Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War
Reviewed by Jim Gallen

A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law
During the Great War
by Isabel Hull
Published by Cornell University Press, 2014

For all the stories of trench warfare and unannounced sinkings, one would think that World War I was governed by no law other than that of the jungle, based on no maxim but that might makes right. A Scrap of Paper tells a different story. It examines the issues that arose, the theories of law that competed as intensely as the cannon and warship and the men who framed them. The Great War is portrayed as a time when scraps of paper called warriors to the field of battle, swayed international opinion, and fueled propaganda duels.

The western front of World War I rose out of divergent interpretations of The Treaty of 1839 which established an independent Belgium with its neutrality guaranteed by Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia and Russia. This solemn obligation to the British and a "scrap of paper" to the Germans was debated by Belgium's guarantors and its violators. Did it obligate its signers or was it an irrelevant anachronism?

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War having been engaged, legal disputes turned to balancing the rights and obligations of conquerors and conquered. Thus new questions arose. When was a levee en masse, a civilian resistance against advancing enemies, legal, and when was an insurrection against an occupying power unlawful? What obligation did the occupier have to feed and govern the occupied and what rights did it have to extract work and taxes? What use could be made of POWs and what level of subsistence must they be provided? When did military necessity justify actions that were otherwise illegitimate?

Furthermore, under what circumstances and to what extent was a blockade permissible? Could food be interdicted even if it caused starvation? How effective must it be to be lawful? Could it be enforced against neutral ports bearing goods to belligerents? Could neutral shipping be stopped or sunk? Would humanitarian aid, such as the food for Belgium raised by American Herbert Hoover be exempt from blockade, even if it did relieve Germany of its obligation to feed its captives? Was it justified as economic warfare? All of these questions were raised by each side in support of its positions.

Additionally, new weapons called for new laws. Airplanes and zeppelins permitted bombings of enemy cities. Could they be employed against civilian targets? Was a German bombing of London any more illegal or inhumane than British interdiction of supplies directed toward Germany? Could submarines be expected to halt and inspect merchant shipping and make provisions for its crew and passengers before sinking it?

Bombing Civilians Raised Legal Issues
A Scrap of Paper is a blend of law and history. It is history of law and history of the war. It probes the influence of the violations of international law on neutrals. German atrocities in Belgium and the rights of neutrals on the high seas were of paramount importance to the United States, while the Netherlands, caught as it was in the middle, and the Scandinavians with their German sympathies, saw things differently. This book provides insights into the propaganda campaigns of both sides.

Ultimately the breaking and making of international law is shown as a struggle between competing visions of law, influenced by the interests of the belligerents. The new conditions of the war itself necessitated new law, some of it codified during the peace that followed. The legal issues discussed in this book are reminiscent of those of other wars, both before and after the Great War. The studies of military necessity shine light on Lincoln's justification for the Emancipation Proclamation. Examination of the legality of sinkings and bombings presaged the immensely greater scale of indiscriminate destruction of World War II. When I first picked up this book I was of the opinion that the law of war was largely what could be justified by the victor. By the book's end I realized that there have been many efforts to civilize the most uncivil of human activity.

Author Isabel V. Hull has done an impressive job in her research and writing. For a student of the law of war it is magnificent. A reader will pick up some aspects of the general history, but it takes a lot of reading for a few slivers of information. This is a book for experienced and deep students of the Great War, so casual readers should start elsewhere.

Jim Gallen


  1. This was great! Excellent compilation of facts I would not have otherwise been aware of.

  2. This is not in my direct area of interest, but it does sound like a good area to examine!