Ryan while Thomas waited by the door. Jones had gotten back from his mission and joined Thomas. The platoon sergeant brought them tea laced with some cognac they had found in an abandoned basement. The moon, which had illuminated the scene, gradually set. They heard the order to stand to, which meant it was almost dawn.

Finally, the doctor came out of the Aid Post. "Well, Ryan's out of it."

"He said he had a Blighty," Thomas noted.

The officer snorted. "Some Blighty! He's dead. The German’s bone sheared every vessel and artery in the leg. Bled out."

Thomas worked to contain his nausea. Ryan was dead because some soldier who was already dying decided to ‘do his duty to the Kaiser’ and take some of the enemy with him. 

Jones pressed Ryan’s pistol into Thomas’s hand. “If you’ve changed your mind about shooting the damn Bosch.”

Thomas curled his fingers around the grip and felt the weight. Takingup the weapon would have made sense, given all he had seen and experienced at the Front. However, taking the pistol would violate his principles and jeopardize his conscientious objector status. So, despite his initial instinct, he returned the weapon. “Revenge won’t change anything. It won’t bring Ryan back.”

Jones checked the weapon was safe and then tucked it into his belt. "Well, then, you're a better man than me. Next Kraut I see is getting what for."

# # #


As patrolling intensified in preparation for the next push, the number of wounded increased. A shortage of trained stretcher bearers throughout the Army meant that Ryan was not replaced. As a result, Jones and Thomas were out every night. Most of the time, they retrieved the wounded and dying using their screams and groans to navigate. Both sides' increased activity resulted in Jones and Thomas dealing with a collection of British and German wounded.

Sent out in the late evening, they came across a crater occupied by soldiers from both armies. Jones went to work bandaging the British, ignoring the pleas of the German soldiers. Seeing that Jones was dealing with the British wounded, Thomas cautiously approached one of the Germans, assuring him that he was only there to help.

"Miller, what are you doing?” Jones shouted. “Remember what happened the last time you helped some Boche.”

“I know,” Thomas replied. "But if the Germans came across one of ours, you want them to help. If you don’t like it, report me when we get back.”

Jones shook his head. “You’re a daft bugger.”

Meanwhile, a German had his hands up and was crying out. “Kamerad! Hilf Mir!”

Thomas assured him in German that he was only there tohelp. When Thomas was a few feet away, the German spun the Lugar slung behin d his uplifted hand into his hand and prepared to fire. Thomas jumped up and yelled "Nein" before throwing himself on the German.


Jones heard two shots fired. He picked up one of the dropped rifles and shot the German in the head. He scrambled over to the two bodies and rolled Thomas off the German. The expanding stain on Thomas’s tunic, the blood coming from his mouth and the hissing sound meant Thomas had been shot in the lungs.

"Miller, . . ." Jones leaned over to see if the man was still alive.

"Notebook," Thomas whispered.

Jones choked back his emotions as he pulled out the now bloody notebook from Thomas’s tunic.

"Write," Thomas ordered.

"Ready." Jones held the small pencil Thomas kept with the notebook, trying to control his emotions, waiting for Thomas’s last words.

"I did not die without purpose. I helped where I could.” He coughed. “You have that?"

Jones scribbled frantically choking back his tears. “Yes. You did mate. Anything else?”

There was only silence. He looked over and saw that the bubbles around the wound had stopped. Thomas was dead. Jones took a breath, swallowed, and then put the notebook in his own tunic.

“All right, you lot.” Talking to the infantrymen and walking wounded. “You are now stretcher-bearers.” He organized them to carry the British wounded back so he would not have to think about his dead companion.

Jones knew that with an assault scheduled in the next day or so, there would be no truce to pick up the dead. He was not going to leave Thomas there to become part of the waste on the battlefield. Jones loosened Thomas’s web gear, grabbed his arm, and rolled him onto his back, tying the web gear's straps with the sling from a rifle. With Thomas secure, he pushed off the ground and stood up. “Now, Thomas,” Jones's voice cracked. “If you will be quiet on the way back, it will be greatly appreciated."


# # #


The following day, Jones entered the medical officer’s dugout carrying Thomas’s duffle bag. "Sir, here's Miller's kit."

"Set it there with the others." The officer was writing letters to the next of kin.

"One thing, Sir. This was in his things." Jones held a packet of letters. "Do you want me to include these?"

The officer glanced up to see the letters, then returned to his writing. “They’re his correspondence. They go in with the rest of his personal items.”

Jones hesitated, feeling the slight bulge in one of the envelopes. “The thing is . . . “

The officer looked up. “Yes, Corporal?”

“They're not from his family. These are all from some bloke named Burton and contain white feathers.”

The officer took a drag from his cigarette, stood up, and took the packet from Jones. He walked over to the small stove warming the dugout, and threw them in before sitting back down at the table. “Must be some pillock’s idea of a joke. Dismissed.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Jones left the dugout and looked at the men spread out in the trench—rifles in hand, waiting for the next push. The new litter bearer was waiting to go over the top. Jones looked at the parapet and prepared to mount the assault ladder. “No cowards out here.”




Mike Kanner has published ventures in numerous anthologies in England and the United States. Although he focuses on historical fiction about World War 1, he has also published other genres. His non-fiction includes articles on political psychology, history and teaching using role-playing games. He is currently a teaching professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.