Defence of the Realm Act

On 8th August 1914, the House of Commons passed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) without debate. The legislation gave the government executive powers to suppress published criticism, imprison without trial and to commandeer economic resources for the war effort.

During the war publishing information that was calculated to be indirectly or directly of use to the enemy became an offence and accordingly punishable in a court of law. This included any description of war and any news that was likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities.

In August 1914 the British government established the War Office Press Bureau under F. E. Smith. The idea was this organisation would censor news and telegraphic reports from the British Army and then issue it to the press. Lord Kitchener decided to appoint Colonel Ernest Swinton to become the British Army's official journalist on the Western Front. Swinton's reports were first censored at G.H.Q. in France and then personally vetted by Kitchener before being released to the press. Letters written by members of the armed forces to their friends and families were also read and censored by the military authorities.

After complaints from the USA the British government decided to look again at how the war was reported. After a Cabinet meeting on the subject in January, 1915, the government decided to change its policy and to allow selected journalists to report the war. Five men were chosen: Philip Gibbs (Daily Chronicle and the Daily Telegraph), Percival Philips (Daily Express and the Morning Post), William Beach Thomas (Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror) Henry Perry Robinson (The Times and the Daily News) and Herbert Russell (Reuters News Agency). Before their reports could be sent back to England, they had to be submitted to C. E. Montague, the former leader writer of the Manchester Guardian.

Over the next three years other journalists such as John Buchan, Valentine Williams, Hamilton Fyfe and Henry Nevinson, became accredited war correspondents. To remain on the Western Front, these journalists had to accept government control over what they wrote.

DORA was also used to control civilian behaviour. This including regulating alcohol consumption and food supplies. In October 1915 the British government announced several measures they believed would reduce alcohol consumption. A No Treating Order laid down that people could not buy alcoholic drinks for other people. Public House opening times were also reduced to 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. Before the law was changed, public houses could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night.

In 1916 the Clyde Workers' Committee journal, The Worker, was prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for an article criticizing the war. William Gallacher and John Muir, the editor were both found guilty and sent to prison. Gallacher for six months and Muir for a year.

The Clyde Workers' Committee was formed to campaign against the Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the works where they were employed. On 25th March 1916, David Kirkwood and other members of the Clyde Workers' Committee were arrested by the authorities under the Defence of the Realm Act. Then men were court-martialled and sentenced to be deported from Glasgow.

The Ministry of Food did not introduce food rationing until January 1918. Sugar was the first to be rationed and this was later followed by butchers' meat. The idea of rationing food was to guarantee supplies, not to reduce consumption. This was successful and official figures show that the intake of calories almost kept up to the pre-war level.

The growing disillusionment with the war was reflected in the novels that were written at the time. A. T. Fitzroy's Despised and Rejected was published in April 1918. A thousand copies were sold before the book was banned and its publisher, C. W. Daniel, was successfully prosecuted for sedition. Another novel, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay was due to be published in the autumn of 1918. When the censors discovered that the book ridiculed wartime bureaucracy, its publication was stopped and did not appear until after the Armistice.

© , September 1997 - April 2014