In popular culture and imagination, World War I was a bloody, muddy, senseless, almost accidental conflict. International law seems far removed from the causes of the war or the way hostilities were conducted. This seeming irrelevance of international law in popular imagination is rejected in intellectual, literary, and scholarly accounts. However, during the centenary of the war, it is time to rethink the role law played in this first large-scale conflict of the twentieth century. Drawing on recent legal historiography as well as original research, this article will argue, through a look at the conduct of naval warfare, that law was central to how Allied, Central, and neutral states navigated the conflict. Specifically, we examine the role law played in the practices of the warring parties in navigating the interdiction of – and attacks on – the civilian shipping of belligerents and neutrals.
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