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The Scouts Defence Corps and 'The Red Feather'

Defence Corps letterhead

I had never heard of the Scouts Defence Corps or the Red Feather, until I began to research Scouting in the First World War for other articles in this series. As more information came to light, I became aware that the story of this lost section, though significant and fascinating, had never, so far as I am aware, been previously published. Baden-Powell was the central player, but even he could not ensure the survival of the Corps, which, only two years after their formation, were 'written out of the history books' and forgotten by all except those who were members of it

White Feathers

EVERY school morning for seven years I chanted the school prayer, each time anticipating correctly that 'the Beak' would pump up the volume to deliver at full strength the last word of the sentence "...and God deliver us from all untruthfulness, uncleanliness, and COWARDICE." (Yes, it was a boys' school). There was no doubting what my Headteacher, an ex-army officer, thought was the biggest sin. And this was in the late 1950's.


In 1914 Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, using age-old symbolism, founded the Order of the White Feather. He encouraged the young women of Great Britain to give their young men white feathers if they did not volunteer to fight.

The idea became part of the national war effort, as the official poster shows. It became a problem when young men who were part of 'reserved occupations', of more use at home than in the trenches, began to get white feathers and, not being able to respond or to live with the shame, committed suicide.

The War Effort

WAR was declared against Germany on August 1st, 1914. B-P immediately sent suggestions to his Commissioners as to how Scouts might be of use. By September 1914, there were nearly 1,300 Scouts on Coast Watching work. Coast Watching Scouts were officially recognised by the Admiralty and performed outstanding service, not least in relieving the adult Coastguards for service in the Navy.

Baden-Powell was not content with this though, he wanted a front-line role himself and so visited the War Office to try and organise his re-commission. However, Field Marshall Earl Kitchener, the Secretary for War, would not countenance the suggestion. B-P was, after all, 57-years-old with most of his experience in cavalry regiments. He had been retired from the regular army for seven years. Kitchener was to write later, that he could have found any number of retired generals, but no one who could have mobilised the youth of the nation.

Kitchener poster
Kitchener may have wanted you but he did not want B-P!

Baden-Powell wrote to Colonel Ulick de Burgh, a member of Scout Headquarters staff on September 3rd, 1914:-

"As you know, I went to Lord Kitchener and he is averse to forming any special irregular Corps, but I have no doubt whatever that he would gladly accept a unit for his Army formed from our Organisation. I suggest that it might be in two contingents - one formed of those desirous of going abroad and the other of those who could only undertake Home Defence. I am not well up in the details as to age and condition of Service demanded by the latest regulations for his Forces, but I will gladly issue an appeal to all in the Boy Scouts to join such contingents, making the conditions to agree with those issued by authority."

One begins to wonder whether some of the old prejudices and jealousies left over from the Boer War might have been at work, because again Baden-Powell was to be frustrated by Kitchener. There were to be no Scout Battalions at home or abroad, despite the fact that volunteer battalions from other youth organisations such as the 16th Battn. Kings Royal Rifle Corps (Church Lads Brigade) saw front-line service.

Never short of ideas in an emergency, B-P was not to remain put down for long. At any one time he was promoting dozens of initiatives - just to read his personal diary for 1915 is exhausting! Baden-Powell organised The Scouts Friendly Society, The League of Old Scouts, The Scout Farm, spoke at Army Recruiting Rallies, undertook tours of inspection of Coast Watching Scouts, visited and worked in his Scouts Huts in France, published two books and wrote numerous articles, not to forget his role with the Mercers Guild and several other 'outside' organisations besides his 'normal' work as Chief Scout. If you add to this list the demands of a very young family, the illnesses and incapacities of various family members, including himself from time to time, you begin get some idea of the frenetic schedule B-P imposed upon himself throughout the war.

The Scouts Defence Corps

This patriotic postcard depicts the way B-P wanted the public to view Scouts in wartime. (Note the inaccurate rendition of the Union Flag!)

