HC Deb 22 December 1919 vol 123 cc1002-8

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he can state the nature of the steps which are being taken to secure the release of British soldiers and seamen detained in Russia as prisoners of war, and of civilians; whether there have, recently been certain negotiations with Litvinoff upon the subject; and, if so, with what result?

97. Mr. HURD

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the Russian Soviet authorities are being urged to release at least wounded British prisoners now in Russia, especially in view of the absence of adequate means of medical treatment there; and, if not, will the Foreign Office make an effort in this direction?


asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if the hon. Member for East Leeds has been instructed to impress on M. Litvinoff that the heads of the Russian Soviet Government will be held personally and individually responsible for the safety of all British subjects in Russia; and whether arrangements are being made for the dispatch of warm clothing and food to British prisoners in Russia?


In answering these questions, I should like, in view of the great anxiety felt by this House and the general public on the subject of the British prisoners of war and British civilians in Russia, to make a short statement of the negotiations which have recently been in progress at Copenhagen with the view of effecting their exchange. I intend, as soon as practicable, to lay Papers on the whole subject.

His Majesty's Government have for a long time past been endeavouring to secure the release of all these persons, and it will be within the recollection of the House that in May last a partial exchange was concluded, according to which two Bolshevik Commissars were returned to Russia.

The Soviet Government was informed in June that His Majesty's Government were prepared to exchange all the British prisoners of war against an equivalent number of Russian prisoners held by His Majesty's Government, and that, if permission were given to any other British subjects, who desired to do so, to leave Russia, similar facilities would be given to Russian civilians in this country. The Soviet Government were not prepared to consider these proposals, unless one of their representatives came either to England or to some neutral country to discuss the matter with a representative of His Majesty's Government. This was eventually arranged.

In view of what has since occurred, I would like to point out that, by the telegraphic correspondence which took place prior to the conference, the question was merely one of British in Russia and Russians in Great Britain.

The hon. Member for South-East Leeds (Mr. J. O'Grady) kindly consented to proceed to Copenhagen on behalf of His Majesty's Government, to meet Mr. Litvinoff in conference. The first meeting took place on 25th November.

The first proposal made by the Soviet Government through; Mr. Litvinoff was of a far more comprehensive nature than had been anticipated. In general terms, it was that they would release all British subjects in their hands, military and civilian, who could be immediately exchanged, and would give certain guarantees, to be mutually agreed upon, for removing the obstacles due to the blockade in the way of the return to their native country of all Soviet nationals residing in Europe—and, by Europe, Mr. Litvinoff stated that in this connection ho meant Great Arch angel, Murmansk, the Caucasus and Caspian districts, and even Persia, India, Germany, Austria, and neutral countries. The Soviet Government also wished to appoint representatives in neutral countries to be in communication with their nationals pending their repatriation.

In reply, the hon. Member for South-East Leeds proposed that the Soviet Government should release all British subjects, military and civilian, while His Majesty's Government would release all Russian prisoners and civilians who could be immediately exchanged, and would give certain guarantees towards assisting any Soviet Government nationals residing in Great Britain to return to their country as soon as arrangements could be made for their transport. In approving this counter proposals. His Majesty's Government pointed out that they were unable to admit that the exchange of British subjects for Russians could be made dependent on any-arrangements for the repatriation of Russians in Murmansk, Germany, or elsewhere outside British jurisdiction. They were, however, wiling to assist the repatriation of 1,700 Russians in Denmark, whose return Mr. Litvinoff was anxious to arrange.

The discussions were continued, but with very little progress, as the representative of the Soviet Government showed but little interest in Russian prisoners or civilians in Great Britain, and all his proposals continued to involve the exchange of prisoners of war in countries over which we have no jurisdiction. Further proposals were put forward by the hon. Member for South-East Leeds, none of which were acceptable to Mr. Litvinoff, who finally stated that he would be ready to accept the following conditions:

The Soviet Government were prepared to exchange all British prisoners of war in Russia against prisoners of war in England, the return of such twenty-six persons included in a list of prisoners which he submitted as were still in captivity in North Russia, the Russian prisoners in Denmark, the Russian prisoners in Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, provided that the Governments of those countries should agree.

