Alyssa Cundy

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Roger Sarty

Advisor Role



This dissertation examines the British naval blockade imposed on Imperial Germany between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in July 1919. The blockade has received modest attention in the historiography of the First World War, despite the assertion in the British official history that extreme privation and hunger resulted in more than 750,000 German civilian deaths. This revelation of a humanitarian disaster may be the main reason why the British government delayed public release of the history for nearly thirty years after its completion in the 1930s. Yet scholarship has focused on the initial establishment of the blockade, and the complex legal, economic, and diplomatic issues that made it ineffective during the first part of the war. Much less has been written about its subsequent evolution into a powerful weapon, and less still on the Allies’ continuation of the blockade after the Armistice to compel German acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain first implemented the naval blockade of Germany not as a merciless hunger blockade, but rather as a time-honoured maritime strategy intended to weaken the enemy’s military resources and thereby assist the Allied land war on the Continent. However, its function changed over the course of the war, as Britain broadened the classes of goods subject to interdiction, from a traditional naval strategy focused on military supplies, into a much broader “weapon of starvation,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the British Secretary of State for War, by 1918-1919. The aim of this dissertation is to illuminate how and why this military transformation occurred and detail some of the political and moral consequences of the blockade’s expansion and its prolongation in full force through the whole of the treaty negotiations at Versailles.

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