BADEN-POWELL, in the Headquarters Gazette of November 1914, announced his new scheme for Scouts between the age of 16 and 17 years of age. The Corps would be ready, should invasion occur, to do whatever was necessary. (Baden-Powell had, throughout the previous decade, warned the army of the dangers of a German Invasion, even predicting the naval bombardments of the North East Coast.)

"A boy of 16 trained to discipline and marksmanship will be worth a dozen men trained to nothing in particular."

"Every Scout between 15 and 17 should at once be invited to send his name through his Scoutmaster as willing to serve if called upon."

In order to pre-empt the inevitable criticism B-P declared: "It is not militarism but a struggle against militarism." Membership was of course purely voluntary and the Corps was not to be thought of as a permanent feature of Scouting.

Baden-Powell not only saw that the country could well have dire need of his Corps, but understood that older Scouts would want to do something special to aid the war effort. In order to obtain maximum publicity for his initiative, B-P wrote letters to the press and to every Scout district:- "I am hoping for a big and ready response for this scheme."

Cycle patrol
This postcard shows a cycle patrol. I have seen others of cycle patrols apparently coping with stretcher carrying using four bikes, a most unlikely combination in practice. The three-cycle version below seems more practical

Conditions of Service

THE rules for the new section were announced in Headquarters Gazette, in November 1914. The constitution clearly barred any adult who could be eligible for service in the armed forces from taking part. Scouts were to be trained generally as infantry, but, in special cases, contingents of cyclists, or of mounted men, or seamen. (I am not aware of any of mounted units or seamen - other than Sea Scouts and Coast Watching Scouts) All members under 18 were required to produce written parental consent.

Most cycle patrols were for dispatch carrying, there was one GPO Scout Messenger Troop, which in early summer 1914 camped at Costessey Common, near Norwich. Unless the lads had passed their marksmanship tests they could not have worn Red Feathers or have been in the Scouts Defence Corps. ('GPO' was the abbreviation for the General Post Office.)

Baden-Powell set up a system of organisation under which patrols of eight could form a 'section', which in turn would be part of a platoon. Four platoons would form a company and four companies a battalion (512 boys exclusive of officers) all under the direction of a Commissioner. Though there were large numbers of boys involved, I am not aware of any battalions that were formed. In reality, the organisation was extremely varied, depending on local conditions.

Cycle patrol

Scouts were required to provide their own equipment, comprising an extra pair of boots, blankets and waterproof sheet, rolled together and worn over the shoulder, extra flannel shirt, extra socks or stockings, and a greatcoat. Each patrol needed its own tent and means of carrying it such as trek cart or bicycle carrier.

Scouts were expected to drill with real rifles and to learn how to shoot. However, in recognition that it would take some time to equip everybody, Scout staves were allowed to be used for drill until real rifles could be provided. Baden-Powell had been a member of his own school rifle club and had long encouraged Scouts to be involved in small-bore rifle shooting competitions. Some troops were equipped with 'miniature' rifles for target shooting purposes by a Col. Schumacher and Scout Headquarters undertook to fund half the cost of the practice ammunition.Marksman

Officers of the Scout Training Corps were urged to have links with officers in the regular army. No unit could be 'recognised' until such time as a Regular Officer had carried out an inspection. If the inspection were successful (and not every one was) Scouts would be given the special metal badge holding a red feather to be worn on the left hand side of the hatband.

Newly-formed Corps were urged to read the War Office's (1914) Infantry Training and B-P's own Aids to Scouting as their manuals. Notice was given that the Chief Scout was in the process of writing a new book on marksmanship especially for members of the Scouts Defence Corps. The book was published later in 1914 and contained the complete 'syllabus' for candidates wanting to achieve the Red Feather. The title shows how dependent the scheme was on being able to access rifles.

As a special inducement to take up the training, it was announced that the Chief Scout himself would attend to present the first Red Feathers. (In the event this did not happen - see 'Scouts Defence Corps in Action' on this page.)War Service Badge

In December 1914, it was further announced that the Red Feather would count 14 days toward the 28-day requirement for the War Service Badge, shown below.

The Chief Scout wrote:

"The practice of this training, besides being good fun, will entail hard work on [sic] you. You should not therefore take it up purely for the fun of the thing, nor as amusement, but wholly with the idea of becoming an efficient fighting man, ready to be of real use to your country and empire."

