Laws of War

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent

      Next to the issue of German violation of Belgian neutrality, this issue probably generated the harshest criticisms of the failure of international law.  As mentioned in the introduction, one of international laws primary goals is to restrain atrocities during war, to confine hostilities to appropriate military objectives, as opposed to total destruction of the enemy and its people.  However, during the Great War, nations were fighting for their survival, and since defeat was not an option, countries pulled out all the stops.  The German violations were certainly the most flagrant and the most well-known at the end of the war, in its treatment of prisoners war, its deportation and slaughter of civilians, and its utter destruction of enemy territory (especially in its march through Belgium, and most notably in the city of Louvain).  But the Allied powers were not free of violations themselves, although these are much less known. 

      As with the question of submarine warfare, battlefield technology had advanced greatly since the last major wars, presenting numerous questions of how to deal with new military weapons.  These weapons included machine guns, poison gas on both the Eastern and Western fronts, the arrival of airplanes late in the war, and mines used at sea against enemy ships.  Though initially controversial, most of these weapons came to be accepted as the all-out war raged on.


German Policy in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918,, is a substantial and well-written undergraduate thesis on the political, economic, social and military policies of Germany throughout its occupation of Belgium during the war.  The student, David Menichetti of the University of Virginia, attempts to wade through the swamps of war propaganda from the belligerent nations as well as the numerous personal narratives written by soldiers and survivors to arrive at an overall picture of Belgian existence under German control.  Menichetti concludes that though German occupation was unquestionably harsh and destructive, Belgium did survive, and in fact, despite the burning of several of its cities, it was exploited less extensively than some of the other states occupied by Germany (especially the French Department du Nord).  However, as the war progressed, and Germany's desperation increased, Germany exploited Belgian natural, financial and industrial resources to a greater extent, leaving Belgium in disarray at the end of the war.

For a first-hand look at the horrible atrocities that occurred in the Belgian city of Louvain, see  The account was written by Richard Harding Davis and first appeared in the New York Tribune on August 31, 1914. 

To see a database of international humanitarian laws, including the Geneva Conventions and other documents establishing the laws of war, go to  This site would be very useful to anyone wishing to study the development of the laws of war over time or the current obligations of belligerents during war.

An interesting overview of the technological developments before World War I can be found at  The author (Captain Thomas G. Bowie, Ph D (USAF)) states that sophisticated advances in technology had been made before the outbreak of war, but there was no one scientific breakthrough capable of shortening the war or reducing the enormous number of casualties.  The combination of new weapons (machine guns, airplanes, submarines, tanks, and poison gas) made World War I the most destructive war the world had ever seen. 
      The same author then goes on to describe machine guns and chemical gas in more detail.  The machine gun had been invented in 1885, but at the outbreak of war, the belligerents had not fully appreciated the destructiveness of automatic, rapid-fire weapons.  This explains the significant failures of the French attacks on the Western Front, as the advancing French soldiers were mowed down by machine guns.  And at the Battle of the Marne, for example, each side lost over 500,000 men.  Chemical gas had been considered too barbaric and inhumane to actually use, until World War I.  The Germans first used chemical gas on April 22, 1915 at the Battle of Ypres, taking the Allies completely by surprise.  But the Germans had not anticipated how well the device would work, and they did not have the troops present to take advantage of the downed Allied divisions.  Throughout the rest of the war, both sides used gas, and in the end, nearly one-fourth of the 258,000 casualties in the war were attributed to gas attacks.
      A description of trench warfare, still from Capt. Bowie, can be found at

For more on the use of chemical gas during the war, see the following sites: