HC Deb 04 April 1917 vol 92 cc1339-63

I desire most earnestly to enlist the sympathy of the Government and this House on behalf of prisoners, both civilian and military, who have now been in the hands of the Germans for two and a half years, and I would put in an earnest plea that if it should be proved, as it can be proved, that something can be done to mitigate the horrors of war without detriment to our cause, then it is the duty of the Government to take the necessary steps to do so. The fate of these civilian and military prisoners is a very hard one, and it is no exaggeration to say that their lot is most miserable. Take, for instance, the civilians. A large number of them were travelling in Germany for their health at the time the War broke out, and they are there now, simply because they had the bad luck to miss the last train or the last boat. They have spent two and a half years interned in a place which I believe was intended for a racecourse—a place no doubt suited to accommodate horses, but most unsuitable for human beings. From forty to sixty of these people, these most unfortunate people, have been sleeping in a horse box; and there are over ninety people sleeping in a long low loft—220 ft. long, only 3½ ft. high at the sides, and 10 ft. high in the centre. This miserable place is lighted by only three small panes on the floor level. It is not surprising that the health of these unfortunate people has been very gravely deteriorated. A great many of them, from the fact that the place was so badly lighted, are losing their eyesight as well as their health. Unfortunately, also, a large proportion of them are suffering from nervous breakdown, and a good number of them have gone out of their minds.

What makes their lot all the more hard is the fact that, had it not been for the bungling of His Majesty's Government, they never would have been interned at all. In November, 1914, the German Government proposed a man for man exchange, but for some unknown reason the Government did not accept that offer. It took them a long time to consider it, and, when they did reply, it was too late. So that if it had not been for the indifference of the Government of this country, these unfortunate people would never have spent two and a half miserable years. I know that the objections are very strong from the military point of view in regard to this question, but I am told, also, that the objections are not so strong as they appear to be. It is stated that if the Government will take the trouble to make inquiry they will find that a very large portion of the German prisoners here would be very unwilling to return to their own country, and that if there were an exchange it would not be so bad for this, country as at first sight it appears. But all the military objections would fall to the ground if His Majesty's Government could arrange that both German and British civilian prisoners may be sent to some neutral country. Lord Newton stated in another place that the authorities in Switzerland are willing to take a further large number of prisoners, and I cannot help thinking that the objections of neutral governments to receiving prisoners might be removed. In private life one can arrange differences with the assistance of a neutral person, and similarly, if only the Government would take the trouble to arrange terms with not only the Swiss but the Dutch and the Danes, I think that this matter might very easily be settled.

What I wish to urge is that the Government should take a more actively sympathetic attitude with regard to both civilians and military. The Members of this House, I know, have not any complaint to make in regard to the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield (Mr. James Hope), who is courtesy itself, and, if it had remained with him and Lord Newton, I am sure that much greater progress could have been made. I do not think that it is at all satisfactory that matters which deeply concern the humanity and honour of this country should be left in the hands of one or two officials at the War Office, to whom nobody can get access. I know that in time of war it is necessary to look at things from the military point of view, but I cannot help thinking that in this matter of the exchange of prisoners—civilian as well as military prisoners—we run great danger of losing our sense of humanity, because it is looked at so exclusively from the military point of view that people are led to think that an exchange of prisoners might benefit Germany. At least, that was so a week or two ago.

5.0 p.m.

There is one point I desire to make very strongly, and it is this: If it is quite impossible to carry out this general exchange, then it ought, I submit, to be within the competence of the Government to take much more effective steps to carry out the agreement they have already come to with the German Government—that is to say, with regard to the men over forty-five years of age. An arrangement was made with the German Government with regard to those men, but, notwithstanding that, only sixty-nine English prisoners have been recovered from Germany. I think that argues a certain amount of indifference and unwillingness on the part of the military and naval authorities. This is a matter which ought not to be left entirely to the good will of the naval authorities. There are difficulties, no doubt, but I do not believe that they are as great as they are made out to be. We send over week after week large consignments of parcels to Holland, without any loss, as far as I know, and I cannot see why we cannot arrange for the carrying of these extra prisoners. There they are waiting. They ought to be repatriated. Their lot is very hard. They are not liberated because the naval authorities do not show a little keenness in the matter. There is another thing I should like to ask my hon. Friend, and that is what steps are the Government taking to find out how many of the civilian prisoners are incapacitated by their long confinement and by sickness? I believe the number is very large indeed. I recently had a conversation with a member of the Society of Friends, who told me that in the Isle of Man Camp there are a large number of people almost out of their minds, and quite incapable of doing any-kind of service whatever. I would suggest that the Government should take steps to find out how many there are in that condition, on this side of the water, at all events, and then try to arrange for an exchange, or for their being sent to some neutral country.

