HL Deb 05 July 1916 vol 22 cc578-96

LORD DEVONPORT rose to call attention to the condition of civilian prisoners interned at Ruhleben, and to ask what steps His Majesty's Government are taking, or have in contemplation, to mitigate the treatment they are suffering.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the Question which I have on the Paper, perhaps I may recall to your Lordships' memory that immediately prior to the adjournment at Whitsuntide we had a discussion in this House relating to the treatment, of prisoners, both civilian and military, interned in Germany. I think that debate was initiated by a Question placed on the Paper by my noble friend Lord Beresford. On that occasion I took the opportunity of presenting to your Lordships information that was in my possession with regard to the treatment of civilian prisoners in the Ruhleben camp, and I should not have attempted to raise the question again at so early a date were it not for the fact that the Government themselves have made public later information than we then had in our possession, and information that is grave, disconcerting, and alarming, not only to those who have an interest in the prisoners at Ruhleben, but to the country at large. They view with the greatest amount of apprehension the condition of these unfortunate prisoners, who are not in a position to help themselves, and in view of these circumstances I thought it was obviously desirable that we should take the earliest opportunity of discussing the situation in its latest phases.

There was circulated to your Lordships not long ago, in the form of a White Paper, the first Report from Dr. A.E. Taylor, who had been making investigations of an exhaustive character on the spot at Ruhleben. He had been visiting the camp day after day. Indeed, I think that he went there on ten consecutive days, and in addition to that he had been paying intermittent visits. Therefore his investigation has been exhaustive, and is consequently entitled to the greatest amount of respect at our hands. Had his visits been merely of a perfunctory character, any criticisms made by him might have been subject to criticism of another kind. But that is not the character of Dr. Taylor's Reports. He points out in his first Report that during these visits he studied, first of all, the diet both quantitatively and qualitatively. He inspected the food supplied; he tested it, and took notice of the weighings of the quantities allotted to each man; and, what is important, he contemplated the dietary from the view-point of what is necessary in quantity and quality to sustain a human being in proper health and nourishment. He sets forth very clearly in this document that in his judgment the food provided was not sufficient in any direction to provide nourishment for the 3,700 prisoners interned in the camp at Ruhleben. And this confirms the statement that was made in another place by Mr. Tennant, following upon a statement which he made earlier which he wished to correct, that the prisoners at Ruhleben were entirely dependent upon the parcels which they received from this side, and that were it not for the receipt of those parcels they would be in a state of starvation. Those are Mr. Tennant's words; and Dr. Taylor, in effect, confirms them.

Dr. Taylor deals with the question of the food supplies that reach the prisoners from this country, and of the relation they have to the maintenance of the prisoners themselves. He computes in food values that the food sent from England represented from one-half to two-thirds of the food value supplied by the camp authorities. I need not elaborate that. The statement is so clear that your Lordships will grasp its full meaning without any elaboration on my part. As regards the quality of the food, I think it only fair to point out that in some particulars Dr. Taylor declared the food to be of a satisfactory quality. Of course, when he uses the terms "satisfactory" or "good quality," they are relative. I do not suppose, if any of us had to make a meal off this food, we should consider the quality very good. But for what it is worth, I state that. But he pointed out at the same time that some of the food which he personally inspected was in a state of putrefaction. It had been served up for the prisoners' dietary; it was tinned food, I think, and in his presence it was examined and found in a state of putrefaction. Then as regards bread, the prisoners are receiving what he calls "K" bread—I suppose that means war bread—and they cannot eat it; they do not attempt to eat it. The bulk of the prisoners do not take up the ration at all. Many of them have been receiving from Berne, from an organisation there, bread that I have always heard, until these recent Reports, arrived in a satisfactory condition. But from the Reports of Dr. Taylor, for what reason I cannot fathom, the bread from Berne, on which the prisoners rely, had been arriving lately in a mouldy condition. I can only assume that this has proceeded from delay on the railways, though I cannot understand why the bread, having been good for so long, suddenly becomes bad.

Now, to go on with Dr. Taylor's criticisms. The effect of the shortness of the food supplied to the prisoners was, he states, perfectly obvious to him. Walking about the camp day after day he met a considerable number of men who, he says, appeared under-nourished. That is not to be wondered at when we find, further in his Report, the statement that as many as 700 of these prisoners are receiving no parcels at all from this country. That arises from their circumstances. They have no friends here. Consequently up to the time of this Report, nobody taking an interest in them, they were subsisting, and were bound to subsist, on this ration about which I shall have a good deal more to say later.

