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ships by his Majesty's Government with a view to the capture of contraband trade on its way to the enemy has not contributed nearly so much to the shortage of shipping as has the destruction of neutral vessels by submarine mines indiscriminately laid by the enemy on the high seas, many miles from the coast, in the track of merchant vessels.”
As evidence of the liberal treatment of neutral commerce by Great Britain, the note mentions a rule of the Prize Court which allows the release of cargoes without the necessity of entering a claim in the court by simply producing the documents of title to the officer representing the Crown, who, later, in order to avoid the delays of interdepartmental communication, was succeeded by a special committee which sits daily, receives full reports by telegraph as soon as a ship reaches port, and decides whether it may be allowed to proceed and whether her cargo or any part of it must be discharged and put into the Prize Court. Whenever proceedings are instituted against portions of the cargo of neutral ships, every effort is made to secure the speedy discharge of the cargo and the release of the ship, and where the ship is held for the action of the prize courts it may, pending adjudication, be released on bail.
Finally, special attention is directed to the jurisdiction of the British Prize Court to deal with any claim for compensation by a neutral arising from the interference with ship or goods by the British naval forces.
MINES, SUBMARINES AND WAR ZONES—THE ABSENCE OF BLOCKADE
Another striking feature of the present war is the absence of blockade formally declared and applied in the way in which that doctrine has been previously recognized, namely, by the actual patrol of the enemy's coasts and waters with a sufficient number of cruisers to prevent ingress and egress. In its place “military areas” or “war zones,” depending for their effectiveness upon submarine mines and torpedo boats, have been established not only within the enemy's waters, but upon the high seas. The penalty meted out to neutrals for entering these zones is not the penalty which may be legitimately invoked for breach of blockade, namely, confiscation of vessel or cargo after condemnation by a prize court, but, in case a neutral ship comes in contact with a mine or is encountered by a submarine, it must almost inevitably be sunk with its cargo regardless of whether either be guilty or innocent, and the passengers and crew, whether combatants or noncombatants, left to the precarious fate of saving their own lives in the ship’s boats or of being rescued by vessels which may happen along at that time.
The use of mines in the sea is not a novelty of naval warfare introduced in the present war. They were successfully used in the American Civil War for the defense of harbors and the destruction of blockading ships, but the area affected was limited to territorial waters, within which nations have the right to protect themselves by all means at their disposal. It is when such deadly engines of destruction are placed beyond the territorial jurisdiction or are allowed to drift there that the right of neutral nations to the freedom of the seas is impinged upon. In protesting against the reported use by Peru in its war with Chile in 1880 of “boats containing explosive materials” which were set adrift on the chance of their coming in contact with some of the blockading squadron, Mr. Evarts, Secretary of State, said that such means of warfare, so dangerous to neutrals, should "be at once checked, not only for the benefit of Peru, but in the interest of a wise and chivalrous warfare, which should constantly afford to neutral Powers the highest possible consideration.”1 And the Chinese Government bitterly complained of the losses sustained by its subjects in both life and property owing to the destruction of Chinese vessels by floating mines, not only during but after the Russo-Japanese War, which may or may not have been placed within territorial waters. It remained for the leading maritime nations of the world in the present conflict, claiming to represent its highest civilization, openly to place mines in certain strategic parts of the high seas and formally to warn neutral vessels to keep out of them.
According to a statement made in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Asquith on November 17, 1914, Great Britain “deliberately abstained, and abstained entirely, from the use of mines during the first two months of the war outside British territorial waters, but eventually found it necessary to adopt counter-measures in order to cope with the German policy of mine-laying combined with their submarine activity. A mine field was therefore laid across the southern portion of the North Sea in such a way as to guard the approaches to the English Channel and due public warning was given in accordance with the Hague convention.” 2
1 Moore's International Law Digest, Vol. VII, p. 366. 2 London Times, November 18, 1914.
Shortly thereafter the French Ministry of Marine announced that France had been forced to take similar measures in the Adriatic as a precaution against the activity of the Austro-Hungarian submarines. A danger zone was delimited, comprising the territorial waters of Austria-Hungary and the channels between the islands on the Dalmatian coast, and neutral ships were warned of the dangers of navigating those waters. 3
On October 17, 1914, Russia announced that, in view of the presence of German submarines at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, and the placing by the enemy of bombs and torpedoes near the Russian coast, the Russian naval authorities were compelled to have recourse to similar steps, and gave warning that navigation would be dangerous in a zone bounded by the Russian coast, by Par. 15° 50' N. Lat., and by the M. 21° E. Long., and likewise the entrance to the Gulf of Riga and the coast waters of the Aland Archipelago.4
On November 3, 1914, the British Admiralty announced that beginning with November 5, 1914, the whole of the North Sea would be considered a military area, within which merchant shipping of all kinds, traders of all countries, fishing craft and all other vessels would be exposed to the gravest dangers from mines which have been laid and from war ships searching vigilantly by night and day for suspicious craft. All ships passing a line drawn from the northern point of the Hebrides through the Faroe Islands to Iceland would do so at their peril. The ships of all countries wishing to trade to and from Norway, the Baltic, Denmark and Holland were advised to proceed by way of the English Channel and the Straits of Dover, where sailing directions would be given them. They were warned of the dangers they would encounter by entering this area except in strict accordance with the Admiralty's directions, but, “by strict adherence to these routes, the commerce of all countries will be able to reach its destination in safety, so far as Great Britain is concerned, but any straying, even for a few miles, from the course thus indicated may be followed by fatal consequences."
