World War 1: Defence of the Realm Act

When war was declared on 4 August 1914 (Gazette supplement 28861), the country erupted in jubilation. However, behind the scenes, the government was becoming increasingly fearful.

Trade unions had a long history of holding employers to ransom, the suffragettes were causing unrest in the quest for universal suffrage, and there was a deep mistrust of German business and ‘spies within our midst’.

Fearing insubordination and disorder, the government rushed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) through parliament (Gazette supplement 28859).

The proclamation stated: ‘We strictly command and enjoin our subjects to obey and conform to all instructions and regulations which may be issued by us or our admiralty or army council’.

It took just four days for DORA to achieve Royal Assent, being published in Gazette supplement 28869 on 11 August 1914. It would go on to be an act that would touch the lives of every British citizen over the next four years.

The act itself

In a nutshell, DORA was designed to help prevent invasion and keep morale high at home. It gave the government wide-ranging powers, such as the authority to requisition buildings needed for the war effort, or by creating new criminal offences. It also ushered in a variety of social control measures.

As the war progressed, as did DORA, being amended and extended six times over the course of the war (for example, Gazette supplement 29526). The two main themes included:

  • press censorship
  • the taking of any land the government wanted

Also, no civilian could:

  • talk about naval or military matters in public places
  • spread rumours about military matters
  • buy binoculars
  • trespass on railway lines or bridges
  • melt down gold or silver
  • light bonfires, fireworks or fly a kite
  • give bread to horses or chickens
  • use invisible ink when writing abroad
  • buy brandy or whisky in railway refreshment rooms         
  • ring church bells during periods that lighting restrictions were in force 

In addition to these strict rules, people were affected in other, more curious ways. They were forbidden to loiter near bridges and tunnels, and whistling for a London taxi was banned, in case it could be mistaken for an air raid warning. DORA even intervened in British drinking habits, as by the spring of 1915, pub opening hours were limited, people were banned from treating others to alcohol, and even the strength of alcohol was reduced.

If anyone broke these rules, they could be arrested, fined, sent to prison, or even executed. A total of 11 ‘German spies’ were executed under the regulations.

Why so harsh?

Though some provisions of DORA may seem curious, they had their purposes. Flying a kite or lighting a bonfire could attract Zeppelins; limiting time in the pub helped to reduce drunkenness, with the aim to increase productivity; and when rationing was introduced in 1917, banning feeding wild animals helped to prevent food wastage.

Censorship of the reporting British troop movements, their numbers, or any other operational information, prevented the enemy from finding out sensitive information, which potentially saved many lives.

The effect of DORA at home

The first person to be arrested under DORA was John Maclean, a Scottish Marxist and revolutionary. He was arrested for uttering statements that were deemed ‘prejudicial to recruiting’. He was fined £5, but refused to pay. He spent five nights in prison and was dismissed from his post as a teacher by the Govan Board of Education (anybody with a criminal conviction was not allowed to teach, practice law or medicine).

It’s estimated that almost a million arrests happened under DORA, but for the 11 unlucky few accused of being a spy, it ended with their execution.

German spies that were caught in the UK during the war were dealt with under various sections of DORA. Carl Lody was the first person in about 150 years to be executed at the Tower of London, and the first of the 11 convicted spies to be shot.

According to official records, Lody was charged with ‘attempting to convey information calculated to be useful to an enemy by sending a letter from Edinburgh on 27 September 1914 to Herr J Stammer in Berlin, which contained information with regard to the defences and preparations for war of Great Britain'.

He met the firing squad on the morning of 6 November 1914, just 3 months after the outbreak of war.

A full list of the 11 executed spies under DORA:

  • Carl Lody, 34, executed 6 November 1914
  • Carl Muller, 57, executed 23 June 1915
  • Willem Roos, 33, executed 30 July 1915
  • Haicke Janssen, 30, executed 30 July 1915
  • Ernst Melin, 49, executed 10 September 1915
  • Augusto Roggin, 34, executed 17 September 1915
  • Fernando Buschman, 25, executed 19 September 1915
  • George Breeckow, 33, executed 26 October 1915
  • Irving Ries, 55, executed 27 October 1915
  • Albert Meyer, 22, executed 2 December 1915
  • Ludovico Zender, 38, executed 11 April 1916

Publication date: 29 August 2014