It is not to be thought, if I lay so much stress on the case of the civilian prisoners, that I do not consider that the case of the military prisoners is not equally deserving of our attention. There is no doubt about it that the condition of the unfortunate officers and men in confinement since the early days of the War has become a very pitiable one indeed. The men are not so badly off as the officers. They are allowed to work, but the officers are kept in absolute idleness, and have been so from the first day of their confinement. Reports speak seriously of the condition of their minds. May I be permitted to read a report from an officer: Candidly, the strain is awful. How we keep sane I know not. No one who has not been through it can imagine the awful fits of depression one suffers from. You may he decently treated, but the barbed wire is always there and the sentries with loaded rifles too, and the same outlook and companions from day to day. Another officer writes: The depression has been most marked during the last six months and is likely to be permanent. There were men, too, who were fine fellows and would never dream of such a thing in ordinary life. They lie on their beds and groan. Sometimes men in the same room never speak to each other all day. so great is their despair and so dull their interest. A report from another officer: In spite of the efforts made by the prisoners to-keep themselves in good health and spirits, resulting in the various interests, amusements and games enumerated above…the general effect of prison life was undoubtedly bad, producing a towering of mental, moral and physical fibre extremely difficult to counteract. There was one case of suicide in the camp, and I know that others contemplated seriously this, method of escape from the appalling monotony of such an existence. Excessive drinking took place to an extent which would he unheard of amongst British officers under normal conditions. Speaking personally, I may say that at times one man was reduced to such a state of acute depression that it became impossible to-work, read or write, or take interest in any of the activities of the camp. I believe the prospect of an exchange of these officers and men is quite hopeful. The German Government are quite willing, and the Swiss Government also are willing to take them. All we need is a little push and go on the part of our Government, and I do hope that this will be forthcoming.

Mr. J. HOPE (Lord of the Treasury)

Does my Noble Friend say he believes the Swiss Government is ready to take these men?


I said I believe the Swiss Government are perfectly ready to take these 1914 officers. I am sorry if I gave a different impression. I believe they are quite ready to take the officers, and I believe, too, that the German Government is willing that they should go. All that is necessary is a little more activity on the part of our own Government. We have asked many questions on the point, and we are always told that the War Cabinet is considering the matter. I do earnestly trust that the War Cabinet will find time to discuss the subject and push it on in the interest of humanity.


I should like to associate myself in the strongest possible manner with what has fallen from the Noble Lord opposite. But I prefer to speak with regard to the civilian prisoners at Ruhleben. Their case differs somewhat from that of the officer prisoners. While I appreciate to the full the hardships endured by the officers and men, there is this distinction between them and the civilians, that when men join the Army, either as officers or men, they do so accepting the risk of life and death or of becoming prisoners of war. It is entirely different with these unfortunate civilians. Some were settled in Germany for purposes of health. Others were there as the outposts of English trade in Germany. They were really doing what we wanted our young men to do, at any rate before the War—they were carrying British trade and commerce throughout Europe, and when the War broke out they were caught and incarcerated. I rather regret that we are going into this question in this unsatisfactory manner. We had hoped that the Government would have given us a half day so that it might be discussed in a fuller House. There is a strong feeling in regard to it outside this House, and a very large committee has been formed of relations and friends of the men at Ruhleben. They made a request to the Prime Minister that he would receive a deputation, or that some other member of the Government would receive it, in order that they might put their views before the highest authority. I regret—and I say it frankly—that the Prime Minister was too busy to meet us. I regret also that he did not ask some other member of the Government to receive the deputation, in order that the parents and brothers of these men, whose hearts are really almost broken, might lay their case before him. They do feel most strongly the hardship of not being allowed to put their views before the Government. They are all English people doing their best for the War, and they thought they had a right to place the views on this very serious matter before the Government.

I was put off—well, perhaps I should nor use that term—but I received an answer on this matter from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when I pressed for a deputation to be received, and was told, in reply, that the Prime Minister thought it was of no use, because he had discussed the matter with General Nivelle. I think the right hon Gentleman should tell us what he did discuss with General Nivelle. It is not sufficient for him to say that he has discussed the matter and that nothing more can be done. We want to know what the facts are, because the statement made by Lord Newton in another place does not coincide with what we have been told. I hope, therefore, that some answer will be made by the Government as to the exact nature of the discussion between the Prime Minister and General Nivelle. I want to associate myself with my Noble Friend with regard to the suggestion that the Government might have avoided much of this trouble. Everybody in this House knows that there is no greater enemy of the German Government than I am, but I candidly confess—and I have read through the whole of the White Papers on this question—that the attitude taken up by the German Government in regard to the question of exchange compares very favourably with the attitude taken up by His Majesty's Government. I need not add to the horrors cited by my Noble Friend with regard to Ruhleben. but he did not mention one point. Various illnesses have broken out there. There have been epidemics, particularly of distressing diarrhœa, and the medical accommodation is exceedingly bad. There are only two doctors, both of whom are persona ingrala in the strongest possible sense to the English prisoners. When any English prisoner finds it necessary to go into hospital he actually has to pay twelve marks a day for hospital accommodation, and any money provided for these unfortunate prisoners, or paid on their behalf by the Government, is totalled up against them and they or their friends will have to repay the Government at the end of the War.