Since his first Report Dr. Taylor has written two more Reports, and these are contained in the White Paper [Cd. 8262] just circulated, which no doubt has been read by many of your Lordships this morning. The first Report was grave, but these two later Reports are much more serious. Dr. Taylor points out, in the first of the two Reports contained in the recently-published White Paper—the first Report is dated May 24 last and the second June 14—that since he wrote his first Report the amount of food has been greatly reduced and a fresh scale of dietary has been put in force. Then he draws a comparison between this fresh scale of dietary in force in the civilian camp of Ruhleben and the dietary current at this moment among the combatant prisoners of war in Germany, and he comes to this conclusion—that the civilian prisoners are receiving only a little more than one-third of the protein-carrying foods allowed to combatant prisoners of war. I will trouble your Lordships for a moment with one or two paragraphs from the Report of May 24. Dr. Taylor says— In the Report presented a few weeks ago a detailed statement was offered of the amount of foodstuffs devoted to subsistence during that time. Since then a sharp reduction has been made in the amount of foodstuff allotted to the camp. In order to illustrate the present state of affairs, the ration provided by the authorities for the camp in Ruhleben may be contrasted with the ration for military prisoners promulgated in the latest food programme of the Kriegsministerium. The differences are concerned largely with the allowances of meat and fish. There is also a difference in the potato ration. Then Dr. Taylor goes on to draw a comparison between the scale of dietary allotted to combatant prisoners and the reduced scale now in force at Ruhleben. He says this— Viewing the protein content of the sausage and fish as equal in both estimates, it is apparent that the military prisoner of war is allotted per week 1,150 grammes of these protein-carrying foods, while the civil prisoner of war in Ruhleben is allotted 100 grammes of the same articles, a little more than one-third the amount allotted to the military prisoner of war. The potato ration of the civil prisoner is less than half that of the military prisoner. Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity of a conversation with a gentleman—I think he is known to the Foreign Office—who was interned in Ruhleben camp until a month or six: weeks ago, and who held there the position of second captain in the camp. I may mention that the camp itself is run under English control as regards discipline, the cooking of the food, the apportionment of the food, and so on. The quantity and the quality, of course, are fixed by the German Government. This gentleman told me that he viewed with the greatest apprehension this diminution of the potato ration. He said that many of the prisoners there would take up no part of the official ration except the potato ration. He said that the potatoes were good and that it was a stand-by of a most important character, and they always took up the potato ration. This is the particular ration which has been reduced by one half since Dr. Taylor wrote his first Report, and I take the liberty of referring to it because the information which was given to me yesterday by this gentleman impressed me very much. So much for the first supplementary Report of Dr. Taylor.

I now pass, my Lords, to the second Report, dated June 14, contained in the White Paper published this morning. I regret to say that this Report is still more unfavourable. It appears from it that the Germans have deliberately reduced the official rations, not only in quantity but in character, so as to eliminate from them their nutrimentary qualities. This is a display of what I call scientific cruelty, and I should be loth to use such a term as that did not the document itself prove it up to the hilt. Take, for instance, the fat properties in food. We know, from information coming from Germany itself, that it is the absence of fat above all things that is causing them so much discomfiture; and as regards this particular necessity, Dr. Taylor points out that the revised scale of diet is as fat-free as it is practically possible for a diet to be.

Then in this June 14 Report Dr. Taylor sets out a table showing the yield of foodstuffs supplied to prisoners per man in units of protein, fat, carbohydrate, and calories. I will only deal with two—protein and fat. Dr. Taylor takes the percentages of these essentials in the rations supplied to the combatant prisoner—that is to say, the prisoner of war—and contrasts them with the percentages in the rations supplied to the civilian prisoners in Ruhleben. He takes two stages in the Ruhleben supplies—the earlier stage, to which he referred in his first Report, and the later stage (June), to which he refers in this Report. The unit of protein per man, as regards the prisoner of war ration, is 80; as regards fat, it is 29. Taking the Ruhleben camp in its first stage, as against 80 in the case of prisoners of war, it is 59 as regards protein; and 12, as against 29, as regards fat. But consider this in its latest stage and see what a terrible indication there is here of what is going on. In the later stage, as regards protein, as against 80 of the prisoner of war ration Ruhleben has dropped to 39; and as regards fat Ruhleben has dropped down to 6, as against the 29 of the prisoner of war ration. Dr. Taylor further states that the food supply during the week ended June 14, if applied to all interned, represents less than one-half of the requisite food units. Then he draws attention to another thing, which I think is most discreditable on the part of any nation. When the diet of the interned civilians in Ruhleben was worked out, the sum of 66 pfennigs per man per day was allotted for the purchase of foodstuffs, etc.; but lately the authorities have not been spending anything like that sum, but have allowed the money to accumulate until there is now an unexpended balance of between £3,000 and £10,000, which should have been spent on the food of these prisoners but has not been so spent.

