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Espionage, propaganda and censorship


The outbreak of war unleashed an inevitable wave of Germanophobia in Britain. This was heightened at particularly sensitive moments in the conflict - witness the Spotlights on historyanti-German riots in London and elsewhere after a German torpedo sank the British liner Glossary - opens new windowLusitania on 7 May 1915. Such periodic outbursts were not divorced from the actions of the British government during the war. Away from the battlefield, it countered the enemy threat with a variety of initiatives.

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Spies and censorship

Spotlights on historyEspionage,which had become increasingly elaborate in the pre-war period, was a small but important arena of Anglo-German conflict during the First World War. Known German spies were imprisoned and sometimes executed. The finger of suspicion also fell on the many thousands of Germans and Austrians living in Britain before August 1914. Re-classified as Glossary - opens new window'enemy aliens', many of them were deported, interned or banned from Glossary - opens new window'prohibited areas' in the country.

The war also afforded the government wide-ranging powers of censorship. Postal and press censorship, in particular, were designed to prevent contact with the enemy and to ensure that the conflict was presented to the public in a pro-Allied light.

War savings poster - opens new window
'Up Civilians!'


Not everyone accepted the increased level of state interference. Organisations such as the National Council for Civil Liberties used issues such as censorship, conscription and the curtailment of legal rights in such legislation as the Glossary - opens new windowDefence of the Realm Act to argue that the war was a pretext for curbing the very rights of 'liberty' and 'democracy' that Britain was supposedly fighting to protect.

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Enemy 'aliens' - opens new window
Enemy 'aliens' (125k)

Censorship was closely linked to the propaganda war between the Central Powers and the Allies. The dual need to combat German propaganda material abroad and to maintain morale at home forced the British government to address this issue urgently.

The Glossary - opens new windowWar Propaganda Bureau under the initial leadership of Glossary - opens new windowCharles Masterman was created in September 1914. By mid-1915, it had printed and circulated over 2.5 million books, speeches, official documents and pamphlets outlining the Allied position. Masterman enlisted the help of numerous prestigious writers (including Glossary - opens new windowThomas Hardy, Glossary - opens new windowH G Wells and Glossary - opens new windowJohn Masefield) and newspaper editors in the British propaganda effort. He also commissioned films about the war such as Glossary - opens new windowThe Battle of the Somme, which appeared in August 1916.

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Under Glossary - opens new windowAsquith, propaganda was dispersed among different groups in departments such as the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the War Office. When Lloyd George became prime minister in December 1916, the war propaganda effort was re-structured along more co-ordinated lines. Within three months, a Department of Information had been created (under the remit of the Foreign Office), which in turn became the Glossary - opens new windowMinistry of Information in February 1918.

Though it was rapidly dismantled after the conclusion of the war, this organised government propaganda structure had served its purpose. British propaganda during the First World War was generally more successful than its often less subtle, more strident German counterpart. It played a small but important part in the Allied victory.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

AIR 1/552/16/15/39: Weekly reports on contraventions of Defence of the Realm regulations, Oct 1918-Apr 1919.
FO 395/57-63: Foreign Office news department: censorship, 1916.
HO 45/10835/329066: Files on the diet of 'enemy aliens' and POWs interned in British prison camps, 1917-18.
HO 144/11720: Classified list of interned aliens during the First World War.
INF 4/1-11: Various material on British government propaganda during the First World War, 1915-43.
NSC 5: Various government propaganda posters from the First World War.
WO 32/5140-5143: Propaganda leaflets for aerial distribution over enemy lines, 1916-18.

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