My Noble Friend mentioned the long loft where ninety men are imprisoned. I will give one case in that connection which he did not mention. It is the case of an Edinburgh professor—a university man—who has been there two and a half years. The loft, I am told, has only three small openings in the roof through which light penetrates, and this professor got someone to put a small pane in the roof just above his bed so that he might get some light for reading purposes. For doing that he was sentenced to seventy-two hours imprisonment in the black cell. That shows how the Germans treat our prisoners when they try to make their imprisonment a little more bearable. My Noble Friend remarked that all this might have been obviated if the Government had accepted the proposal two years ago for a man-for-man exchange. At that time the Germans asked for an exchange, man for man, of civilians in Germany, and if our Government had only accepted that proposal, which was made twice in the autumn of 1914, none of this trouble would have arisen and 4,000 English civilians would have been sent back in exchange for 4,000 German civilians. One who has been over there writes in regard to the men's view of the attitude of their own Government: The whole attitude of the Government seems to be one of opposition rather than of sympathy with the prisoners. The whole question seems to me merely to demand a little more sympathy and a little energy and determination. If hon. Members will look at the White Paper they will find that the German Government in November, 1914, made a proposal for a man-for-man exchange of prisoners, and in August and October 1916, it again made similar suggestions. In 1914 they wrote through the United States Embassy: The German Government are still prepared to allow all British civilian prisoners in Germany, without any exception, to return home if they so desire, provided that the British Government release all German civilian prisoners in Great Britain and the British Colonies and possessions. I admit I am now going to ask for an all for all exchange. Surely it is time, seeing that these people have been prisoners for two and a half years, that we relaxed our position and secured their release, even if we have to send back 15,000 or 20,000 Germans. Then the letter continues: If the British Government will not consent to an agreement on this basis, the German Government will be prepared on principle to agree to the British proposal for the release of all German civilian prisoners interned in the British Empire and the British Colonies and possessions, and of all British civilian prisoners interned in Germany above the age of forty-five. Ultimately in September, 1916, the Germans agreed to the exchange of all for all of those over forty-five years of age. Again exchange seems to have lagged, because the Germans wrote in October, 1910, in a dispatch which is a little Peck-sniffian, regretting "from motives of humanity the non-acceptance of German proposals for general exchange of all prisoners," despite the fact of renouncing the right of employment in the Army. Finally an agreement was arrived at for the exchange of all men over forty-five except twenty. From that day to this nothing really has been done, as far as I can gather from the White Paper, to carry that exchange into effect. I want to ask what is the attitude of the Government in regard to the exchange of all these men over forty-five, and why has no definite effort been made? I know, of course, there are difficulties of shipping. Germany suggested that boats taking these men should pursue a certain course across the North Sea, so as not to come into contact with submarines. I know that this is a matter perhaps of English pride, and that we will not accept any intimation from Germany as to the way in. which our ships are to cross the North Sea. But are we not using our pride a little too greatly in the interests of these unfortunate men? A hundred Englishmen at Ruhleben had their photographs taken and passports made out fifteen months ago, and they were told they were coming back, and for fifteen months those wretched men have been kept under the strain, expecting every week and month that their Government would take some steps to have them repatriated. They are there still. I take it that we must accept Lord Newton as the controlling factor in this matter. I do not know whether he controls the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hope), or whether the hon. Member for Sheffield controls Lord Newton.


He is my chief.


I was asking for information quite politely, and now I take it that Lord Newton controls the hon. Member, therefore he will agree that anything I say with regard to Lord Newton, or any strictures I pass upon him, have no reflection on the hon. Member. I am quite sure that if the hon. Member were the chief the thing would have been settled long ago. Lord Newton takes up an attitude on this question which I am bound to say I cannot understand. It is contrary to the view in regard to the alien question taken by this House and by the Government. In a speech in another place a fortnight ago, on 20th March, Lord Newton said: There is a large section of people in this country who are only happy when they think that every 'Hon' as they are pleased to call him, is behind barbed wire. I do not know why the Noble Lord should make remarks of that character, because they reflect not merely on myself, and apparently they refer to myself. Speaking further, Lord Newton said: I noticed that yesterday in the House of Commons a Gentleman asked with great indignation whether it was the case that a German was actually uninterned, and wan practising dentistry. It does not sound to me at all appalling that a German should be at large pursuing his avocation as a dentist… But I do not despair of common sense reaching those people at some time. It is all very well for the Noble Lord to make remarks of that kind, regarding Members of this House, but I venture to suggest his boomerang recoils on his own head. He is a member of the Government. That particular dentist was not interned by me, but by the new Home Secretary, who is one of the chiefs of Lord Newton, before I asked a question on the subject, and I had nothing whatever to do with it myself. Lord Newton seems to have taken an entirely wrong view of the feelings of the country with regard to the whole alien question. I submit that Lord Newton is not the right man in the right place in this connection. He takes a different view of the Huns and of the Huns' doings from that of the House of Commons. He is not the right man; he has not that sympathy with our prisoners, and those feelings with regard to the Huns or Germans, if he so prefers to call them, that we should wish the man to have who has to deal with this question of our prisoners. Lord Newton went on to say that this is an urgent question, and that it is a question of about 2,000 Englishmen coming back, probably of military age, in exchange for from 20,000 to 30,000—rather a large margin he allows himself—of Germans of military age who would be going back to Germany. I do not believe anything of the kind. I do not believe the figures are correct. According to Lord Newton's own statement in the House of Lords on the 15th of November, 1916, the number of German civilians, and I am speaking in this matter entirely of civilians, of over forty-five years of age in this country interned was 4,200. Of that number 2,400 wished to return to Germany if, they got the chance, and 1,800 wished to remain in this country, or three-sevenths wished to remain and four-sevenths to go back to Germany. The Germans in Great Britain under forty-five in this connection are 21,800. If we presume that the proportions are about the same of the men who would wish to go back, that would give 12,400 who wished to return to Germany and 9,300 who wished to stay here. Lord Newton says that is not so at all, that these are young men under military age, and that all will want to go back I do not believe it for a moment. They have been in England now for a good long time. Many of them are the sons of Germans, and brought over quite young.