Now I come to the question, What is to be done to deal with the situation as we have it before us? I have no complaint to make about the action of our Government except in one particular, to which I will refer in a moment. The Government, through Sir Edward Grey, communicated with the American Embassy here and asked them to convey to the German Government their strong protest. They pointed out, in tie first place, that if the German Government were unable to feed these prisoners properly their obvious duty was to release them; at the same time they took the opportunity of reminding them that, so far from doing that, they were not observing honourable agreements that they had entered into as long ago as last September. In September, there was a compact arrived at, through the intermediary of the American Embassy, between the British Government and the German Government to the effect that all unfit prisoners should be released. I believe it was left to each country to form its own conclusion as to what constituted an unfit prisoner, but of course it was to be subject to medical inspection, and one would naturally have anticipated that the inspection would be carried out on fair and honourable lines. The German Government are not observing this agreement, at all events to the full, because, as Lord Robert Cecil pointed out last week in the House of Commons, they are detaining civilian prisoners who are thoroughly entitled to repatriation on the ground of ill-health.

Perhaps the House will allow me to give an illustration within my own knowledge of how dishonourably the Germans are observing this compact. I know of a young man in the Ruhleben camp who was captured whilst spending his vacation in Bavaria. He developed serious heart trouble in the camp; so much so that the Germans sent him to Bad Nauheim on a month's leave for treatment. He was so bad that they extended this to two months, and again to three months, and then he returned to the camp. But what happened to him when he returned? He went straight to the sanatorium, and there he remains to this day. Is not that a case of a man suffering ill-health? On the one hand, in England we repatriate hundreds of prisoners under this compact; on the other hand, the Germans are not observing it at all. Another instalment of their cruelty in this particular is this. I know as a fact that this young fellow has been on the list for weeks and months. I sent to Tilbury last February to welcome him. But though he has been on the list a long time and is eligible for repatriation he has never arrived. I should like to invite the attention of Lord Newton to that aspect of the case, and I expect he will have something to say that will confirm what I have already pointed out.

To continue Sir Edward Grey's communication to the German Government. He finally proposed to the Germans that all civilians at Ruhleben should be exchanged for a similar number of German civilians, but he accompanied that, I think most unfortunately, with what can only be considered as a veiled threat or as an ultimatum. He said that should the German Government not accept this proposal within a week, we should be compelled to consider what course to adopt with regard to the rations of German civilians interned here. The week has now elapsed, and I am desirous of ascertaining from the Government what steps they are going to take. What are they going to do? What is going to happen? Was this intended as an ultimatum? If so, and if at the moment they select the Government are going to adopt some sort of retaliation, I think they will find that this is not a policy which the country is inclined to support. I have never heard any—shall I say?—decent-minded person in this country express himself in favour of retaliation. We are what we are. Our national spirit does not tend in that direction; and, indeed, retaliation would be disastrous to those in whose interests it is presumed it would be adopted.

We have had a bitter experience in the past of what retaliation means. We resorted to a system of differential treatment with regard to the German submarine officers who were captured. I think there were 39 of them, and the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Churchill, gave it out that these submarine officers were outside the pale, that they were not to be allowed to consort with other officers taken in honourable warfare, but were to have different treatment. We know perfectly well what happened. Instantly the Germans took a corresponding number of British officers and put them into solitary confinement. I remember the debate in this House, initiated, I think, by Lord Albemarle, who properly protested against procedure of this kind. And, finally, when Mr. Balfour went to the Admiralty he cancelled this manifesto, and the thing has resumed its normal position.

One other illustration of what proceeds from indiscreet actions in dealing with Germany. We sent 2,000 German prisoners to Havre the other day. It seemed a harmless thing to do, but the Germans instantly retaliated and took 2,000 of our prisoners out of their own country and sent them to Russian Poland, very much to their discomfort and unhappiness. Therefore I hope myself that no principle of retaliation will be indulged in, however shocking and inhuman the treatment of the Germans may be of those civilian prisoners of ours. It would he far better to endure it than endeavour to cure it by a system of retaliation. It would intensify and worsen the condition of our men and make their lot still harder than it is now. If it is to be a competition, it means that it is to be a competition in brutality. I am sure the nation will not support anything of that sort being attempted, and we ought not to countenance it at all. So much for retaliation.

