The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA)

The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA)
circa 1914: A World War I evacuation order issued under the Defence of The Realm Act.

(Photo by London Express/Getty Images)


On the 8th August 1914, only four days after war was declared, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed in the United Kingdom, providing the Government with sweeping powers to facilitate the war effort by all means possible.

The Act was rushed through at great legislative speed – it was given Royal Assent on 8th August 1914 and commenced as law on the same day.
In its original form the Act stated:

(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.

(2) This Act may be cited as the Defence of the Realm Act, 1914.

A whole gamut of detailed legal machinery was established to deal with a wide variety of issues that saw the transition of Britain from a liberal democracy into a wartime nation of a far more authoritarian nature.

Censorship achieved particular prominence under DORA and included severe restrictions on journalism, letters containing military information and pubic pronouncements of all types, including speeches and statements from teachers to their pupils. Anti war activists were sent to prison including the prominent writer, philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell.

This issue of censorship was covered by the Regulation that stated “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”.

It was also illegal to own homing pigeons without approval, lighting bonfires or flying kites (that could attract zeppelins) and feeding wild animals (a waste of food). The use of alcohol was restricted, including the establishment of the “afternoon gap” between 3 pm and 6.30 pm when no alcohol could be served at hotels.

This legal state of affairs was to continue throughout the war, and although DORA was never specifically repealed after 1918, subsequent legislation resulted in most of the provisions lapsing.