I think the boot is rather on the other leg. I think if four-sevenths over military age are willing to go back, that nothing like that proportion of those under military age would want to do so. From the information which has reached me from the prisoners' camp in the Isle of Man, nothing like that proportion wants to go back, and we would have the greatest difficulty in getting them to go back. In our Colonies there are 10,000 Germans. Do you believe that the men who emigrated from Germany to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in order to get away from German militarism, and take up agriculture or some other calling in those Colonies, intending to stay there for ever, that four-sevenths of them would wish to go back to all the horrors in Germany and to be ground down under the heel of the military machine, and sent to fight against their friends made in Australia? I do not believe it. I believe he has seriously exaggerated those figures. But even assuming the same proportion for those under forty-five as those over forty-five, that gives 18,000 prisoners from Great Britain and her Colonies who would be prepared to go back, as against the 3,210 British who want to come back from Ruhleben. Are we going to assume that those 18,000 men are all fit for military service after having been two and a half years in prisoners' camps here? My Noble Friend has told you of the effect even in our prisoners' camps—not so bad, I am happy to say, nothing like so bad as in Ruhleben—but after that time, and having done nothing in the way of military exercises the great bulk of them would not be of any use to Germany.

Has the War Office or the Army Council really considered this matter seriously, or is Lord Newton merely talking out of his head as to military necessities of the case. Even if half of them, and that is a very large allowance, would be fit for military service when they got to Germany, they would take from three to six months to train, and at the outside they would be half a division, that is, 10,000 men, when we are fighting in millions at the present time. I do not for a moment think that the Army Council really consider that this is a matter which is going in any degree to affect the War. The War is going to be decided not by half a division being hurled into the field on one side or the other. It is going to be decided by the difference of morale between the German soldier and the British soldier. We know well what is happening at the front to-day. Our morale is going up and the German morale is going down, and the decision of the War will be taken on those lines. These unfortunate 10,000 men will not have the slightest effect on the ultimate issue of the War. I am glad to see the acting Prime Minister present. I do appeal to him, speaking with knowledge of what a great many of the parents of the prisoners at Ruhleben are feeling, thinking, and saying, to ask some member of the Government to take this matter into more careful consideration and see whether something cannot be done to approach it with goodwill instead of the attitude Lord Newton showed in the House of Lords.


I do not desire to follow my hon. Friends in the minute scrutiny they have made of this subject. I only desire to make a few general observations on what fell from them. I desire to express every possible thanks for the courtesy and kindness with which all the the efforts I have made to inquire into this matter have been met in official quarters. Nothing could have been more gracious or more kindly than the answers I have received. But I cannot help saying that there is something which gives me keen apprehension. I gather that the real decision in this matter has been allowed to rest with naval and military opinion. I think that was a deplorable mistake. This is not a question which can be decided purely and entirely on military grounds. It is, of course, perfectly true that in this matter, as in all other matters connected with the conduct of the War, there must be a balance of considerations, a balance which is difficult to justify on strictly logical grounds. You cannot, certainly in any of those matters where considerations of humanity enter, allow the determination to be made on purely naval and military grounds. If it be said that we should lose a military advantage, and that is decisive against it, I venture to meet such an argument with the direct negative, and say it is not decisive against it. It is a question, no doubt, of degree—a certain degree of military disadvantage that you must not allow to be incurred. But a certain consideration is due to matters of humanity, and a certain consideration to matters of military advantage. There must be a balance. But merely to meet an appeal founded on considerations of humanity by the simple answer that military considerations do not allow it, is not a satisfactory reply.