What is there remaining that can be done or tried? The only course is to work for the repatriation of the whole of these prisoners, and if repatriation is not acceptable, then to work for the transfer of these prisoners either to Holland, to Switzerland, or to Denmark. Sir Edward Grey has endeavoured to bring that about, and he has proposed to the German Government—as I think I mentioned earlier in my observations—that the whole of the British civilians at Ruhleben should be released in exchange for a similar number of German civilians in this country. I would like to say a word or two on the basis of equality of numbers in exchange. Of course, we hold very many more Germans than the Germans hold English—I am speaking of civilians. We hold in our internment camps 26,000 German civilians, and they hold of ours only 3,700. The basis of equality of exchange has not been maintained in the exchanges that have taken place in regard to unfit prisoners. I referred just now to the agreement of September of last year, and to the way in which it had been adhered to on either side. Sir Edward Grey told us the other day, in another place, that of the entire body of civilians interned respectively in Germany and in England, Germany had been allowed to repatriate 1½ per cent. of their total, whereas we have only received in exchange ½ per cent. of ours; and taking the last four months, from February to the end of May, whereas 375 unfit Germans have been repatriated, we have received in exchange only 22 unfit English. Therefore if there is to be any argument in support of an absolute equality of exchange, I say that hitherto this basis has not been worked to.

Is it any great advantage to us to continue to keep in this country these 26,000 Germans whom we have interned? I suggest that it would be far wiser to get rid of them altogether, and to exchange them for our 3,700 civilian prisoners interned in Germany. Of course, they would have to leave the country. I am told that there are many interned Germans who under no circumstances would desire to leave this country. They would be given the option of going back to Germany or remaining where they are. But if we were to say to Germany," In return for the 3,700 civilian prisoners you hold we offer you your civilian prisoners." and they did not agree to that, then it would be obvious that they would not agree to anything, and we should have to reconsider the position entirely anew.

I hope the noble Lord will tell us definitely whether the Government have in contemplation any scheme of retaliation. It would be well that we should know this at the earliest moment. It would be a most disastrous scheme, in my judgment, and I do not think I stand alone in your Lordships' House in holding that opinion. As I mentioned just now, I have no complaint to make with regard to the communication of our Government to Germany, except that I think it would have been better had they omitted the tail end of it where they said that if they did not get a reply in a week they would have to consider what they would do with regard to the rations of German prisoners interned here.

I should like to say, in conclusion, that in my opinion it is very necessary to delegate this question of dealing with prisoners of war as well as civilians to a single Department. At the present moment it is not confined to a single Department by any means. The Foreign Office has to do with it; the War Office has more to do with it; and the Home Office also has something to do with it. We know from past experience that when three or four Departments are taking part in a thing of this kind there is bound to be a conflict of opinion which does not produce the very best results. I think that if this matter could be delegated to a single Department with a strong and sympathetic head responsible for all questions affecting prisoners, we should do better in the future than we have done in the past; at all events, we should get what we have not got now—uniformity of action. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies I should like to make a few remarks with regard to this subject. There is no doubt that all the British prisoners in Germany, civilian or war, do not get enough to eat; and the only reason, to put it plainly, why they are alive in many cases is that they get parcels from this country. I wish to draw the noble Lord's attention to the last Report that came into our hands this morning. It is there stated— …the Prisoners of War Help Committee, at the instance of the Foreign Office, constituted in May, 1915, a civilian sub-committee, which has registered the names and addresses of the civilian prisoners at Ruhleben, so far as it has been possible to ascertain them, and has endeavoured to meet the need of those who have applied for relief, or on whose behalf application has been made, either by sending parcels themselves or through the medium of other relief committees. That sounds as if everybody at Ruhleben got parcels. Since then the German ration has been much reduced. In his Report of June 14 Dr. Taylor says— At least one-half of the food parcels coming into the camp proceed from sources outside of the lists. About 2,000 names are upon these various lists; some of these 2,000 receive private packages from their own families. These pack ages, together with those sent to the remaining 1,200 men, who subsist largely upon private packages, make up at least half of the total number— Now this is the points— Two hundred and fifty men are known to receive practically no aid whatever from the outside, and 500 more receive packages so rarely that the contents are of little material aid. I cannot understand why, since May, 1915, the rest of the men in the camp have not been able to receive parcels, because there has been ample time for organising and making arrangements with the numberless concerns that are sending parcels. Practically these 750 men have been, according to this Report, almost in a state of starvation—at all events, in want of food. With regard to military prisoners in Germany, we have, in the case of one regiment of which I am thinking, found out exactly the men who want parcels, and they have received their parcels and have thus been saved from starvation. I hope there will be an answer to the question why these 750 civilian prisoners in Ruhleben have not been as well looked after as the 2,000 since May, 1915.

