HC Deb 10 March 1915 vol 70 cc1518-31
Mr. WALTER REA (Lord of the Treasury)

I beg to move "That this House do now adjourn."


Before the House adjourns, I wish to call attention to a subject which I think has been too long overlooked by the House in view of the early adjournments we have had lately, namely, the position of British prisoners in Germany. It is impossible to get the Government to do everything in their power; in the first place, to get accurate information with regard to the state of things in relation to British camps in Germany, and then to use every means in their power to see that the condition is improved. Public attention has recently been occupied to a considerable extent with regard to the manner in which this country has been treating prisoners from Germany. I do not wish to go into that matter to-night, but I think I may venture to say, on behalf of my five colleagues, some present, who have been invited to visit camps in this country, that we have found no real cause of complaint as to the treatment of the prisoners. I think we have now visited the majority of those who are in prison in this country. We invited the men to come before us, and we asked them if they had any complaints to make.

The complaints we have had are infinitesimal. The Noble Lord opposite has visited a number of the camps, and, although I do not know his view, I venture to predict that he will agree with what I say when I state that I think we have nothing on our conscience so far as the treatment of German prisoners in this country is concerned. I am doubtful whether we can say the same with regard to British prisoners in Germany. I do not wish to say anything to-night which might have the effect of retarding anything which might be done for them, but it is no use shutting our eyes to the fact—almost every Member of the House has been receiving letters from Germany—that there is cause for real anxiety as to what is going on in that country. We have overwhelming evidence that there is cause for anxiety and for immediate inquiry. Of course, it is to be remembered that the censorship in Germany is very strict, and that, so far as the ordinary channels of information—British newspapers—are concerned, they are practically closed so far as regards direct communication. The treatment of which we complain comes from people who have received it. I think we have abundant evidence now that the treatment of our wounded is not what any civilised nation might be supposed to expect. Only yesterday the Paris papers published an authentic diary of an officer of the German Army in which there were remarks in regard to what was done to the wounded which could only be read with horror by anyone with any civilised views at all.

The treatment complained of starts on the battlefield, and it continues as the prisoners are being taken to Germany. I have direct evidence from one who travelled in a train, and who states how the British prisoners are treated. He says that the feeling of hatred is shown at every stage. The populace come with food to the stations; they ostentatiously hold it up in front of the Britishers and it is handed on to the French. Then, when they are taken to camps in Germany, there is undoubted reason to believe that the camps are not what they ought to be. The lodging is absolutely, insufficient, and the manner in which it is equipped is altogether unsatisfactory. Another complaint is with respect to insufficient food, and that, I think, is perhaps the most serious complaint of all. There is abundant evidence contained in direct letters as to the want of food, as to prisoners selling their clothes and as to their giving what money they possess in order to get enough bread to live. I had a letter this morning from a lady in Manchester, whose son is at the front. She says:— I am a soldier's mother, and my son is a prisoner of war in Germany. Since 1st November he writes to me for food. He says that if only I could send him dry bread, which I have sent three times—cannot afford it now. If the Government would help the prisoners, who are treated more like beasts than Christians, and not do so much for Germans, who have been branded as murderers in this country. The bread sent three times has never yet been received by that soldier. Apart from that, there is absolutely direct evidence from prisoners who are in Germany. Therefore, there is a case for immediate inquiry. Another complaint is that prisoners are unable to get money which is sent to them by their friends in this country. Money is kept back from them, and they are therefore unable to buy the additional food or comforts which they may require. It is also established that Britishers are made to perform the foulest work in connection with the camps, special preference being given to Russian and French prisoners. They are also harshly treated by the German officers who are, of course, reading the German Press every day, and are naturally infuriated with the British. We all know what the feeling is with regard to that, and therefore we have I to take that into account.

I have in my possession an affidavit by a British merchant who has just returned from Berlin, having been in hospital for the last six months. I had intended to read it to the House, but there are some passages in it which, on mature consideration, I think that it would probably be better not to read. It is the statement of a Britisher who was at Dresden when the War broke out. He travelled to Berlin with the assistance of an American and was subsequently arrested and put in prison. He was ill in hospital for six months. He was in direct touch with the nurses, and was able to get some very important information, particularly information as to the number of British who I died from heart disease on the journey from the front, and also to another important fact. There is no particular purpose to be served by reading it, but I would be glad if any hon. Members who care to do so will read it. The gentleman himself is at the disposal of any hon. Member who is interested in the subject, and is perfectly willing to be cross-examined on the subject, his object being to assist Britishers who are imprisoned there, and because they sent messages through him hoping that when he got home he would do everything in his power to bring the exact facts before the British public.

