August 12

This Day in History

World War I

Aug 12, 1914:

British Parliament passes Defense of the Realm Act

On August 12, 1914, a week after Britain declared war on Germany and entered the First World War, the British Parliament passes the Defense of the Realm Act, aimed at providing the British government with the means to support the country’s war effort.

Before World War I broke out, the most pressing issue facing the British government was the question of Ireland. The Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, had in 1912 renewed efforts to establish home rule for Ireland; this policy had sparked heated protests from Protestants in Ulster who were loyal to Britain, as well as the opposition Conservative party in London. In late July 1914, with the threat of an Irish civil war looming, Asquith was saved from this domestic turmoil by the escalation of yet another Balkans conflict—the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28 and the subsequent standoff between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Serbia’s powerful Slavic ally, Russia—into a full-scale European war.

After Britain declared war on Germany, Asquith urged Parliament to pass legislation bulking up the government’s power in wartime; Parliament obliged on August 12 with the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA). The terms of the act enabled the British government to seize resources, including property, buildings or land for the war effort. The act also applied guidelines for wartime censorship and control of the country’s labor force.

If the DORA marked Britain’s attempt to regulate life on the home front during wartime, even more measures were enacted to stimulate the country’s military preparedness. Of all the great powers at the start of World War I, Britain was the only one without a policy of conscription; as a result, their army was small and highly trained but numerically inferior to those of continental Europe. Beginning on August 7, Britain’s newly appointed war minister, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, sent out a public call for 100,000 volunteers to join the British army. Though the turnout was undeniably impressive—almost 500,000 men enlisted in the first six weeks of the war alone—some doubted the quality of these so-called "Kitchener armies," especially compared to those of Germany, who with the help of conscription, had been steadily building and improving its armed forces for the past 40 years. In January 1916, with World War I entering its third calendar year, Parliament passed the Military Service Act, Britain’s first-ever conscription bill. By the war's end the country had enlisted 49 percent of its men between the ages of 15 and 49 for military service.

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