HL Deb 05 May 1915 vol 18 cc942-51

THE EARL OF ALBEMARLE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any further information as to the present condition of the thirty-nine British officers now in arrest barracks in Germany; whether they are all at Burg, Magdeburg; and, if not, what is their present place of detention; whether His Majesty's Government can see their way to vary the circumstances under which the German submarine prisoners are now living in this country.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, my excuse for again bringing this matter to the attention of the House is that it is in my opinion an extremely urgent one. Since I put my Question on the Paper the following communication has reached me from the War Office and has appeared in the newspapers, having been sent out by the Press Bureau. It is a communiqué from the American Ambassador at Berlin, and runs as follows— Pursuant to general arrangement regarding visiting prisoners which is still in force here, I personally visited each of twenty-two of thirty-nine officers arrested April 27 in Burg and Magdeburg. Each officer is in clean cell, allowed baths, books, packages. Can smoke; one hour exercise morning; one hour exercise evening in prison yards; during exercise hours can talk together; food good; no complaints, except that they are so arrested. German Government will follow exactly the treatment given submarine crews as soon as Page can visit prisoners, and these officers will be again treated like ordinary prisoners of war the instant I report submarine crews so treated in England. The treatment accorded officers now is that usual for German officers in arrest, and is given pending definite report treatment of submarine crews in England. Your Lordships will notice that only twenty-two of the officers have been visited at Burg and Magdeburg, and I should like to ask His Majesty's Government, What about the other seventeen? Of course it is foreshadowed that they, too, will be visited at the earliest opportunity.

But, my Lords, I should like, without mentioning any names, to read a letter, dated April 16, from another part of Germany. This is from a gallant officer, a man who would uncomplainingly endure a certain amount of suffering. In this letter he says— Ten of us were moved from—on Monday night and placed in criminal cells in—(a fortress). This has been done because the Government has imprisoned a German submarine crew as criminals, and as long as they remain so there is no doubt that we shall remain here. Surely our Government will do something for us, considering we fought for our country and have never done an act worthy of this fate. Then follow the names of certain officers in distinguished regiments in His Majesty's Service. The letter continues— We are locked in cells 12 ft. by 6 ft.—just the size of a billiard table—all day and all night. We are not allowed to speak to each other. Everything being sent out to me must be stopped for the present until we see what happens. And the letter ends with this pathetic sentence— Pray to God the Government do something. I cannot write more, and only hope for an encouraging reply. That, my Lords, is only one of several letters that can be produced if His Majesty's Government would care to consider them. They are dreadful reading. As yet we have chiefly spoken of the special treatment of officers in consequence of our action with regard to prisoners from the German submarines. We have not touched very much upon the question of other ranks. But I hope that His Majesty's Government—I have no reason to suppose that they are not doing so—are giving the closest attention to the question of the treatment of British prisoners in the hands of the Germans; and that we shall see light a little further on. Of course, His Majesty's Government are quite powerless if the German Government are not willing to mitigate the grievous conditions in which we heard the other day the rank and file are living.

Before I sit down I should like to give my reasons for asking whether His Majesty's Government can see their way to vary the circumstances under which the German submarine prisoners are now living in this country. I do so in the first place because on the treatment of the submarine prisoners here depend very much the circumstances of the thirty-nine officers who are held in special arrest in Germany. My second reason is, having been brought up for many years to methods of strict discipline, that I consider that these submarine officers have carried out to the letter the orders of their superior officers. Their methods are not to our liking. It is possible that they were told that when they met with our shipping they were to take no prisoners. The obvious result is that those on board the torpedoed boats would be left to drown. Well, we should call that by a very ugly name. But I submit to His Majesty's Government that these submarine prisoners only carried out the orders which had been given them, and for that reason I hope a way will be found to treat them as ordinary prisoners of war.


My Lords, I am sure that we all recognise the right which the noble Earl has to raise this question. Speaking on behalf of the Government I can say at once that we are only too glad to give him all the information which we possibly can, which may, I hope, be of some assistance to him. I take it that he framed his Question before seeing the rather full statement which appeared in The Times and, I think, in other papers this morning. That statement does give a certain amount of important information. It gives information as to the conditions under which twenty-two out of the thirty-nine prisoners are living. It also gives a statement to which, let us hope, a good deal of importance may be attached—the statement that "the German Government will follow exactly the treatment given to the submarine crews as soon as Mr. Page can visit the prisoners." Mr. Lowry, a member of the United States Embassy here, has visited the place where the submarine crews are confined, and has sent a full statement about it; so that we have reason to hope that matters are moving in the direction in which we all want to see them move, as a result of the exchange of these two telegrams. With regard to the other point on which the noble Earl asks for information—namely, where the other officers are at present imprisoned—we have reason to believe that besides Magdeburg and Burg there are some of these officers also imprisoned at Torgau, Cologne, Frankfurt-on-Oder, and Rastatt.


I believe there is one officer at Frankfurt.