They are not able to get the letters which have been sent to them. That is a very general complaint on their part. They are also being deprived of the privilege of using tobacco. That also, although a minor thing, is of some importance to men living as they are. Their letters are very severely censored, but sometimes they are able to get through some indication of their feelings. A Noble Lord opposite read a letter the other day from a gentleman, whose name is well known in this country, who told him how the horses were being badly fed, and I think that there is no doubt from what he said, as to exactly what was the meaning of that phrase. Another friend had a letter which was got through, in which the writer said, "We are as happy here as we should be in Dartmoor." That passed the Censor evidently because he thought that Dartmoor was a palace in some part of this country. What I desire to ask is, What can be done in the interests of British prisoners there? We have to remember that the gospel of hate is being preached. That, undoubtedly, does not lead us to have much hope that our prisoners would be better treated than at the present time, but I think that we have reason to ask that we should have the same privilege granted to us as we have granted to the Germans. The German Government, not satisfied with the preliminary investigations which took place with regard to the camps in this country, were allowed by our Government to nominate a man of their own to make investigations. They nominated a gentleman connected with the American Embassy in Berlin to visit the British camp. He was afforded every facility in order to do so, and I believe that his report, like the Swiss report, was entirely favourable. I think that when we granted that special privilege to the German Government we should have said to them, "We will do it on condition that we get the same privilege and be allowed to nominate an independent man of our own." At the same time it seems to me that having granted that, we ought certainly to press for the same privilege.

Surely someone connected with the American Embassy or the Embassy of some other neutral country can be got to go and make a special investigation of all the camps where Britishers are interned! Unless we do this the anxiety, which undoubtedly exists in this country among friends of the prisoners who are there, will continue to increase. And there is more reason to be anxious when we know what the state of affairs is becoming in Germany at the present time. For my part I would very much like, if possible, that all our prisoners should be interned in neutral countries, in view of the possibilities of the future, but I suppose that that is one of the things outside the region of possibility. I think that what the Government ought to do without delay is to press upon the American Embassy in Berlin the necessity of getting the privilege which we have granted to Germany. I do not think that anything short of that will satisfy British public opinion or British sentiment. I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the announcement which he made this afternoon that invalids from Germany were to be exchanged. I think it a great misfortune, almost a scandal, that men of sixty or seventy years of age, who just happened to be taking the waters in Homburg or elsewhere in Germany, should have been kept practically prisoners up to the present time. I think it is a great thing that they are going now to be exchanged and brought back to this country, and I hope, too, the Government will get them exchanged as soon as possible. I believe, that the exchange policy, in the long run, is in our favour, and therefore I ask the Government to proceed with the investigation still further and do everything possible to get the official facts, and above all to do something to help these unfortunate prisoners of war.


I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken for bringing this matter before the House. I am sure that it is a matter which is occupying a great deal of public attention, and I think that there has been a certain amount of inquiry outside as to why it is the House of Commons and the Government have not taken more active steps with reference to this matter. I also thoroughly agree with him that we should have an independent inspection of the prisons in Germany in which our fellow subjects are interned. I wish very much that the Foreign Office had been able to publish earlier the steps that they have taken to secure that that should be done. I believe, I may be misinformed, that weeks, perhaps months, ago we began to press for something of the kind to be done, but nobody outside knows that that is so. I think it a very great pity that the public was not earlier taken into the confidence of the Foreign Office in this matter and told what steps were being taken in older to have the conditions altered or, at any rate, to obtain some security for these prisoners. In one respect I think that the right hon. Gentleman opposite took too gloomy a view. He spoke as if our wounded had been habitually badly treated in Germany. I do not think, from the information in my possession, that that is the case. On the contrary, as far as I have come across any evidence at all, it is that the moment our wounded got into hospital in Germany they were treated very well indeed, and with great care. I have come across, of course, a very considerable number of cases where this has been specifically and definitely ascertained. I have come across no case in contradiction of that view, and, indeed, I can recall several instances in which I have been assured that although the military authorities have been inclined sometimes to be very harsh, and sometimes to behave exceedingly badly—I do not deny that for a moment—yet when the British soldier or officer got into the hands of the German doctors he was treated uniformly well.