It is obvious that if you do not accept that proposition you land at once in the Prussian position—that is, Prussianism. It is Prussianism to say that military considerations must always take precedence of humanitarian considerations. We must, therefore, insist that the Government should be able to justify to us whatever policy they adopt as a fair and reasonable one, having regard to considerations both of humanity and of military advantage. We cannot allow in this House, and they ought not to allow in their control over their Departments, that the matter should be set aside merely on military grounds. That is an intolerable attitude. Therefore, I greatly regret that the matter has so far been left in the hands of military and naval men, because it is asking very much of them to ask them to go outside their purely professional point of view. I am sure it is not absent from the minds of my hon. and right hon. Friends on that bench, but it needs constant emphasis, that the fate of prisoners is one of the worst fates that can happen to anyone anywhere. Except the still more unhappy case of those who suffer prolonged and and continuing physical pain, I do not know of anything so tragical. It is tragical because of its prolonged character and because despair is always coming on, and then hope is always forming afresh, like an abscess in the heart, only to cause more and more suffering to the unhappy being, who feels first despair and then hope and then again despair— As long as skies are blue and fields are green, Evening must usher night, night urge the morrow. Month follow month with woe. and year wake year to sorrow. When I think of the fate of the prisoners, I have no patience to listen to dry official answers which do not seem to indicate that any real effort has been made to solve the question. What we want is, for example, in the case of these men over forty-five and also in the case of invalids, that there should be real push and drive put into the matter, and that settlements admitted to be reasonable should be carried through without any unnecessary or avoidable delay. It is ridiculous to say that difficulties of transport or of opinion in the Colonies could not be overcome with a little good will. What we want is evidence that the Government really care. We want to be sure that they feel, as we feel, a passionate and intense longing to achieve the release of these unhappy people, and unless they can satisfy us of that I do not think they ought to satisfy the House as a body. I am obliged to say that I hope after the War there will be a strict inquiry into this as into many other matters. I hope that when that strict inquiry is held every official concerned will be required to justify—not by simple smooth answers, but with documents and proofs—himself against the charge of having been inhumanly indifferent in this matter. I hope they will be required by strict inquiry to prove that they have shown the utmost zeal to carry out whatever is reasonable, and if they cannot justify themselves, that they will receive the punishment which is due to those who are indifferent to considerations of humanity. People nowadays think that because we are at war the day will always be as it is to-day, when military considerations are alone thought of. It will not be so. There will come a time when every act of the Government and of the War Office will have to be justified. I bid all the officials concerned, whether they be in this House or out of this House, to bear that day of reckoning in mind, and not to give us an answer which, however justifiable on the doctrines of Prussian casuists, is not to be justified according to the inherent principles of humanity.


I want to support the Noble Lord, especially in his plea that this decision should not be left to the military advisers of the Crown. During two years of intercession with the Foreign Office, I have reiteratedly found that the decision after all is come to by the War Office. When I have found that the Foreign Office were inclined sympathetically to consider and possibly to yield, a few days later I have found that the War Office have intervened, and they have not done as much as we hoped they were going to do. I want to acknowledge the courtesy and kindness that I have received at the Foreign Office during the last two years on this matter, but that does not exonerate the civil authority in allowing the military authorities to dictate to them in this matter, and unless the House of Commons is going to make itself felt, it seems to me it augurs badly for this country when the military authority is allowed to take the bit in its teeth, and even to flip his fingers at the civil authority, and that the influence of the House of Commons has really gone. Then, if we are met with the statement that this is a military question, I should like to enter my protest against the vacillation of the Government and the contradiction of the Government, even on the question of figures. I regret having to argue this from a nice arithmetical calculation, but since that is their reply, I want to ask if they will give us some further details beyond those they have already given in the figures put before the House by the hon. Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks)?

Only last week in another place the late President of the Board of Education (Lord Gainford) asked Lord Newton whether he would have a census taken to ascertain how many interned German civilians under and over forty-five years of age respectively now in this country wished to be exchanged for British civilians interned in Germany. Lord Newton's reply, I venture to say, cannot satisfy the people who are interested in this question in this country. He says it is not considered advisable to take a census now, as it might inspire men with false hopes. I would like to ask the Government what has happened between the 15th November and last week, for on the 15th November, 1916, figures were given by Lord Newton in another place—and I would refer him to Volume 23, No. 82, on page 503—as to the number of German civilians in this country over forty-five years of age who are willing to return to Germany and those who wish to remain. If it is possible to give figures for those over forty-five years of age, why should it be impossible to give them for the whole total of civilians interned in this country? I cannot believe that this question has been fairly faced from the mora] and humanitarian standpoint. I do not believe the Government are alive to the feeling in the country. I have no relatives in Ruhleben, but I get letters from those whose hearts are breaking because they have their loved ones suffering this awful loneliness, a loneliness which one's imagination fails to apprehend. I had a letter last week from a man, an absolute stranger to myself, who says he would plead with every Member of the House to leave no stone unturned to accomplish the thing we have in view, and he says he is visiting the wife in this country of one of our poor civilian prisoners at Ruhleben. She is lying on her deathbed; she cannot hope, she says, to see her husband again, but for the sake of the children she pleads that the Government should consider the humanitarian aspect of this question.