Scouts Defence Corps in action

RETURNS received by the February 8th, 1915, shows the Corps as numbering 3,300 Scouts.

What follows is a listing of Scouts Defence Corps activity I have found from the sources that I have available. If you are aware of additional SDC history in your own county, district or group, then I would be very pleased to include it here.

Criticism from within

NOT everybody approved of the new Corps. There were Scoutmasters who thought that Scouting had become far too militaristic and they needed to be reassured.

A picture surely no one wanted to see - Scouts from S.W. London with real rifles ready for action. Fortunately the enemy was the other side of the Channel, but what if…..? (Taken from Headquarters Gazette, May, 1915)
"The Defence Training now proposed forms no part of the general policy of the Movement, nor will it do so after the war, and more than it did before."

At the P.L.'s conference at Manchester in 1916, the liveliest topic was the Scouts Defence Corps. Four Patrol Leaders read papers. Typical of the comments were:

"If I saw a German brother Scout coming to murder my mother and sister, I should shoot him first and give him a Scout Funeral afterwards."

"If the Scouts Defence Corps comes in, Scouting goes out."

'Uncle' Elwes Editor of the Headquarters Gazette summed up the debate, reminding participants that entry to the Scouts Defence Corps was voluntary, would not apply to all Scouts, and would not last longer than the duration of the war.

Another Set-Back

IN March 1915, when the Scouts Defence Corps was still expanding, B-P learnt that his Corps had not received War Office recognition. Despite the optimism with which B-P chose to cloak the announcement this was to be a deathblow.

Memorandum sent out to all Scouts Defence Corps on March 23rd, 1915. The key points are quoted here
"The non-recognition of the Scouts Defence Corps by the War Office need not necessarily involve giving up the training so well begun on the part of the officers and the boys... The Red Feather will continue to be issued to those who qualify for it, at any rate for the next few weeks, probably from the first of May. As, however, the expense is coming very heavy on our funds at Headquarters, owing to the splendid response that has been made, I fear that after that date feathers will continue to be issued on the same general principles as the present badges of proficiency and paid for by those ordering them.

"It was only subject to our getting recognition that we could use Colonel Schumacher's rifles for the Scouts Defence Corps. These cannot, therefore, now be issued...

"I shall continue to give further notes in The Scout for the assistance of those who are keen enough to carry on their training beyond the mere recruit stage. "

Baden-Powell was forced to fall back to whatever crumbs of comfort that could be found. There had been criticism that Troop unity had begun to suffer, as the Red Feathers could not afford the time to attend both their normal Scout meetings and their Red Feather training. Without the guns there would be no further training. The Chief Scout distanced himself a little from any notion of failure, by claiming that idea had in the first place sprung from requests made to him by Scoutmasters. B-P was, however, full of admiration for those who had taken up what, in fairness, must be described as his idea.

"I am delighted to see that so many are determined to carry out the training from a purely patriotic and Scout-like idea of 'Being Prepared' in case their services might at any time be required. This shows the right spirit, and the training cannot fail to be of great use to them."

Why did the War Office see fit to cripple what was clearly going to be a successful defence organisation?

"Scouts and Cadets not Scouts versus Cadets."


ARMY Cadets have been in existence since 1860, as volunteers within Public Schools. In 1904 Baden-Powell had addressed the Eton Cadet Corps and in 1907 had envisaged that School Cadet Corps might have patrols of Scouts in the same way as the Boys Brigade, YMCA and Church Lad Companies. (See 'Brother Organisations'.) In March 1914, B-P again lectured Eton College Cadets on 'The 3 C's of Soldiering' the number of Army Cadet Corps were minute however, compared to the number of Scout Groups or Boys Brigades and Church Lads Companies. In 1914 however, with the country at war, the Army Cadet Corps were re-organised by the War Office.

A group of M.P.s began to campaign for all boys between certain ages to be compulsorily registered as Army Cadets. Baden-Powell was not slow to see that this was a serious threat to his Scout Movement.

