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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

World War I Law and Lawyers: Issues, Cases, and Characters
Reviewed by Peter Belmonte

World War I Law and Lawyers: Issues, Cases, and Characters
by Thomas J. Shaw
ABA Publishing, 2014

It is no surprise that World War I, like any war, is intimately involved with a tangled nest of national and transnational legal issues. In this book, Thomas J. Shaw seeks to provide some background and explanation for many of these issues. The text is at once a legal reference book and a history book. Shaw, an attorney and author with an impressive depth and breadth of experience, has written an exhaustive but readable treatise with this volume. With no legal background, I found the book easy to understand, although it is probably best tackled in small sections, as the book's format readily allows. One may read about a particular topic and skip around as desired. Shaw's thick (almost 500 pages of text) volume is broken down into seven chapters, each reflecting a specific time and location to better allow the reader to digest and process the vast amount of information herein. The chapters are:
  • Before the War
  • Europe: International and Military Issues
  • Europe: Domestic Issues
  • United States: International and Military Issues
  • United States: Domestic Issues
  • Europe and Elsewhere: War Crimes, Uprisings, & Horses
  • After the War

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Each chapter is then subdivided into sections covering various subjects and topics to provide greater granularity to the overall topic. Furthermore, each case is followed by a brief "Subsequent Events" section that serves "to link the legal issues that arose during this war to subsequent events and, where it makes sense, to modern applications" (p. xvi).

In the text, we find cases about war prizes and neutrality, espionage, the disposition of horses after the war, treaties, business contracts, and shipping insurance. One might read of war dogs one day and the Mixed Claims Commission settling claims arising from the sinking of the Lusitania the next. A more or less random sampling of some issues which I found particularly interesting follows:

The section "Allegations against the Military Justice System", in a chapter about the United States, concerns the response of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) to postwar public and Congressional concern about the military justice system. The JAG outlined 14 specific concerns and addressed each one specifically; brief summaries of the points are given in the text. In the section covering treason in Europe, the tangled case of Mata Hari is briefly presented with all its bizarre and tragic turns. The Lusitania and the Zimmermann telegram, both of which impacted and tested U.S. neutrality, are covered.

Examples of the various claims arising from the sinking of the Lusitania provide interesting reading in both the European and U.S. sections; it seems that there was no end to the various angles and situations involved with those who suffered loss in that tragedy. And the Lusitania is just one of many ships, the loss of which impacted some legal aspect of one country or another, covered in this book. The change in America's status from a neutral nation to a belligerent nation sparked a number of legal issues revolving around business contracts and ownership of companies and assets; these reveal aspects of the war that might not be written about in other histories. The European section on the execution of soldiers for desertion is poignant and brings home the sadness associated with forcing men to perform unpleasant tasks required in time of war.

Newton Baker, Secretary of War & Lawyer – Mata Hari, Dancer & Defendant

The book is interspersed with brief biographies of lawyers who, in some way, affected the case under review. The gamut of these dozens of sketches is impressive, and men and women from many countries are represented. Such prominent and well-known lawyers as General John Pershing, Newton Baker, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and Otto von Bismarck are joined by lesser -known lawyers; the total list serves to illustrate the broad international scope of the legal issues of the war.

These are just a few of the many cases, issues, and personalities covered in this book. It will be a rare reader who will not learn something from it. As a student of American military history, I found the book to be very helpful to me in providing the international legal background to the men, units, and battles I study and write about. I recommend this book without hesitation to all those who want to learn about the behind-the-scenes legal aspects of the Great War.

Peter Belmonte


  1. This is not a book I'm likely to get or to read, but your review has made it marvelously clear and relevant. You've provided a lot of valuable information in a limited space and I really appreciate that. Thank you!

  2. Just as interesting is "Will's War" by Janice Woods Windle, Longstreet Press, Marietta, GA, 2001. "Will's War" is the story of German-Americans struggling with government oppression in 1917 and 1918. The tale takes place in Sequin and Abilene, Texas and is the story of Will being accused of disloyalty to the U.S. Will Berghoff, the protagonist, was a motorcycle enthusiast and believed he would be a good candidate for the Army Air Corps but was turned away because of his German heritage. He also was active in the labor movement of the 1900's, specifically the Wobblies, and participated in the Colorado miners' strike with Mother Jones. While this is a novel, the story is based in good research and records of the time. In the story the reader learns about the anti-German prejudice generated by government propaganda in the U.S. A well-told story. I recommend to all interested in the times of WWI.