With respect to the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I have nothing to say except that I agree. We all know about the hatred of the English—it is prodigious. I quite believe that very horrible things might easily have occurred if British prisoners had not been carefully guarded from the hatred of the German people, which has been deliberately stirred up by the German Government for political purposes, and which is one of the wickedest things which they have done in the course of this War. I would also say that with regard to the prisoners' camp I do not feel quite so hopeless as the right hon. Gentleman. I think it is possible, and I hope it is possible, that some of the worst stories that have reached this country are exaggerated. My impression may be wrong, but it is that, though officers have been treated with great roughness and brutality in all the amenities of life, I do not think really that they have had to suffer hardships, which is likely to be injurious to their health; as to the men I do not feel quite so sure. The evidence is very conflicting about them. It is one matter which necessarily gives rise to very serious anxiety in this country.

As to the letters which the right hon. Gentleman read out saying that parcels, bread, and so on, have not reached prisoners, I think that that is exceptional. I think that, generally speaking, parcels sent to prisoners in Germany do reach them, and where they do not it is partly due to the breakdown, necessarily attributable to the War, and partly, I am afraid, to the fact that some parcels are not properly addressed, and partly, and very deplorably, sometimes to the fact that they are entrusted not to the Post Office, which is much the safer channel, but to some private agencies, some of which, whether well-meaning or not, may not be always very successful in delivering what has been entrusted to them to the destination for which it is intended. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to refer to certain visits which I paid, in company with the delegates of the Red Cross of Geneva, to the camps of the German prisoners in this country. When they were over here they went to all the camps. Their report, which is wholly favourable, is a very important report, because I can testify that they were afforded the fullest possible opportunity, not only of inspecting the camps, but of talking privately in German to all prisoners, apart from any English officer who had any knowledge of German, or apart from any English officer at all. They were allowed to go amongst the prisoners and talk freely to them in their own language, and any kinds of complaint from them which the prisoners could make, they were able to make to these delegates, and their report—I think it has been published here, at any rate, I have seen it—was wholly favourable, particularly as regards our treatment of military prisoners, but really wholly favourable as to the treatment of all classes of prisoners in this country. That is a very important matter. But even in the case of the German prisoners we had constantly, and I myself came across several cases of, complaints of failure of letters to reach them. I am quite sure that that is not due to any want of care on our part.

The greatest possible precautions are taken to see that every letter which is written to a prisoner in Germany is delivered to him, yet constantly they do not get delivered, and it is generally because they have been improperly addressed, or the man may have been moved from that camp and there is some difficulty in tracing him, and delay takes place. But, whatever the cause, we do come across constant complaints of delay in correspondence, and therefore we must not judge too harshly similar complaints as to the delay of letters and parcels in Germany. I am very anxious that we should not exaggerate the evil, because no advantage is derived from any exaggeration of evil. We do not want—I do not want—to embitter even this terrible War. It must be bitter enough in all circumstances. I am very anxious that we should say nothing which is not fully justified by the facts. In this matter particularly I am anxious, because I notice in the Press that there is a tendency to ask for retaliation against the German prisoners. I must say, with all the strength at my command, that I should most bitterly regret anything of the kind.

I think that we must treat the German prisoners properly, not with foolish sentimentality or anything of that kind, but treat them according to what we think is right, whatever the Germans may think it right to do with our prisoners. On the other hand, I think that, if we are satisfied either now or later on that any of our soldiers or civilian fellow subjects have been ill-treated in such a way as to injure their health or endanger their lives, then we should make it perfectly clear that at the end of the War, if and when we are victorious, we will hold the official answerable for that ill-treatment responsible in his person, and if necessary in his life, and that whether he be the Kaiser or any subordinate of his. I think you could not make that too clear, because the ill-treatment of prisoners of war is not explainable like occurrences in a campaign, committed in heated blood or ignorance, or something of that kind. It is deliberate, cold-blooded cruelty, and ought to be punished if there is any relic of justice left in the world. I should be very glad if His Majesty's Government could see their way to publish an announcement that whoever was responsible for the ill-treatment of prisoners will be held responsible, in person and in life, at the end of the War.


The Noble Lord has raised a point which I desired to have discussed in the hope that influence will be exercised in behalf of our people interned in Germany, lest reprisals should be set up in this country. Like the Noble Lord, I have observed with some apprehension a very strong feeling growing up in this country, that we should do unto the Germans here interned what it is alleged is done unto the Britons interned in Germany. I am certain that when the War is passed, even if we err on the side of generosity, it will tend to strengthen the credit of this country. For a long while I refused to believe all the accounts which reached us from Germany. I never believed that a civilised country could ever behave vindictively to those who unfortunately came under their control. But the letter read by the right hon. Gentleman who introduced this discussion gives so much evidence that, even making full allowance for inevitable exaggeration, which arises in the existing state of public opinion, I can no longer attempt to refuse belief, for I think that our people interned in Germany are subjected to hardships, and something perhaps even worse. I am hoping that the Government will be able to make representations through neutral powers to persuade the German authorities to treat our people there in a little more humane way, and more in accord with the treatment which we are bestowing on the Germans in this country.

