What was the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (UK)?

Introduction

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed in the United Kingdom on 08 August 1914, four days after it entered the First World War and was added to as the war progressed.

It gave the government wide-ranging powers during the war, such as the power to requisition buildings or land needed for the war effort, or to make regulations creating criminal offences.

DORA ushered in a variety of authoritarian social control mechanisms, such as censorship:

“No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population”

Anti-war activists, including John MacLean, Willie Gallacher, John William Muir, and Bertrand Russell, were sent to prison. The film, The Dop Doctor, was prohibited under the act by the South African government with the justification that its portrayal of Boers during the Siege of Mafeking would antagonise Afrikaners.

The trivial peacetime activities no longer permitted included flying kites, starting bonfires, buying binoculars, feeding wild animals bread, discussing naval and military matters or buying alcohol on public transport. Alcoholic drinks were watered down and pub opening times were restricted to noon-3:00 pm and 6:30 pm-9:30 pm (the requirement for an afternoon gap in permitted hours lasted in England until the Licensing Act 1988).

Intention

The law was designed to help prevent invasion and to keep morale at home high.[citation needed] It imposed censorship of journalism and of letters coming home from the front line. The press was subject to controls on reporting troop movements, numbers or any other operational information that could be exploited by the enemy. People who breached the regulations with intent to assist the enemy could be sentenced to death. 10 people were executed under the regulations.

Though some provisions of DORA may seem strange, they did have their purposes. Flying a kite or lighting a bonfire could attract Zeppelins and, after rationing was introduced in 1918, feeding wild animals was a waste of food.

Example of censorship under the Act of comments about Zeppelin raids in mail.

The Original Act, Its Amendment, and Consolidation

Section 1(1) of the Defence of the Realm Act read as follows:

(1) His Majesty in Council has power during the continuance of the present war to issue regulations as to the powers and duties of the Admiralty and Army Council, and of the members of His Majesty’s forces, and other persons acting in His behalf, for securing the public safety and the defence of the realm; and may, by such regulations, authorise the trial by courts martial and punishment of persons contravening any of the provisions of such regulations designed-

(a) To prevent persons communicating with the enemy or obtaining information for that purpose or any purpose calculated to jeopardise the success of the operations of any of His Majesty’s forces or to assist the enemy; or
(b) To secure the safety of any means of communication, or of railways, docks or harbours; in like manner as if such persons were subject to military law and had on active service committed an offence under section 5 of the Army Act.
The original Act was amended and extended six times over the course of the War, firstly on 28 August 1914 by the Defence of the Realm (No. 2) Act 1914, and on 27 November 1914 by the Defence of the Realm (Consolidation Act), 1914 (which repealed and replaced the previous Acts). It was amended three times in 1915, by the Defence of the Realm (Amendment) Acts, 1915 (5 Geo. 5, cc. 34, 37), and (5 & 6 Geo. 5, c. 42).

The Defence of the Realm (Consolidation Act), 1914 contained the following:

(1) His Majesty in Council has power during the continuance of the present war to issue regulations for securing the public safety and the defence of the realm, and as to the powers and duties for that purpose of the Admiralty and Army Council and of the members of His Majesty’s forces and other persons acting in his behalf; and may by such regulations authorise the trial by courts-martial, or in the case of minor offences by courts of summary jurisdiction, and punishment of persons committing offences against the regulations and in particular against any of the provisions of such regulations designed:

(a) to prevent persons communicating with the enemy or obtaining information for that purpose or any purpose calculated to jeopardise the success of the operations of any of His Majesty’s forces or the forces of his allies or to assist the enemy; or
(b) to secure the safety of His Majesty’s forces and ships and the safety of any means of communication and of railways, ports, and harbours; or
(c) to prevent the spread of false reports or reports likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty or to interfere with the success of His Majesty’s forces by land or sea or to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with foreign powers; or
(d) to secure the navigation of vessels in accordance with directions given by or under the authority of the Admiralty; or
(e) otherwise to prevent assistance being given to the enemy or the successful prosecution of the war being endangered.
(3) It shall be lawful for the Admiralty or Army Council:

(a) to require that there shall be placed at their disposal the whole or any part of the output of any factory or workshop in which arms, ammunition, or warlike stores and equipment, or any articles required for the production thereof, are manufactured;
(b) to take possession of, and use for the purpose of, His Majesty’s naval or military service any such factory or workshop or any plant thereof;

Amendments

  • Defence of the Realm (No. 2) Act 1914.
  • Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act 1914.
  • Defence of the Realm Act 1915.

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