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The Rationale for British Censorship of World War I

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The publishing of this headline was based on a message sent to London at 11:30 the morning of the Somme’s opening, stating that “As far as can be ascertained our casualties have not been heavy” (1..). Whether intentionally fallacious, prematurely released, or genuinely mistaken, this message’s information was clearly incorrect, as the British alone suffered a loss of 60,00 men, 20,00 of whom met their final rest. Would the citizens of Britain have continued supporting the war if awoke to read of such staggering amounts of death? What if they had learned of the poorly executed artillery barrage that was surely the cause of many soldiers’ untimely deaths (2..)? While it was critical that publications show the public a positive twist, the only benefit that censorship appeared to provide was a delay of bad news; “It [censorship] was hit and miss. The good news comes first, but the bad news can’t be stopped” – Prof. Mark Connelly of University of Kent (1..). Headlines may have initially displayed vague or false news of progress by the British and French armies, but the posting of casualty lists, and delivery of death-notice telegrams could not be stemmed. In fact, the reporting on the Battle of the Somme could be considered “the First World War’s most notorious cover-up conspiracy in Britain, between the press on one side and the government and the generals on the other” (5..).

If the costly task of censoring correspondence served merely as a delayer of information on the status of the war, why did governments on both sides invest so heavily in restricting access to information? Most importantly, the morale of both soldiers and civilians at home was known to be essential (4..) for continuation of the war; its absence would be detrimental so long as the enemy’s morale remained. Additionally, censorship of material served as a defense against interception of intelligence by the enemy; any messages that gave away hint of weakness in position could be used to augment the enemy’s strategy.

This censorship was essential not only for the preservation of morale on the front and at home, but also for the preservation of British propriety at home. This propriety faded quickly amongst the forces on the front, who witnessed brutalities unwritten in any of their primary education’s history lessons; however, this decorum continued to serve as a vital source of pride and patriotism at home. The cultural shift away from classical British Imperial etiquette at home accelerated with the return of the soldiers, when the war had ended.

The Criticality of Support from Home

Support from home was essential for many reasons. During the mobilization for war, Britain’s conscription pool faced a unique challenge: belonging to the nation with the most widely established Imperial—and volunteer-based—army in the world had incubated a general lethargy towards military service. “There is no lack of patriotism, but the average Briton is accustomed to have his battles fought for him by a most excellent professional army far away from his own shores” (8..). This mindset of complacency would prove challenging in mobilizing via compulsory service; after the initial surge of glory-seekers flocked to the front during the onset of the war, the British government would have to turn to Canada and Australia to provide men, untrained as they might have been. Conscription was a taxing process for many nations during the war, but Britain’s fighting forces were significantly comprised of volunteers (9..). The volunteers that would arrive later in the war, perhaps as they came of age or accrued the required level of patriotism, needed to believe that the war still offered the prestige that was advertised; the horror that was ongoing in the trenches would certainly deter volunteerism, raising the marginal cost of acquiring each additional British soldier. Britain’s ability to combat with a modern enemy had been overestimated at the outset of the war: “Is it because a long period of pioneering without meeting any organized resistance has blinded them to the strength of the modern nations in arms, or has a long and unexampled prosperity sapped their bitality and rendered them unfit to maintain the world position which they now occupy?” (8..). This overconfidence created a fragility in the British spirit that would be quickly exposed at the publishing of the true brutalities of the front.

As the war continued, women shifted out of traditional home roles and into manufacturing work, food was rationed, industrial workers operated at max capacity producing munitions and war machines. The pressure on industrial forces was immense; the first application of “total war” required manufacturers of most countries to increase their labor forces drastically (7..). In Britain, however, the overall workforce initially suffered a decline due to conscription. The remaining workforce shifted almost entirely into war-related production; as the war continued, women became employed among all major industries, accounting for nearly 50% of the work force by the end of the war.

This major cultural shift was fueled almost explicitly by the demands of the war; if the illusion were shattered with transparent exhibition of the front, British civilians likely wouldn’t make the sacrifices that they did in their daily lives. In this strung out war of attrition, a discontent work force would have certainly ushered in Britain’s doom.

Methods of Censorship

In Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act gave the government extensive subjective power to punish any who shared written or spoken word deemed “likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population” (5..). Similar acts were instilled by both the Italian and American governments. Government control was first established over major publishers and media outlets, then to correspondence between soldiers and home (6..). Censorship offices were established Berlin, Paris, London, and the United States before the end of the War’s first year. To allow journalists’ work to continue, the British press bureau provided instructions to reporters on how to avoid illegally publishing material; these instructions were not open to the public, displaying the type of covert relationship that was had between the press and the government during the outset of the War. All published material was subject to stringent review before reaching the public.