I happen to be one of those co-operating with the right hon. Gentleman in visiting the various internment camps in this country, and I can most cordially associate myself with his expressions, and those of the Noble Lord. All the places which we have visited certainly are comfortable and decent, and the food supply is ample and good, and, whilst we deprecate anything in the nature of luxuriousness, nevertheless, we feel that these people ought to be treated decently and well. Therefore, when our inspection proves that the highest traditions of the British character are being maintained in this regard, we feel that the whole world should know of the inquiries that we have made, and that it ought to be prepared to accept it as a fact that we are treating these prisoners interned here well and in a thoroughly humane fashion. It may be, of course, that if the neutral powers would only avail themselves of the opportunity for disseminating this knowledge through Germany, it might have a somewhat helpful influence in this direction. Supposing the German Reichstag could select six of its members representative of the various political parties to visit the places of internment in Germany, as this House has done in respect of places of internment in this country, I am sure that public feeling would be relieved, and that we should feel much happier in respect of the condition of our fellow subjects in Germany. I am hopeful that the hon. Gentleman who will reply to this discussion will be able to give us some assurance that every step possible is being undertaken in this matter, and that there is some hope that the regrettable circumstances which we see now existing in Germany, and the treatment of the prisoners there, may be brought into accord with our treatment of German prisoners in this country.


In reference to what has just been said by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, I also wish to ask the Under-Secretary if he will be kind enough to reply, especially on the subject of whether food is being delivered to prisoners in Germany or not. The other day a question was asked in this House by an hon. Member with regard to a large number of parcels, I think 7,000, sent to prisoners in Germany, and the reply was that a very large number of those parcels had already been delivered. Since then it has come to my knowledge that food has been sent out on various occasions to individuals in Germany, and that food has not been received. I am sure that every Member of this House is grateful to the American Embassy for what it has done in regard to these matters. They have been extremely courteous to individual Members in answering questions which have been put to them, and what I would ask the Under-Secretary particularly to consider in his reply is as to whether he would inquire why a certain amount of food had not been received by prisoners in Germany, and also to guarantee or get a guarantee from the American Embassy that they will do all they possibly can to see that the food is delivered in future.


I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for having raised this question, because it has given rise to a good deal of comment in the country, and I regret to say that the papers the Noble Lord asked for, I think a week ago, giving an account of all the negotiations which the Government have entered into with respect to the treatment of prisoners will not be ready to be published before another two weeks at least. We propose in these papers to give all the information in our possession with regard to the negotiations that have taken place. We have already given to the German Government, through the United States Embassy, an account of the way in which the German prisoners are treated in this country. The figures will be published I think to-morrow or the next day, because it was suggested that it would be advisable to publish them, even though the remaining papers are not ready. I am glad to say that in the last few days we have received from the German Government an official account of the food which the prisoners in Germany are receiving. They have also given an account of what can be bought in the canteens, and the prices which are charged in those canteens. That I think only applies to Ruhleben, where civilian prisoners are interned. They are further giving accounts of various meetings which have taken place between the prisoners committees and the Commandant at Ruhleben, in which, according to the German account—and I think it would be injurious to cast any doubt upon it before we have any information to the contrary—the details of the present arrangement were quite harmoniously discussed. That is all, at present, we have got from the German Government as to how they treat their prisoners in Germany.

Of course, they will be laid with other Papers on the Table of this House. In regard to the general treatment of the prisoners we have various accounts, all the reliable ones of which we propose to publish. I think that what the Noble Lord said is probably justified, that there is an inclination to exaggerate the harshness of treatment which our fellow subjects receive in Germany. I am the last person to say that they have been properly treated, or edequately treated, but I think there is a slight inclination for people to repeat or publish doubtful information which really cannot be traced to any reliable source, and I regret it, because it causes great pain and anxiety to the friends and relations of prisoners out there. As regards the letter which my right hon. Friend quoted, I think the Noble Lord misunderstood him. I did not understand the right hon. Gentleman's informant to say that prisoners were badly treated in the hospitals. I think his informant wrote that he had heard from people something of that kind.


I shall be glad if the right hon. Gentleman opposite will put me right. I understood him to say at the beginning of his observations that the wounded in hospitals had been badly treated.


