Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




R.A. Rempel




No piece of war legislation enacted in Great Britain during the First World War had such diverse and far-reaching effects as the Defence of the Realm Act, one of the first emergency steps taken by Asquith's Liberal Government in August 1914. The acronym DORA, by which contemporaries soon began referring to this general emergency statute, or 'enabling' law, is a familiar one to anybody with the most cursory knowledge of the British Home Front between 1914 and 1918. Both the act and its supplementary code of regulations are often mentioned, but seldom explained, in historical accounts of Britain and the First World War. There is in this substantial body of work, however, no detailed treatment of DORA; its legal and constitutional aspects have been especially neglected. For the past thirty years the historiography of Home Front in Britain during the First World War has been dominated by study of mass participation in the war effort and of the long-term social and political consequences of this mobilisation for 'total' war. This influential 'war and social change' school of historical thought has been contested by historians who view modem industrialised warfare as the occasion for, rather than agent of, change and by those who question whether 'total' war has materially affected class or gender inequalities at all. Yet all three shades of historiographical opinion have to a large extent been debating an agenda set by issues of social structure, gender, social provision, prices and incomes, and public health. Without challenging directly this broad historiographical tendency, this thesis does imply that, if the transformative effects of war, or otherwise, are to be properly assessed, then issues of the law and constitution deserve rather more attention than they have received hitherto. Although the thesis attempts to convey the range of uses to which DORA was put by successive wartime administrations, it concentrates on a number of contentious civil liberties issues. After the examination in chapter one of DORA's origins, a series of related case studies deal with the following subjects: wartime challenges to customary judicial procedures; the impact of DORA on organised opposition to British war policy; and, finally, the assortment of coercive measures that were implemented to address the problematical venereal disease question. The epilogue surveys the role of DORA in the aftermath of war. The unitary theme of these chapters is the contribution of DORA to the erosion of executive accountability and the growth of state power in wartime Britain. To place so much weight upon questions of civil liberties is perhaps to risk regressing to the old, whig-liberal view of the wartime state as a portent of totalitarianism and of war in general as an unfortunate interruption in the orderly march of liberty and progress. However, the expansion of the British state has become a focus of much renewed critical scrutiny of late, and the thesis is certainly reflective of this historiographical reorientation. This thesis is based to a large extent on the records of the Home Office and the War Office-the two departments most intimately involved with the special powers that have been selected for analysis. It is principally concerned with the evolution and administration of some exceptional war measures. Yet considerable attention is also paid to the critical response which these governmental initiatives elicited and to the overall civil libertarian and constitutional case against DORA. The distinctive contribution of this work is its clarification of some assumptions which both contemporaries and historians have made about this controversial body of war legislation. The ensuing discussion, therefore, closes a sizeable gap in the historical literature. In addition, this study of DORA should raise some broader questions about the changing character of government in twentieth-century Britain in particular, and about emergency executive discretion in democratic political systems generally.

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