As regards British civilians, provided that the terms of the Clause about the prisoners of war had been carried out, he would be willing to repatriate all British civilians who wished to leave Soviet Russia in exchange for the return of certain Russians in Persia and Mesopotamia; of such of 190 persons who were still prisoners of war in North Russia, whose names he submitted; and provided that we should agree to request the Inter-Allied Commission in Berlin to return Russian prisoners of war in Germany to such parts of Russia as were in accordance with the wishes of the individuals; and that we should secure the appointment of a representative of the Soviet Government on that Commission.

He also proposed to remain in Copenhagen or some other place in Western Europe until the repatriation had been completed.

The hon. Member for South-East Leeds informed Mr. Litvinoff that these conditions appeared unreasonable, and the latter stated that, if a general agreement could not be reached he agreed to exchange our non-commissioned officers and men in Russia against Russian prisoners of similar rank in England, but this would, of course, exclude the British officers. He would also have been willing to arrange for partial exchanges, such as the return of all British women and children in Soviet Russia, in exchange for the Russian prisoners in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland.

I think the House will agree with the view held by His Majesty's Government that Mr. Litvinoff went to Copenhagen to discuss the Russo-British exchange, and that it was inadmissible to involve in these discussions the questions of Russians outside the jurisdiction of His Majesty's Government.

In reply to these final proposals, His Majesty's Government stated that they, found it impossible to agree to the exchange of non-commissioned officers and men to the exclusion of the officers; that they were unable to agree to the suggestion that Russians outside their jurisdiction be covered by the negotiations; and also that the proposal concerning prisoners of war was so disproportionate that at least 2,000 Russians would be handed over against about 120 British prisoners of war. The question of the civilians did not at this moment arise, as Mr. Litvinoff had already made it conditional on satisfactory arrangements being reached about the prisoners. The hon. Member for South-East Leeds was accordingly instructed that, unless Mr. Litvinoff should modify his proposals, he should determine the negotiations; but he was informed that, should the breach occur, he should once again reaffirm that we shall hold the Soviet. Government personally and individually responsible for the wellbeing of our prisoners of war and civilians, who are in their hands, and that any subsequent accusation of ill-treatment by the authorities would he laid to the charge of these responsible.

On receiving this information, Mr. Litvinoff found it necessary to consult his Government, and on receiving their reply that they would not negotiate merely on the basis of an exchange of prisoners within British jurisdiction, he broke off negotiations.

The hon. Member for South-East Leeds has simultaneously been endeavouring to arrange for the dispatch of warm clothing, medical comforts and food to the British subjects in Russia. Mr. Litvinoff, who brought with him to Copenhagen some letters from the British prisoners of war, agreed to take back on his return letters from England, and, in return for permission to purchase and import a certain quantity of drugs, stated that he was willing to permit the transmission of clothing, etc. Final agreement has not yet been reached in this matter, but His Majesty's Government hope that it will be satisfactorily concluded.

It may eventually be possible to arrange for parcels to be sent by individual per- sons, but at present we are trying to send the supplies referred to in bulk, under as strict guarantees as we can obtain for their safe delivery. We hope, too, to arrange for a monthly courier to take letters to the prisoners, and possibly also to British civilians in Russia.

This was the position up till Saturday last. On that day information reached us which led us to think that a basis for resuming the discussion might conceivably be found, and even that a solution might still be possible. Realising their responsibility in the matter, and sharing the anxiety which is universally entertained in this country concerning the fate of the British prisoners, His Majesty's Government decided not to let slip any opportunity that might present itself for arriving at a settlement, even at the eleventh hour, and instructed the hon. Member for South-East Leeds to re-enter into communication with the Soviet representative. Negotiations are not therefore suspended, and will be resumed when the hon. Member for South-East Leeds, who is coming home for a few days on urgent private business, returns to Copenhagen on 30th December.


May I ask if the question of the exchange of the wounded has been raised?


Not specifically up till now.


Will it be raised now?


It is a point that will be discussed with the hon. Member for South-East Leeds.


Will the hon. Gentleman consider whether, in view of the very regrettable necessity for the hon. Member for South-East Leeds returning on private business, it would not be possible to continue the negotiations through some other channel; and will he consider also that there has been a very grave and serious delay in this matter, and that apparently from July till November nothing was done? Therefore, I hope the Government will press on with the negotiations without any avoidable delay.


My Noble Friend will observe that there was some advantage in our being able to consult personally with the hon. Member for South-East Leeds, but his recommendations will be taken into very careful consideration.

Brigadier-General CROFT

Will he see if it is not possible to include in the consideration with the seriously wounded those known to be seriously ill in Russia, both officers and men?


Yes, I will.