HC Deb 27 April 1915 vol 71 cc572-5
78 and 79. Mr. MacCALLUM SCOTT

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty (1) whether any regulations have been made with regard to the differential treatment of prisoners captured in German submarines; in what respects this treatment differs from that accorded to other persons; whether this treatment applies to all submarine prisoners, and, if not, on what principle is discrimination made between them; whether he will state the total number of prisoners now subject to such differential treatment; and (2) whether the treatment accorded to German submarine prisoners is penal in character; and whether it is proposed to put them on trial on any charge?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. Churchill)

No special conditions are applied to German submarine prisoners because they fight in submarines; but special conditions are applied to prisoners who have been engaged in wantonly killing non-combatants, neutrals, and women on the high seas. Submarine prisoners taken before 18th February have been treated as any other prisoners in our hands. But we cannot recognise persons who are systematically employed in the sinking of merchant ships and fishing boats, often without warning, and regardless of the loss of life entailed, as on the same footing as honourable soldiers. Incidents such as the sinking of the "Oriole" by night, without warning, with all her crew, the circumstances attending the sinking of the "Falaba," and the blowing up by torpedoes of fishing vessels through the agency of German submarines, force us for the future to place all German submarine prisoners taken after 18th February, and for as long as this system of warfare is continued, in a distinct and separate category. The question is not free from difficulty, because as the crimes committed are entirely unforeseen in international law, no remedy has been prescribed. We cannot tell at present how far it may be possible at the end of the War to bring home the guilt of their actions, directly or indirectly, to individuals; nor in what form reparation of a special character should be exacted from the guilty State. Meanwhile, we consider it just and necessary that the prisoners concerned should be separated from honourable prisoners of war who are free from all reproach.

The conditions under which they are interned are in every respect humane. I do not propose to go into the details of their treatment here, because it is better that that should be the subject of neutral investigation. We have offered to allow a representative of the United States Government to visit the prisoners, and make a report on the conditions of their captivity, provided reciprocal facilities are accorded. There are at present thirty-nine German submarine prisoners who are thus separately interned. We cannot admit that the reprisals which have been taken against a number of our own officers can be allowed to deflect us from a policy which we regard as humane and just in itself, and as a necessary means of publicly branding a barbarous form of warfare and of preventing it from taking its place among methods open to belligerent nations. Whatever material ill-usage is inflicted upon the gallant gentlemen upon whom it is in the power of the Germans to revenge themselves, they will have the consolation that no charge can be made against their conduct as honourable soldiers.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether it would not be advisable for him to state fully and definitely what are the exact conditions of imprisonment of these persons, and not leave the matter wrapped in mystery, in view of the fact that certain evils may proceed from any mystery that is allowed to surround the matter?


I thought myself that it would be more efficacious that a report should be made by a representative of a neutral State, because on both sides—


Why should not both be done?


I do not think it necessary to object to that at all, if that is the general opinion of the House—


To see if reciprocal treatment could be arranged?


But if a question is put on the Paper, I will have an answer prepared. It is necessary in these matters to be precise. They are not suited to any loose description by word of mouth.


Does the right hon. Gentleman consider the submarine officers more guilty than the officers who bombarded Scarborough and killed women and children, and who are now at Donington Hall?


Would my right hon. Friend say whether he does not think that the question of reflection upon the character of these officers is affected by the question that they acted under orders, and, indeed, might be shot if they did not obey those orders?


All these points have been very carefully considered, and we have arrived at the conclusion that a distinction must be drawn in regard to the conduct of these men.


Can the right hon. Gentleman make any statement as to the number of prisoners who come within the category?


Is there anything in the treatment extended to these prisoners that is at all contrary to the obligations and provisions of the Geneva—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hague !"]—Convention?


I think it much better that the case should be stated in full detail after an impartial and neutral investigation has taken place.