I did not wish to stop the Noble Lord while he was speaking, though, perhaps, I ought to have interrupted him in the interests of accuracy. What I was referring to with regard to the wounded was not the general treatment in the hospitals, but there was a case which was mentioned in the diary of an officer. It is a document which I have in my possession, and on more than one day it contains short remarks on what he has been doing, and the treatment of the wounded.


I think my right hon. Friend was quoting a letter.


I quoted a letter, but I stated that I did not read its exact contents.


I thought my Friend was referring to an affidavit.


Yes, that is true.

8.0 P.M.


That is what I refer to, an affidavit, which does not contain anything about ill-treatment in the hospitals. I understand that our wounded in the hospitals have been well treated, and that the treatment of prisoners on the battlefield and on their way to Germany has been very harsh in many cases. There are two other points raised. One is that the prisoners do not receive the money which is sent to them, and that parcels of food which have been sent to them have also not been delivered in many cases. We have had letters saying that. I saw the other day a prisoner who had been released and who stated that he had regularly received two hampers of food a week or a fortnight, and he did not seem to throw any corroboration on the statement that part of the food was not delivered. I think it will be found that the parcels and money which were sent through the Post Office—which is the most reliable way of sending out anything—usually are delivered. The point has been raised as to what the Government is doing in regard to the treatment of these prisoners in Germany. It is quite true that the German Government have been allowed to appoint an American from the American Embassy in Berlin to come and visit the camps in this country. Incidentally, I am glad to say, I saw the gentleman before he went back and he was in every way satisfied with what he saw. Hon. Members may wonder why that is not being done by the British Government in Germany. We have propounded a scheme to the German Government. It was suggested several weeks ago, and in the view of the Foreign Office it would work much better than merely having one inspection by somebody appointed in England, an inspection which might be haphazard through no fault of the inspector, but through the fault of the facilities which he might enjoy.

The scheme which we suggested was as follows: That quartermasters from the United States should work at Berlin under the United States Ambassador and keep in permanent touch with the camps where our prisoners are confined and distribute whatever was sent to them by the British Government. That seemed to us a scheme which would ensure fair treatment of prisoners in Germany, and at any rate it would ensure that they should have enough to eat and sufficient clothes to wear. It was felt inadvisable while we were pressing this scheme on the German Government that at the same time we should make a further demand and suggest that an inspector should be sent from this country, because the quartermasters would appear to be sufficient inspectors in connection with any point that might arise.


Can the hon. Gentleman give us the date when that suggestion was made?


I think about five weeks ago. No reply for about a month was received from the German Government, and feeling that it looked rather hopeless we telegraphed to the United States Government to ask them to suggest to the German Government that we should be allowed to send an inspector to Germany in the same way as the German Government sent an inspector here. Since sending that cablegram I am glad to say we have every reason to hope that the German Government will accept the original scheme, in which case those quartermasters from America will go over and distribute any Government relief which is sent from this country. That is not all that has been done. Money has been sent out during the last few months to the United States Ambassador at Berlin to distribute among British prisoners out there. The amount which has been sent altogether is £47,000. A sum of £20,000 was sent last week and the remaining sum of £27,000 was sent some time before. Any case of bad treatment which we hear of we communicate without any delay to the American Ambassador, with a request to him to see what he can do in the matter.

I would like to take this opportunity of expressing our sincere and heartfelt gratitude to the Government of the United States for the use which they have allowed us to make of their representatives, and for the ready way in which those representatives have put themselves at our disposal. As regards the policy of exchanging prisoners, to which my right hon. Friend referred, I think there is a good deal to be said for it, but, of course, exchange of prisoners needs the approval of the War Office, or, in the case of sailors, of the Admiralty, and we are bound by their decision as to the military situation. But I hope that we may make as many exchanges as possible, and I am glad to have been able to announce to the House that invalid civilians will be exchanged as soon as possible. As regards what the Noble Lord (Lord R. Cecil) said about reciprocity in the treatment of prisoners between the two countries, I am in the most hearty agreement with him. I think it would be a most deplorable policy to follow to try and pay back on those who are in our hands now any ill-treatment which British prisoners are receiving. There would be no possible sense in it. In the first place, the people so treated would be in no way responsible for what had been done, and, in the second place, it would hardly be likely to influence the German Government in a policy of leniency towards our prisoners, because they have not proved themselves to be a very merciful Government, and least of all are they likely to be affected by anything done to their own soldiers who surrendered or were taken prisoners. I think that we should remember the duty which we owe to our previous history in carrying on war. We have entered upon this War in a generous spirit, and I think in a spirit worthy of the best traditions of our history, and to those traditions we must remain faithful.