Every one of our fellow countrymen who are to-day interned in Ruhleben are in Germany with a British passport, and yet the very men who issued those passports are leaving them there, and, I do not hesitate to say, have not done all that they could to secure their release. I do not want, as I have already said, to be led into having to argue this as a nice arithmetical calculation, but I want to get the House of Commons to view it as a great moral issue. A certain number of our fellow countrymen were caught like rats in a trap in Germany when War was declared. It might have fallen to the lot of any Members of this House or of the other House who were over there, as has been said, as outposts of Empire, doing what they could to extend the trade of this country, or to other men who were over there for their health, and, by an accident of circumstances, such as missing a certain train or steamboat, perhaps, are left there for nearly three years to undergo all their sufferings as a consequence of what I feel to be the lack of seriousness on the part of the Government to deal with this crying evil, for I believe that if they realy did put their backs into this thing it could be accomplished. I have been through the White Papers with care, and there are numbers given here and in the other place and I refuse to believe it cannot be accomplished I do not want I should be one of the last to do it—to praise the action of the German Government in this matter. I feel that there is much to be desired in their action, but this I do say, that their action compares favourably with that of our Government in this matter. They have offered exchanges, but those offers have not been received as we would have had them received, I believe, if the House of Commons had had a say in the matter. There was, first of all, the individual exchange; that was cold-shouldered, but I for one stand for an all-for-all exchange. Why should not we get all exchanged that are here for all that are in Germany? It is said this is a military question, but I regret that that argument should be used. I fecl that it is a much greater question. It does not only concern this War, but it concerns all wars, as to whether civilians caught by chance in the respective countries should be kept there; and here we, who are fighting for great moral rights, are not only acquiescing in this thing, but we are initiating it, because Germany has shown a willingness to meet us and we have thrown over her offers, and now we find ourselves every day in a more acute and difficult position. Even from a military standpoint, what is the position? Does the Government want these 26,000 Germans in this country to remain here when the War is over and to enter again into competition with our people? I thought their anxiety was to get rid of them. Here is an opportunity of getting rid of them, and an opportunity that would benefit us as well as themselves. I am not going to overstep the limit of time that I agreed to, but I want to urge the Government to realise that the country would be at the back of them if only they would make their motto, "Return them all," instead of "Intern them all." I believe the country would back their action, and I plead with them to realise that we do feel strongly and that we have a right to ask them to move in this matter and to move promptly.


I desire in only half a dozen sentences to associate myself to the full with everything that has been said on this question by my Noble and hon. Friends this afternoon. It is impossible to exaggerate either the gravity of this question to the individual concerned or the growing state of anxiety in this country upon this point. Everyone in Ruhleben has relatives and friends in this country. The fate of people in Ruhleben is naturally enough a matter of constant inquiry, of constant conversation, of constant thought and talk and even controversy, and I assure the Government that by doing so little as they have done, and by continuing to do so little, the question does not become easier, but it becomes graver. As the War goes on and deepens, it is impossible for those in this country who have relatives and friends German prisoners not to find their anxiety increasing when they see what is happening in France when the Germans retire, and when they know that the net is slowly closing round that enraged tiger of Prussianism. Therefore in every place in this country where there is a relative or friend of those interned English prisoners there is a centre of growing and deepening anxiety and a centre of increasing dissatisfaction with what the Government are doing, or rather are failing to do. Again, as the War deepens it becomes of the highest consequence that everyone in the country should have nothing to distract them from getting on with the War, and doing all they can to help. These are distractions, and it is impossible for them not to affect the minds and sympathies of all who know about them. There can be no Member of this House who does not know several cases of the kind—most of us know many—and cannot forget not only what they are suffering over there, but of the injury it is doing the War at home in the sufferings it inspires amongst the relatives and friends. Their distraction means that they cannot help on the War as they would like, or take over some of the innumerable duties which now crowd upon every civilian as well as upon every soldier. Therefore, I earnestly desire with any force I can command to support the plea and argument made to the Government this afternoon. I assure them that the difference between 2,000 and 12,000 is a mere trifle compared with the increased satisfaction there would be in the country. There would, too, be increased diversion of energy, and the firmer feeling to help on the War, instead of this chronic and still more growing misery which we implore the Government to stop.


Before I come to the main question before the House, there are one or two small points which have been raised that I should wish to clear up. My Noble Friend has spoken of the condition of German prisoners in the Isle of Man. I understood him to say that some of these prisoners were in danger of losing their reason.


was understood to dissent.


That is what I understood. These camps are regularly open to neutral medical inspection, and, amongst other alleviations of the condition of the prisoners, wholesome open-air work is always open to them. If it be true what my Noble Friend says, I am quite certain it has nothing to do with the conditions prevailing in the camp.


I did not make any such accusation. I was referring to the fact of the long confinement.


Well, the observation might have been misinterpreted if I had not said a word about it, and that is why I referred to it. My Noble Friend asked what information we had about: the condition of our prisoners at Ruhleben? Certainly, so long as Mr. Gerard was at Berlin it was always possible to find out about the exact circumstances of every prisoner. I know quite lately the condition of one prisoner was brought to my notice, and I obtained an exact medical report upon it, which, happily, was reassuring. I believe that the representatives of the Netherlands Government are doing their best in that particular, and I believe information is not refused to them. Then my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford raised the question of relatives' payments of hospital expenses. I have great sympathy with that point, and I rather hope that a favourable decision will be come to in the matter; certainly I will urge that point upon the attention of those who are able to settle it.

