Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 May 2015
Review by Robert L. Nelson and Christopher Waters, The University of Windsor
Beyond the Mud: Revisiting the Legal History of World War I
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 20th Century, World War I Print Version
A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War
By Isabel V. Hull
Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 368. ISBN 978–0–8014–5273–4.
World War I Law and Lawyers: Issues, Cases, and Characters
By Thomas J. Shaw
Chicago: American Bar Assoc., 2014. Pp. xix, 539. ISBN 978–1–62722–431–4.

Isabel Hull (Cornell Univ.) has written a sophisticated historical study of broad issues in legal theory and comparative law during the First World War, including the relationship between law and power and the relevance of the sundry legal traditions of the participants. In particular, she squarely tackles the realist dismissal of international law as ephemeral by exhaustively documenting how legal actors and analysts determined the scope of options available to British decision-makers.

Legal historian Vince Masciotra has written that "Professional groups traditionally look back on their own history to reinforce their professional and social identity. The studies which result often take the form of biographies of 'great legal men' .… This literature is characterized by hagiographical and anecdotal approaches."[3] Thomas Shaw's World War I Law and Lawyers is very much a case in point. Though impressive in scope and full of amusing and interesting facts, it belongs on a lawyer's coffee table, not a scholar's desk.

While there is no reason why legal history should not be readable or popular in nature, this book is unfortunately also rife with errors. For example, Shaw suggests that the legal regulation of warfare was a novelty in 1914–18, when, in fact, codification of the law of armed conflict went back to the US Civil War and customary law developed over centuries. There are also serious lacunae; for instance, there is virtually no analysis of the issue of starving civilians through blockade. Thus, despite its colorful biographies of legal actors and summaries of fascinating cases, this volume's 539 pages merit only a thumb-through in an idle moment rather than serious study.

[1] Subtitle: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca: Cornell U Pr, 2004); see review at MiWSR 2007.05.01.

[2] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), Article 54(2), 8 June 1977.

[3] "Quebec Legal Historiography, 1760–1900," McGill Law Journal 32 (1987) 724.

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