HC Deb 04 July 1917 vol 95 cc1080-1

asked whether the failure of the British Government to recognise the rank of British merchant-ship officers taken prisoner by the enemy and now interned in Germany has resulted in these officers being turned out of the officers' camps and placed in camps allotted to sailors and firemen, unless they are in a position to pay in advance for their maintenance; whether the Government recognise that various ranks do exist in the mercantile marine as in other services; and whether they will give an assurance that immediate steps will be taken that such ranks are accorded treatment at least no worse than is received by equivalent ratings in the military and naval services?

71. Major HUNT

asked whether officers of the merchant service, including engineer officers, who have been taken prisoners by enemy raiders or submarines, have in some cases been treated as civilians and lodged in Ruhleben instead of being put on a par with combatant officers of the naval and military forces, because the Government will not pay the small amount necessary for them to remain in one of the officers' camps; and, if so, will the Government reconsider their decision in the matter?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Edward Carson)

During the earlier period of the War, down to the shooting of Captain Fryatt, officers of the merchant service were treated by the Germans as civilians. Towards the end of 1916 a change of policy took place—probably for military reasons—and a number of officers and men of the merchant service were transferred from Ruhleben to a combatant camp at Brandenburg, on the ground that they were "of the standing of military prisoners." Since that time, so far as is known, all officers and men of the merchant service who are captured, whether by raiders or by submarines, are in the first place sent to combatant camps and in other ways regarded as combatants. The question of payment for maintenance has only lately been raised by Germany. In the case of officers of the Navy and the Army the allowances paid by the captor Government would be recoverable, and the practice is to charge them against the pay of the officers concerned. It appears to have been realised by Germany that this practice would not apply in the case of officers of the merchant service, who are not in receipt of pay as officers of the combatant forces, and a demand was accordingly made upon the officers themselves for repayment of the sums advanced to them. Before arrangements could be made for the remission of money to meet these claims, it was recently reported that twenty-six officers had been removed from the combatant camp at Crefeld to the civilian camp at Ruhleben. The Board of Trade are, however, taking such steps as are necessary to pay these officers allowances appropriate to their rank, which will enable them to maintain themselves in whatever camp the German Government decide to place them.

The Government fully recognise the rank of British merchant officers, and also their gallant conduct during the War. The Government could not, however, admit the German contention that they are combatants, as this would involve an admission of the right which is claimed by Germany to sink defensively-armed merchant vessels at sight.