I think those are the four places at which the remaining seventeen officers are confined. I am sure that nobody can read or listen to the reading of the letters which have been written by these officers without being considerably moved, and one can only express the hope that the conditions under which we are confining the submarine prisoners will be followed by the German Government. I think any one who reads Mr. Page's telegram will realise that in our treatment of these men we have not only followed strictly The Hague Convention in the spirit as well as in the letter, but that we have caused no undue hardship whatsoever to these men.

The noble Earl suggests that no notice should be taken of the actions of these submarine prisoners, and that we should treat them as ordinary prisoners of war on the ground that they have simply carried out the orders of their superior officers. I think one has the right to consider what would have been done in all probability in parallel circumstances on land. Of course, the situation created by these submarine attacks is entirely novel and unprecedented but I think it would be a perfectly fair analogy to the action of these submarine crews if you had a squadron of the enemy's Cavalry which, having penetrated through the lines of its opponents, had got round behind those lines and then had suddenly made an attack upon the ordinary civilian population living behind those lines, and had murdered a large number of peasants following their ordinary civilian avocation. If that had happened at any time and that squadron of Cavalry had been caught, I believe that any nation in the world would have taken those men and strung them up to the nearest trees. The question of whether they had received orders from a superior command or whether they were doing it "on their own" would not have been considered. Their conduct would have been regarded as so outrageous, so against all the rules of war, that they would have received no mercy whatsoever. When you consider what has been done by these submarines in attacking ordinary merchant ships and sinking them without any attempt, in a great many cases, either to rescue the men on board or even to allow them to save themselves, I do not think that the instance I have given as an analogy can be considered at all far-fetched. Therefore I submit that we have been absolutely justified in what we have done, which has been simply to make a difference in our treatment of these prisoners, separating them from the others but treating them in every other respect in just as humane a way as our ordinary prisoners of war are treated.


My Lords, I think that the doctrines and particularly the analogy suggested by the noble Lord who has just sat down are most inconsistent both with the spirit and rules of international law, and I should not like the occasion to pass without making a statement in reference to them. I copied out the other day—not for the purpose of this debate—a statement made upon this very question by what I consider the leading authority as regards rules for international law and practice. I will read it to the House, because I think it is of the utmost importance that we should safeguard our honour as a country in all matters where The Hague Conference or the rules of international law are concerned. This is the statement— Violations of rules regarding warfare are war crimes only when committed without an order of the belligerent Government concerned. Amongst those war crimes, as the noble Lord will know if he has studied this question, is improper interference with merchant vessels just under the conditions which have happened as regards the German submarines; and I think I can assure him that, either in spirit or in letter, the suggestions he has made are wholly out of accord to the ordinary principles of international law. The passage I have read means that when the acts so perpetrated are under an order or commission of the belligerent Government the officers concerned have not committed any war crime, and it is inconsistent with the rules of international law to treat them when they are prisoners in any way differentially.

Let me bring another passage to the notice of the noble Lord, because this is a question of the greatest importance as regards the treatment of our own officers— If members of armed forces commit violations of the ordinary rules of war by the order of their Government they are not war criminals, and may not be punished by the enemy. There international law lays down in the strongest terms that, under conditions such as have existed in this case, you must not differentially punish officers for acting under the orders of their Government. That is a most important principle. If you once leave that principle, as is suggested by the noble Lord opposite, you get to the doctrine of reprisals, and that doctrine leads ultimately to a competition in brutality. I want to emphasise if I may what was said by the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition, who, when speaking the other day, deprecated this theory of reprisals on every doctrine of Christianity, morality, or the true spirit and meaning of international law. I have only intervened because I consider that this is a most important subject.

I entirely sympathise with the noble Earl (Lord Albemarle). Every one who has relatives fighting abroad will agree with him in reference to what he said as regards the treatment of English officers. The lot of a war prisoner is one of the saddest we can possibly contemplate. But what is to be said of action which makes that condition even worse than it is under normal conditions? I believe that this differential treatment of officers acting under a commission is quite unjustified, either by The Hague Convention or by any other principle of international law. I think it is to be regretted, because it may be opening the door to the doctrine of reprisals; and I am sure that the noble Marquess and every one in this House would concur that nothing could be worse than a doctrine of reprisals in which, if it took place, as the noble Lord behind me (Lord Newton) said the other day, we should be outdistanced in the competition. I sincerely hope that this differential treatment will not be continued.


My Lords, I will not repeat what I have already said on the vexed question of reprisals, but I wish to say half a dozen words with regard to a point which seems to me to be of some practical importance. My noble friend behind me (Lord Albemarle) made it perfectly clear that his object in bringing this matter before your Lordships this evening was to press upon His Majesty's Government the necessity of doing anything that can be clone to bring about an immediate amelioration of the lot of these prisoners. I was glad to notice a phrase which fell from the noble Lord who spoke just now on behalf of the War Office. He said, if I heard him correctly, that "matters were moving" in regard to these prisoners. I think they are; and what my noble friend behind me wants is that His Majesty's Government should use every effort to keep them moving.