By January 1915, the structure of Army Cadets had been revised and given massive publicity by the government. New units were being formed on a daily basis. B-P was in a cleft stick. Even the most famous soldier in Britain could hardly criticise the official Army Cadets without risk of appearing unpatriotic.

The roles of the Army Cadet Corps and the Scouts Defence Corps were never directly comparable, as the Scouts Defence Corps was not officially recognised. What was at issue were the benefits of normal Scout Training compared to that of Army Cadets, about this B-P had plenty to say. And he was uniquely qualified to say it!

"I have taken up the curious attitude of not recommending Military Instruction to the Scout Movement."
Headquarters Gazette, June, 1915.

Baden-Powell was opposed to 'drill' and the narrowness of army training that seemed to rely on instant response to orders and avoiding training recruits to use their own initiative. However, he was not against Army Cadets, as long as Scouts were left to get on with Scouting. If this could be ensured, the two 'movements' could coexist.

"I do not see that the two movements can seriously disturb or interfere with each other."
Headquarters Gazette, January, 1916.

Baden-Powell even encouraged boys to join the Army Cadets as long as they did not leave Scouting. "Cadet training, wrote B-P, was useful to a boy...but it does not teach him to turn his hand to every useful job, to use his wits and to do the right thing at the right moment like Scouting does."

In the February 1916 edition of Headquarters Gazette B-P took to task Sir Reginald Hartnell, who had just published a pamphlet Looking Ahead. The pamphlet dealt with the military and physical sides of youth training to assist the war effort. Hartnell criticised the Scout Movement for its "lack of collective drill." This did not go down at all well with B-P!

"The writer does not realise that it is through the development of individual responsibility that we get the discipline of the whole and that this true discipline is what we aim for all the time."

Baden-Powell pointed out that his philosophies, as outlined in Scouting for Boys, was not the result of "a fertile and extraordinary imagination", as Hartnell suggested but "from a long knowledge of young soldiers."

In the Headquarters Gazette of June, 1916, B-P quoted Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Jellicoe as supporting Scout training over that of the Army Cadets. He was also pleased to report that another unit of the Cadet Corps "has joined the Scouts with a view to making itself more practically efficient." One wonders if Jellicoe's praise was conditioned by the fact that the Commander-in-Chief of British Forces, Lord Kitchener, who had blocked Baden-Powell's schemes, had recently been drowned, when the Hampshire was torpedoed en-route to Russia, and so could no longer exert a negative influence.

Headquarters Gazette reported on a press article written by a Dr Saleeby, an eminent physician. The article was entitled Should we militarise the Boy Scouts?. Dr Saleeby could see no advantage in Cadet Training:-

"Ever since I remember I have been studying, undergoing or practising education. I have talked to schoolboys, medical students, nurses, soldiers and have taught batting at the nets, anatomy on the 'subject', auscultation [medical examination] at the bedside, and military hygiene in camp. Every scrap of my experience is bosh and Bedlamism if Sir Robert Baden-Powell is not right." (Well, you can't say fairer than that!)

In October, 1916, B-P was surprised to read in The Times newspaper that Scouts were going to participate in a new form of Cadet training proposed by the Lord Mayor of London. It was a misquote. The Lord Mayor had said that he hoped all youth organisations would join his scheme. The Lord Mayor and The Times might have saved themselves some embarrassment had they bothered to check with The Founder; his attitude to Scouts joining the Cadets was consistent and predictable.

In May, 1918, B-P was asked to comment on yet another new Cadet Scheme, seen to be an 'improvement' on previous efforts. "...and as I have been consulted on five different Cadet schemes in the last four years I ought to know." However, "I do not see the object of having Cadets at all now whilst conscription is in force."

Headquarters Gazette of July, 1918, quoted a schoolmaster who written to B-P having given up his Cadet Corps in favour of Scouting.

"There is no soul in the military training, it does not develop the mind like Scouting."

The War Office felt the need to make concessions. Their latest scheme had elements of Scouting within it and they hoped that its widespread adoption might help counter the increase in juvenile crime. In order to gain B-P's approval, they agreed that existing Scouts, or those who had left Scouting within the last three months, would not be 'signed-up' without the Scoutmaster's consent. In August, 1918, B-P described the cadet system as "putting new wine into old bottles. In Scouts we endeavour to supply new bottles for the new wine."