On the main issue I would say that this is a question which is as difficult as it is painful. I fully agree with everything that has been said by my Noble Friend opposite, and the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway as to the way in which we ought to approach this question. It is impossible to contemplate, not only without concern, but without horror, the state of many of our fellow-countrymen who have been in captivity now for two and a half years. I rather deprecate making any comparison or drawing any distinction upon this point alone between civilian and combatant prisoners. I think we ought to regard both alike with equal concern, and we ought to do all we can to help them. We ought, as my Noble Friend has said, to go out of our way, if it be possible, to see what means can be adopted either to rescue them from their captivity, or, though it is a lesser matter, to alleviate if we cannot end that captivity. I do not think it is necessary to go into details as to the treatment of prisoners from this point of view. As a matter of fact, the conditions at Ruhleben, according to the evidence of the American representative, Mr. Dressell, who last visited that camp, showed that they were undoubtedly greatly improved. The point, however, is that they have been in captivity behind barbed wires for two and a half years, and if we can get them out, subject always to the very supreme necessity of doing nothing that will hinder a successful ending of our great struggle, it ought to be done. There are, however, very serious difficulties. It is not easy to get away from them. The main difficulty is the attitude taken up by the German Government. For a long period now they have steadily refused to have anything to say as to a man-to-man exchange. The point was discussed in 1914. That was in the time of the last Government but one. It would be bootless to try to find out exactly what was in the minds of our authorities at that time, and particularly what was in the mind of the then Secretary of State for War, who is no longer with us. We must consider the position now, and the main obstacle to anything being done hitherto has been the fact that the German Government have steadily refused to exchange man for man, and have only consented to what I may call the idea of wholesale or block exchange.

How would it work out—the idea of an exchange of all English prisoners in Germany and German prisoners in England? There are now in Germany British civilian prisoners to the number of 3,500. The number was rather greater, but it has been reduced to some extent by repatriation and to some extent by releases. Some prisoners have been released to work at various occupations.


Are there any women?


None, I think. There are German civilian prisoners in England to the number of 2,500 and other German civilian prisoners interned in various parts of the Empire numbering 10,000.


Does not the hon. Gentleman mean 25,000?


Yes, that is so—35,000 in all. We have exactly ten times as many civilian prisoners as Germany has of English civilian prisoners. Therefore any exchange of these men, subject to the consideration put forward by my hon. Friend, on the face of it would give a balance in favour of Germany of 31,500 men. Germany would get back 31,500 German prisoners excess on the balance of exchange. It is said that many would not wish to go back. This was tested, as my Noble Friend quite truly said, in the case of the endeavour to effect the exchange of all prisoners over the age of forty-five. That proposal affected 4,200 German prisoners. Of that 4,200, 2,400 wished to go and 1,800 wished to remain. I do not think you can dismiss quite so lightly the answer of my Noble Friend given on this point that men over forty-five naturally had got rooted to English soil, that their associations were to a large extent English, that many were married and married to English wives, and that they had business connections here. Undoubtedly the proportion of these men who would wish to remain in England would be greater than of the younger men I do not wish to labour the point. Suppose, speaking broadly, and say that one-third would be willing to remain, you must make a somewhat similar deduction for the English prisoners in Germany who would also wish to remain in Germany.


Would not those who wished to remain in Germany be represented by those who already have been let out?


To some extent. There are in Ruhleben now a considerable number of prisoners who have regular occupations in Germany and who have not been released to work. Still that would be a factor, though not a great one. But if you take one-third away from both you would still have a balance of over 20,000 German citizens who would be returned to Germany.


May I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Newton in another place, on 22nd February, gave figures of the British in Germany over forty-five years of age, and, so far from being a third, they are exactly one-sixth?

6.0 p.m.


That is not my point—I am taking the actual numbers of what you might have of those who might possibly wish to remain either in England or in Germany. I say, even if you make the most liberal allowance and allow one-third, still, on the block exchange, there would be a balance in favour of Germany of over 20,000 men. That is, after all, a very serious proposition. The number is more than a whole British Division in pure man-power, while there would be comparatively few who would not be able to do useful national service for the enemy. We know that General von Groner who organised national service in Germany last year considered it was of the greatest importance to have men who could perform national service at home and so release men for the front. I do not think, perhaps, that the fact is sufficiently in the minds of hon. Members who have very warmly taken up this question as to affecting a wholesale exchange of men that it would give to the Germans a reserve of man-power, whether directly for the field or at home, which would be, I should say, considerably greater than many of the items which we dwelt upon under the Bill lately discussed by the House. As far as this general exchange goes, it has been carefully considered, not only by the military authorities, but by the War Cabinet, and, I am bound to say, I can hold out no hope that any general block exchange of all civilian prisoners on both sides can be entertained. I think my hon. Friend referred to General Nivelle in this connection. All I can say about this—of course, I do not know about it directly or immediately—is that the discussion with General Nivelle turned on the effect of these various proposed exchanges, and it was after this conference with General Nivelle that the matter was fully considered by the War Cabinet, and they came deliberately to the conclusion which I am sorry to have to state to the House. But if this cannot be done, can nothing else be done? Well, of course, something has been done. There has been a scheme of repatriation of invalid civilians going on for some considerable time. Six hundred and fifty have been repatriated under the scheme. Then there is the scheme for those over forty-five. It is quite true we have only got under that scheme a small proportion, but if that scheme can be carried further I am informed we shall stand to get some 600 or 700 more.