We have now before us—and they are a most important contribution to the discussion—the two reports that have been made by the American Ambassador in Berlin upon the conditions under which our prisoners are detained in Germany, and the report of an official of the American Embassy here as to the conditions upon which the German prisoners are detained in this country. It is impossible to read those two accounts without seeing how much more considerate and humane is the treatment which we are according to our prisoners than is the treatment which is accorded by the German authorities to the prisoners in their hands. It is quite true that so far as food and cleanliness are concerned our prisoners in Germany do not seem to have very much to complain of. But what I think does emerge clearly from these preliminary reports is that British prisoners in Germany are kept in something like solitary confinement, whereas the German prisoners in our detention are allowed very great liberty of meeting and consorting together. We are told of the British prisoners detained in Burg and Magdeburg that each prisoner is "in a clean cell," from which, apparently, he is allowed to emerge for one hour's exercise in the morning and one hour's exercise in the evening in the prison yards. Now, what is the treatment that we accord to German prisoners in this country? None of them are in solitary confinement, although they are kept in separate rooms at night—I take it that the separate room at night is certainly not a hardship—but during the day the men meet together in one mess and the officers in another mess; they are allowed servants; they are allowed to use a well-equipped gymnasium; they exercise in association, and they have the use of recreation quarters indoors as well as outdoors. There is a very striking difference, I submit, in favour of our treatment of the German prisoners as against the German treatment of our prisoners.

The reason why I attach importance to that is that the American Ambassador has reported officially that the German Government would follow exactly the treatment given to the submarine crews as soon as the distinguished gentleman who represents the United States in this country could visit the submarine prisoners here. That visit has taken place, and has resulted in this report; and what I hope we may understand is that the American Government will call attention to the discrimination against our prisoners and will use every effort to induce the German Government to carry out its pledge and assimilate their treatment of our prisoners to our treatment of their prisoners. That is, I hope, the note upon which His Majesty's Government will continue to insist, and if they do I cannot help believing that the result will be one which we should all hail with great satisfaction.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Marquess who has just sat down drew attention to one of the important points which emerge from this discussion—namely, the positively different treatment which the German Government have imposed upon our prisoners in their hands from that which is imposed by us upon what are spoken of as the "submarine prisoners," in respect of whom a special treatment has been inflicted in Germany on the thirty-nine officers of whom we have heard. It is quite clear, as the noble Marquess has stated, that the treatment meted out to British prisoners in Germany is far harsher, far more of the nature of imprisonment as distinct from detention, involving infinitely greater interference with the ordinary practices of life, than that which we have imposed on these particular prisoners here. It really is not accurate to speak of these particular submarine prisoners as having been punished, which I think was the word used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor. They have been subjected to a certain measure of detention, not in its essence differing from the kind of detention which is imposed upon all prisoners of war. I dare say that some of your Lordships have visited detention barracks at some of the great military centres in times of peace, and to speak of the confinement in those barracks at ordinary times as imprisonment is a pure misnomer. If anybody who has visited one of those places compares it with a convict prison or a prison in which people are receiving sentences of imprisonment with hard labour, he will see that there is no resemblance between the two places and between the lives led at each. Therefore to speak of these people as being imprisoned is, I venture to think, going beyond the mark. I shall be very glad indeed if the result of the conversations which have taken place is to cause the German Government to treat these particular officers upon whom they are exercising what they believe to be reprisals, but who are receiving treatment which goes beyond anything which could be called reprisals, if reprisals are to mean similar treatment—I shall be glad if the result of these conversations may be to bring about a speedy and large amelioration of their condition.

Lord Parmoor raised the point, upon which I do not wish to dwell at any length, as to whether or not any differentiation of treatment in respect of these submarine officers and crews was justifiable. That, of course, is a matter of opinion; but I think it is possible to overstate the extent to which the existence of orders, or of permission to perform a certain act, ought to be treated as entirely whitewashing those who perform the particular act. If you carry that argument to an extreme, the indiscriminate murders of civilians, the handing over of a town to rape and robbery, might be taken to be, if not actually commanded, at any rate authorised by the superior command. It is very hard to believe that the laws of war demand that people who are captured either obeying those injunctions or enjoying that permission ought to be treated as honourable prisoners. I do not say that the acts of which these particular officers and crews are guilty can be compared with the worst cases of the kind I have indicated, but it is, I think, at any rate arguable that the deeds which they have done, amounting in some cases to what we can only call indiscriminate murder of harmless people, are fitly met by at any rate a moral differentiation of attitude towards them when they are taken prisoners. I entirely agree both with the noble and learned Lord and the noble Marquess opposite that it is wrong and foolish to attempt to indulge in anything in the nature of reprisals. Nothing has been further from our intention, and nothing will remain further, whatever happens, from our intention. But I do not think that the canon that all acts. which are enjoined or permitted by superior authority ought to leave those who are guilty of them in precisely the same position as honourable opponents who are fighting a fair fight against us, is one which it is possible to maintain.


May I say one word in explanation, because I should not like what I said to be carried further than I intended? There are exceptional cases which international law recognises. I was dealing with the particular case here, which I say is not treated as a war crime if committed by a commissioned officer.


I quite understand the noble and learned Lord.