In justification of this unprecedented action in closing to neutral navigation a stretch of the open sea approximately 500 miles in length, as well as a large sea upon which neutral nations depend for their waterborne foreign commerce, the Admiralty announcement stated that “during the last week the Germans have scattered mines indiscriminately in the open sea on the main trade route from America to Liverpool via the north of Ireland, with consequent loss to peaceful merchant ships and lives.” The statement continues:
3 London Times, October 8, 1914. • Ibid., October 19, 1914.
These mines cannot have been laid by any German ship of war. They have been laid by some merchant vessel flying a neutral flag which has come along the trade route as if for the purposes of peaceful commerce, and while profiting to the full by the immunity enjoyed by neutral merchant ships, has wantonly and recklessly endangered the lives of all who travel on the sea, regardless of whether they are friend or foe, civilian or military in character. * * * In these circumstances, having regard to the great interests entrusted to the British navy, to the safety of peaceful commerce on the high seas, and to the maintenance within the limits of international law of trade between (with) neutral countries, the Admiralty feel it necessary to adopt exceptional measures appropriate to the novel conditions under which this war is being waged.5
In making a further explanation in the House of Commons on November 17, 1914, Premier Asquith charged that the German naval authorities resorted from the commencement of the war to the indiscriminate laying of mines in large numbers in the North Sea outside territorial limits, and he repeated the Admiralty's charge that neutral flags had been used for that purpose. Germany had, he said, not only violated the principle of the freedom of the seas for peaceful trading, but had failed to observe the provisions of the Hague convention relative to the laying of submarine mines. “The menace to peaceful shipping presented by these wholly illegal methods of waging war is so great," said Mr. Asquith, “that his Majesty's Government have been compelled to adopt the only possible means of protection, namely, to declare the whole North Sea to be a military area and to restrict all shipping crossing it to a narrow passage, along which the strictest supervision can be exercised.” Referring to the effect of this action upon neutrals, the Prime Minister said:
His Majesty's Government are fully aware of the anxiety prevailing in the United States and other neutral countries on these subjects, and they trust that their policy will be fully understood. They are confident that public opinion in neutral countries will appreciate their earnest desire that there should be no interference with neutral trade provided the vital interests of Great Britain, which are at stake in the present conflict, are adequately maintained. Any interference by the British navy is directed not to increase British trade or to diminish the trade of any neutral foreign country, but solely to prevent goods from reaching the enemy which would increase his power in the war against the British and allied forces.
5 London Times, November 3, 1914. 6 Ibid., November 18, 1914.
It was Germany's turn next, and on February 4, 1915, she issued the following decree:
The waters around Great Britain, including the whole of the English Channel, are declared hereby to be included within the zone of war, and after the 18th instant all enemy merchant vessels encountered in these waters will be destroyed, even if it may not be possible always to save their crews and passengers.
Within this war zone neutral vessels are exposed to danger since, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the Government of Great Britain on the 31st ultimo and of the hazards of naval warfare, a neutral vessel cannot always be prevented from suffering from the attacks intended for enemy ships.
The routes of navigation around the north of the Shetland Islands in the eastern part of the North Sea and in a stretch 30 miles wide along the Dutch coast are not open to the danger zone.?
In explanation of this action, which added to the dangers from mines the announced intention of deliberately sinking commercial vessels on sight regardless of the safety of passengers and crews, the German Government published an official memorandum “concerning retaliation against the measures taken by England in violation of international law, to stop all neutral sea commerce with Germany."8 The memorandum charged that, although Great Britain had announced that the Declaration of London would be binding on its naval forces during the war, she had renounced it in its most important parts; that she had placed on the contraband list articles which, according to the Declaration and the universally recognized rules of international law, may not be designated as contraband, and had practically abolished the distinction between absolute and conditional contraband; that she had violated the Declaration of Paris and her own decrees by seizing non-combatant German property on neutral ships and had taken from such ships German subjects liable to military service. Finally, the memorandum charges that by declaring the entire North Sea to be an area of war, Great Britain has, to a certain extent, effected a blockade of neutral coasts and ports in violation of international law. These measures, Germany states, are aimed not only at her military strength but to starve her entire population. Neutral Powers, the memorandum continues, have generally acquiesced, especially have they failed to effect the restoration of the German subjects and property seized upon their ships, and have aided the British measures by adopting export and transit embargoes which prevent the passage of goods for peaceful
New York Times, February 7, 1915. 8 Ibid., February 7, 1915.