But, of course, here again the action of the German Government has. for the time being, made that difficult. I do not think we can simply brush aside the very great difficulties of transport in connection with this scheme. Obviously there are difficulties of transport in connection with this scheme, and the Admiralty are bound to take account of them. But I must say of my Noble Friend Lord Newton that he has urged, and is urging, in and out of season, that every possible opportunity shall be taken, even if only by small driblets, that this scheme shall be proceeded with and not allowed to be forgotten. I really think my hon. Friend is not quite fair to my Noble Friend in his strictures. He said the difficulties of any exchange would be greatly diminished if the Home Secretary could see his way with safety to allow the release of a certain number of interned aliens in this country—that if that were done it would, at any rate, diminish the difficulties arising from this huge adverse balance which we should have to surrender to Germany. That was the whole scope of his argument, and I do not think there is anything which can fairly be complained of in that.

I do not know whether those who have spoken in the Debate have read what my Noble Friend Lord Derby said in the House of Lords last night. The question was there raised, purely, I think, on its military side, and it was urged that the present military system of internment in Switzerland for officers and men should be extended. At present it depends practically on medical decisions—that is to say, English and German officers are sent to Switzerland as the result of examination by a medical commission, and unless the medical commission certifies to a certain degree of incapacity, which in practice would mean incapacity for field service, internment does not take place. Now it has been suggested that that system should be extended to cover the case of officers not physically incapacitated, but who have been for a certain time—two years, I think—in captivity on both sides. Of course there are great advantages in this, because it gets rid of what I may call the man-power difficulty altogether. If so many officers and men are put out of action by being interned in a neutral country, the question of balance in favour of one country rather than another is not affected, and, therefore, it is not open to the very serious objections I have stated, and which obviously were in the minds of those in conference with General Nivelle. But, of course, there are very great practical difficulties. There is the difficulty of transport, which is a very serious one to contemplate in the case of great numbers at one time. And there is also the question of the neutrals themselves to be considered. I do not know that neutral Governments would welcome any very large influx of foreigners, whether officers, soldiers, or civilians. But I think probably the limit has not yet been reached. I cannot say we have heard, so far as I know, anything definite from the Swiss Government on this point.

Anyhow, it was stated by my Noble Friend Lord Derby yesterday that an extension of this system would be put forward as far as was practicable in the case of those officers and men who had been over two years in captivity. I think I must say "officers and men." One speaker, I think, said "Oh, we know the Germans would be glad enough to send out of Germany into a neutral country a comparatively small number of officers—a few hundred." But I think we are bound, as indeed was said by my Noble Friend, in a matter like this, not to draw a distinction between officers and men, and, of course, if that view be accepted by the German Government, it must, I am afraid, necessarily make the process of what I may call neutral internments a good deal slower than we should like to see it. Anyhow, that proposal has been decided in the case of officers and men, and that proposal will be made. Can it be extended to civilians? In their case a rather different situation arises. In the case of officers and men there are two qualifications for internment. One is their physical condition as the result of wounds or accident, and the second is the length of time they have been in captivity. Of course, the question of physical incapacity, so far as wounds go, does not apply to civilians at all, and the question of time to a much less extent, because by far the greater number of civilians have been in captivity over two years, but by no means all. Some were not interned at first. Others have been, unfortunately, captured on merchant steamers by raiders to a considerable extent since. But what I may call the tests or qualifications for internment are different in the case of civilians from those in the case of soldiers, and, therefore, it would have to be approached from rather a different point of view.

I cannot say what the qualifications, if this system were extended to civilians, would have to be. There might be a medical test, or possibly a distinction might be drawn between those of our prisoners in Germany who have what I may call German associations, and those who were, unhappily, caught while travelling on business or pleasure in Germany at the outbreak of war. That must be left over. But I am authorised to say that the Government see no objection in principle to extending the neutral internment system to civilian prisoners, and if any success comes of the new proposal as to military prisoners, they will endeavour to extend the arrangement to meet, at any rate, the most pressing cases amongst the civilians.


Do I understand the hon. Member to say that, supposing the German Government reply, "We will let officers go, but we will not let men go," then we should refuse that offer? We might take half a loaf as better than no bread.


I should not like to prejudge that question. It would have to be considered when it arose. At any rate, we must go with a bond fide proposal to the German Government that officers and men who satisfy the conditions should be be accepted for internment in neutral countries. What our attitude might be if that were refused I think would have to be decided later, but my Noble Friend must not assume that we should refuse that simply on the ground he mentions.


As the hon. Member's figures differ so much from those I put forward, will he not consent to an inquiry being made as to the prisoners who should be repatriated or not, and, with regard to the Colonials, cannot inquiry be made of the Colonial agents as to what proportion should go back?


I will bring the points before the proper quarter. I am afraid I have nothing more to say in substance, I have tried to cover the ground, and if I have not given satisfaction to my hon. Friends, I think they will admit what I have said is proof of the good will of the Government, and marks a definite step forward.