When Whistling Was a War Crime

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes the Marketing Department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as: “A bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” It later notes that an edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica that fell through a rift in the time-space continuum from 1,000 years in the future describes the Marketing Department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as: “A bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came.”

In the grand tradition of Douglas Adams’ classic novel, we maintain a list of our nominees to be among the first against the wall. We take comfort in thinking how much better life will be in the enlightened age when decisive action is taken against such nefarious miscreants who:

  • start every email with “Hey”;
  • drive around, playing ghastly music so loud that it can be heard from blocks away; (Incidentally, why don’t we ever hear Mozart or Tchaikovsky in these situations? It’s always some horrible psychedelic cacophony with reverberating bass that sounds like a cat getting ready to throw up);
  • think middle-aged men should wear skinny jeans; and, of course,
  • whistle while in public.

We may never live to see the day when this glorious age of blissful peace descends upon the world. There was, however, a moment in time when one of the above evils was addressed. Ironically, that brief glimpse at the Utopia that could be took place in the midst of one of the bloodiest chapters in human history.

When the United Kingdom entered World War I (or “The Great War,” as it was known in the days before we started numbering our attempts to eradicate humanity), the government sought to proactively address some potential problems on the home front. Among its top priorities was combatting the pervasive evil known as whistling in public. To that end, the government rolled out the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA).

(Editor’s Note: Out of deference to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic, we adhere to the British spelling of “defence” in the title of this law. Our spellchecker is about to burst an aneurism, however, as it reminds us that we declared our independence from Great Britain specifically because George III insisted on misspelling words. Yes, there was that trifling little “taxation without representation” thing, but since we later learned that taxation with representation is no great blessing, either, we have pretty much gotten over that.)

DORA made its way through Parliament at near-record speed and received Royal Assent on August 8, 1914 — just four days after the U.K. entered the war. It went into effect on August 11, 1914. For the next seven years, despite having to endure the bloodiest conflict thus far in history, life back home was blessedly free of needless whistling.

Admittedly, the blight of mindless whistlers was not the primary motivation for the passage of DORA. Its principal purpose was to prevent foreign invasion and boost morale at home. It gave wide-ranging powers to the government to seize private property for the war effort and to criminalize certain activities through social controls and penalties.

Among the dangerous activities that could undermine the security of the empire was whistling. The threat posed by this vile activity will be immediately apparent to even the most casual student of military strategy. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, however, we shall explain by delving into the rest of DORA.

In the early days of the war, even the best experts could only speculate about the threats to national security. It was an age of science and burgeoning technology. For the first time, war could be fought not only on land and sea but also from the skies. Advances in communication technology made the threat of espionage greater than ever.

Added to these uncertainties was the fear of industrial sabotage. The influence of trade unions had grown considerably in recent years. It was bad enough that a workers’ strike might shut down a sector of industry in peacetime. The possibility that it could cripple the war effort was too much to overlook.

DORA was designed to take decisive action to protect the nation. It gave the government the authority to censor the press and regulate speech. The law provided that “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Controlling the press and speech in this manner could prevent the country’s enemies from gaining access to sensitive information such as troop movements. It could also help keep the morale of the citizens high by sparing them from potentially-discouraging news.

All told, DORA was amended and extended six times before the war concluded. Civilians were prohibited from:

  • whistling for a London taxi;
  • flying a kite;
  • talking about naval or military matters in public places;
  • spreading rumors about military matters;
  • purchasing binoculars;
  • trespassing on railway lines or bridges;
  • melting down gold or silver;
  • lighting bonfires or fireworks;
  • loitering near bridges and tunnels;
  • giving bread to horses or chickens;
  • using invisible ink when writing abroad;
  • buying brandy or whisky in railway refreshment rooms;
  • ringing church bells during periods that lighting restrictions were in force; and
  • buying or providing alcohol to others.

Additionally, the alcohol content of beverages was regulated, with requirements to water down drinks served in taverns.

Penalties for violation of the provisions of DORA ranged from monetary fines all the way to execution.

Some of the prohibited activities may seem peculiar to 21st-century ears. There was good reasoning for each of them, however. Whistling was prohibited was out of fear that it could be mistaken for an air raid siren. (London, evidently, had some famously-loud whistlers!) Flying a kite, lighting a bonfire, or setting off fireworks could be used as navigational aids for German Zeppelins. Restrictions on the use of alcohol were designed to reduce public drunkenness, thereby increasing productivity and putting less of a strain on law enforcement. Prohibiting the feeding of bread to animals was aimed at reducing food wastage during rationing.

More than one million people were arrested and charged with violations of DORA. The first such person was John Maclean, a Scottish Marxist and revolutionary. He was arrested for making statements that were deemed “prejudicial to recruiting.” He was fined £5. When he refused to pay the fine, he was imprisoned and spent five nights in custody. Having received a criminal conviction, he also forfeited his position as a teacher.

No one was executed for whistling, which is likely the reason that particular evil still pervades society. There were, however, 11 people who received the death penalty for violations of DORA. As you might hope, those offenses included a wee bit more than tossing bread crumbs to chickens. Each of those who were executed was implicated in espionage.

Carl Lody, age 34, 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 was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. When the sentence was carried out on November 6, 1914, he became the first person executed in the Tower of London in almost 150 years.

In addition to Lody, the others who were executed for espionage included:

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

DORA was enacted as a wartime measure, but it remained in effect in one form or another until 1921.

It should be noted that 1922 was the first full year that whistling was unregulated. That same year, the flu epidemic claimed the lives of 804 people in the United Kingdom.

Coincidence? We think not.

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