As late as October, 1918, (Armistice was signed on November 11th, ending the War) B-P used the obituary of a supporter, Sir George Reid, to strongly criticise the War Office's latest proposals, which he described as going back on their previous agreements:-

"I hope my criticisms of cadets will not be misread....My carpings do not apply to our friends in the Boys Brigade or Church Lads Brigade."

Fortunately the end of the War brought an end to the acrimony!


THERE is no doubt that the Scouts Defence Corps were gaining recruits at the time the War Office refused to give it official recognition. Lack of recognition meant that real rifles (as opposed to wooden substitutes or Scout staves) could no longer be issued, that there would be no government subsidy for ammunition, and that Scouts would not be able to access army rifle ranges or drill halls. No doubt some individuals and patrols did their best to carry on, but, without the rifles, the only difference in reality that the Defence Corps could offer over other wartime Scouting, was that of Drill, which B-P himself despised.

Obviously there was no limit to what a Scout could do without a rifle!

Many Scouts Defence Corps Officers noted that their membership had been made up of older lads who were leaving their Scout Groups at 15-plus, as there were no specific activities or badges for lads of this age group at that time. With the demise of the Defence Corps, 'retention' became a major problem and in answer to it the Senior Scouts Section was started 1917.

The last reference I can find regarding the Scouts Defence Corps is the parade in Hyde Park in June, 1916. However, information as to how individual Corps might claim for ammunition expenses persisted in the Headquarters Gazette until August 1916. As far as I am aware, there was no official disbanding of the Corps, and its members continued to wear their Red Feathers through the War, there being plenty of 'war work' to do within 'normal' Scouting. I do not know the precise number of Red Feathers issued, though I would guess that it was less than the 3,300 figure already mentioned as being the number of boys in training for it by February 8th, 1915. More than 80,000 Scouts though gained War-Service Badges.

The Army Cadets, with their various re-organisations, were the altar on which the Scouts Defence Corps was sacrificed. Baden-Powell was asked time and time again to allow his Scouts to be part of the official Cadet Corps. B-P was consistent in his refusal; despite the various concessions made to him. He wanted 'Scouts and Cadets, not Scouts versus Cadets'. Perhaps the denial of official status for the Scouts Defence Corps was some sort of 'punishment' for his lack of co-operation with the authorities. Baden-Powell did, however, have the satisfaction of an acknowledgement, right at the end of the war, that Cadet Training had been far too narrow and should have had more 'Scoutcraft'. But this change of heart came too late. Despite massive War Department publicity, and the threat of conscription, the Army Cadets never outnumbered the Boy Scouts and, after the war, the only youths under the age of conscription allowed to take part in the Victory Parade were Scout Coast Watchers.

When The Times came to write its History and Encyclopaedia of the [First World] War, it devoted one complete section, thirty-five A4 pages, to the contribution made by the Boy Scouts. However, there is only the briefest mention of the Scouts Defence Corps. Despite carrying an inventory of proficiency and war service badges, there was no mention of the Red Feathers. Even 'official' Scout histories, such as those written by Eileen Wade and E E Reynolds failed to mention the Corps. Was it considered best forgotten because of the failure to ensure its existence through the war? If so, the blame could hardly be laid at B-P's feet! Even more surprising is that none of B-P's biographers seem to have discovered the history of the Corps including Michael Rosenthal, whose book The Character Factory is primarily devoted to 'exposing' Scouting's supposed military links.

The 'Red Feathers' became Scouting's forgotten army. Until now, that is.

Marksman Cigarette Card


Printed Sources
Headquarters Gazette, 1914-1918
Scouting Achievements Beresford Webb, 1937. 'War Service' pp92-108
The Times History and Encyclopaedia of the War Part 213, 'The Boy Scouts'
Bare Knee Days Haydn Dimmock, 1937
Internet Sources
The Order of the White Feather
Army Cadet Corps
History of the 1st Norwood Scout Troop

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