A German Illustration of "Freedom of the Seas" in War Time


Freedom of the seas was a highly contentious issue during World War I. Great Britain, which enjoyed maritime superiority over Germany, used its navy to block the shipment of military and industrial goods to Germany, including by way of ports in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other neutral countries through which cargoes could be transshipped to Germany. Germany protested the British blockade and sought to position itself as a champion of freedom of the seas, in part to curry favor with the United States and other neutrals, who strongly objected to British actions against their ships. The Germans also retaliated, however, declaring, on February 4, 1915, that from February 18 onward they would treat the entire region around the British Isles as a war zone and “endeavor to destroy every enemy merchant ship that is found within this area of war.” Citizens of neutral countries traveling on ships registered in Allied countries were placed in great danger by this order. This was seen most dramatically on May 7, 1915, when a German submarine torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 people, 128 of whom were Americans. This map, cut from an unidentified U.S. or British newspaper of 1915, is intended as a sarcastic dismissal of Germany’s claims to support freedom of the seas. It shows the 20-nautical-mile (37-kilometer) zones along the West European coastlines where German submarine mines were to be distributed and a large delimited sector of the seas around the British Isles where Allied shipping was subject to attack. It also shows a 60-nautical-mile (111-kilometer) wide lane in the western Mediterranean Sea where neutral shipping was assured safe passage. As the war progressed, Germany increasingly downplayed its commitment to freedom of the seas, as it turned to unrestricted submarine warfare to try to bring Britain and France to their knees. German submarine attacks on U.S. ships ultimately played a large role in bringing the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. The scale of the map is approximately 1:12 million.

Date Created

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Physical Description

1 map ; 39 x 30 centimeters


  1. Ryan Moore, Maps of The First World War: An Illustrated Essay and List of Select Maps in The Library of Congress, Occasional Papers Series, no. 7, The Philip Lee Phillips Map Society (Washington: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, 2014). http://www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/pdf/plp/occasional/OccPaper7.pdf.

Last updated: January 8, 2018