All communications from mainland Europe to the United Kingdom were censored by the government before arriving at their destination; about 1,000 lines of communication underwent censorship daily. /

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At the front, field postcards were issued to allow soldiers to send some form of update to their families without including any additional details. This allowed commanding officers to scan correspondence much more efficiently than the reviewing of full letters. Soldiers appreciated the postcards for their speed and convenience; during the latter, more exhaustive half of the war,

To allow the soldiers more expression—within the bounds of predefined acceptability—and privacy, the honour envelope was introduced. The sender was required to sign an agreement that no sensitive information was contained within the envelope. The letter was then sent to England where it faced review by the postal division before arriving at its addressee (4..). This granted soldiers much desired privacy from their commanding officers in the trenches.

While the operation of dystopian censorship mills was very real during wartime, self-censorship appeared to serve an enormous role in the restriction of information from the front. Whether it was any remaining etiquette, guilt, or an obligation to protect their loved ones from such brutalities, soldiers took it upon themselves to strike the more savage details from their correspondence (4..). This initiative may have also been driven by the threat of arrest under violations of the Defence of the Realm Act; regardless of which of these motivations drove each individual soldier, morale at home was salvaged mostly by the efforts of the soldiers to protect their beloved civilians’ innocence.

Communication from the Front

Communication was both unreliable and untimely during World War I, with the delivery of messages from the front typically depending on a runner, or even animals such as dogs or pigeons. Much of the telephone and telegraph infrastructure of East France was constructed to provide communication to the Western Front; over 2,000 miles of lines and 134 telegraph offices were constructed (3..). Alas, this infrastructure proved to be weak to enemy artillery fire and required constant reconstruction and redesign. The inconvenience further fueled the use of recently introduced wireless radio technology.

The introduction of wireless radio allowed for much improved speed of communication, though there was almost no security against interception. The near instant communication was too valuable compared to the tax it posed security-wise.

Journalists on the Front

World War One provided a unique challenge to journalists in its sheer scale alone; coordination of journalists proved difficult, and their numbers were spread thin across the Western front. From the outset, reporters offered a degree of self-censorship that fell in line with the British government’s ideals; in the words of Arthur Thomas, “there is no failure in discipline, no panic, no throwing up of the sponge. Every one’s temper is sweet, and nerves do not show. The men are steady and cheerful…” (5..). Early in the war, journalists and their commanding editors had parallel objectives with the British Cabinet; the public excitement of the onset of war likely fueled sales of prints, so the fueling of public excitement via print could only lead to a profitable cycle for newspapers.

This positive alignment lead to the authorization of correspondents travel to the front. While still strictly monitored and censored, these six men were allowed the honorary rank of captain, and dressed in officers’ garb, wearing only a green armband to distinguish themselves as journalists (5..). During escalated events such as the Battle of the Somme, correspondents were confined to their living quarters away from the front line, receiving only indirect or incomplete information from the commanding officers. This restriction of information lead to the sending of generic messages, such as reports of casualties being ‘not heavy.’ A few weeks after the onset of the Battle of the Somme, the correspondents were permitted a better viewing of the battle field, witnessing thousands of dead and wounded being pulled away from the front. Still, in the face of such horrors, the reporters continued to send false reports of steady progress. Long after the war’s end, correspondent Beach Thomas wrote: “I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue” (5..). Another correspondent later wrote that “There was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors.” Much like the soldiers’ letters, the reports of these journalists were kept pure to spare the morale of civilians at home.

The Publication at Home

To the great benefit of newspapers during World War One, Rotogravure printing became widely accessibly, allowing greater detail photo and illustration prints: “Publishers that could afford to invest in the new technology saw sharp increases in both readership and advertising revenue” (10..). In conjunction with this improved technology, editors at home had the incentive to publish material that civilians wanted to see. The civilian population required validation for the sacrifices they made through their laboring and rationing; news reports of valor and success provided exactly this. An effect existed where positive publications on the war lead to increased readership, and increased readership lead to greater revenues. This fortuitous opportunity, along with a shared sense of patriotism, incentivized news editors to facilitate censorship of the front in their publications. Censorship served as a crucial foundation for the publication of propaganda, especially the publication of staged photographs from the front (1..).


In conclusion, it can be shown that the temporary sacrifice of liberties of communication served a critical role in maintaining the essential motivation of civilians at home during the war. The intention of the government was neither wicked nor nefarious; it was to maximize the utility of a resource. The resource of morale on both sides of the English Channel was essential to the successful continuation through a draining war.

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The Rationale for British Censorship of World War I. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from
“The Rationale for British Censorship of World War I.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
The Rationale for British Censorship of World War I. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Aug. 2022].
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