I agree with Lord Devonport in the hope that there will be no retaliation, because if we adopt that policy here the Germans will only retaliate there five times as badly. We have had experience of that before. With regard to repatriation, I do not know that the Germans will play fair about that. I concur in what Lord Devonport said about that matter, and I agree that it would be much better if we could get these men transferred to neutral countries where they would be properly taken care of in regard to food, medical attendance, and so on. But there is one thing on which I do not agree with Lord Devonport. He suggested that we should offer a large number of the German civilian prisoners here in exchange for our civilian prisoners in Germany. That is all very well, but German civilian prisoners in this country who are of military age ought to be kept here. Otherwise they would soon be fighting against us, and that would not be a businesslike way of dealing with the matter. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say that some measures have been taken to deal with the 750 men at Ruhleben who, as far as I can understand, are not getting parcels.


My Lords, I am fully aware that the question before the House is confined to the internment camp at Ruhleben, but there was a part of the speech of Lord Devonport which I am anxious to support, namely, the setting up of a separate bureau instead of the organisation which is now shared by several Departments—a bureau giving easy access to the public, where questions might be asked with regard to these prisoners. The duty of the bureau would no doubt be to collect all the evidence possible, which I am aware is now done in the Foreign Office, and also to obtain what I do not think we have at present—nominal rolls of all the prisoners. Chiefly it should be a bureau to which, as I have said, the public could have easy access and where they would be able to find out what they are so anxious to discover—namely, where their relatives are, and, as regards the parcels, whether or not they get them, or whether they are at Ruhleben in a state of semi-starvation.

We have already in the Red Cross two departments which I believe have greatly assisted the Government in finding out various matters regarding these prisoners. There is another department whose duty it is to forward the parcels. There is also in Switzerland the wife of the Minister, who is very active and has a large establishment there, whence these parcels are distributed. There are regimental societies, and a great many private societies; very often they are unable to find out when prisoners are removed, and parcels consequently go astray. Parcels, too, are duplicated, and there is a great deal of overlapping. The removal of the 2,000 unfortunate British prisoners from Germany to Russian Poland has, of course, changed the situation to a certain extent, and I believe that at present there is no nominal roll of those men. They have been taken from various parts, and the various societies who forward parcels have received letters pointing out the misery in which these men are living. We do not know yet whether it is possible to send out parcels to these unfortunate people in Poland. I am quite certain that if a bureau such as is suggested could be established it would assist these various societies, and I am confident that it would be of very great advantage.


My Lords, I should like to support Lord Devonport's statement that were it not for the provisions sent out from this country and from Switzerland our prisoners in Germany would starve—that is, both the civilian prisoners and the prisoners of war. Lord Robert Cecil said in the other House, I think it must be six weeks ago, that he was getting very anxious as to the future. There is no doubt that, owing to the blockade, the Germans will shortly be much more short of food than they are at this moment. They are not a chivalrous race. They will repay what they call our starving of them by starving our prisoners, and the position is most serious. I know that the Government recognise this, and the only reason why I have risen is to say that I think the more we discuss this brutality, for we can call it nothing else—it is barbarous—the more we discuss it in both Houses the more will attention be called to the matter amongst the neutrals and perhaps in Germany itself. But the thing cannot go on. I agree entirely with Lord Devonport and Lord Mayo that retaliation is the last thing we should attempt. We could not do it at all. It is opposed to our sentiments. And it would not achieve the object, because the Germans would not care one fig if we starved the whole lot of their prisoners over here. But we should care if they proceeded to starve our prisoners over there.

I want to mention the case of the Gütersloh prison. There are prisoners of war there, principally British. The noble Lord must know something about it, because there was a full Report sent in as to that prison in July, 1915, and I should like to narrate some of the horrors that go on there. But perhaps the noble Lord would prefer that I should not bring that subject forward at the moment.


We are discussing a civilian prison, Ruhleben.


Very well; I will refer to the subject on another occasion.


My Lords, I should like to deal with an observation which came from Lord Mayo—that he hoped German civilian prisoners of military age would be retained here. For my part I sincerely hope we shall have a general exchange and get rid of all civilian prisoners on both sides. I hope that this question will not be affected by the fact that we happen to have more German civilian prisoners in this country than there are British civilian prisoners in Germany. After all, there is a comparatively small number of such prisoners in either country, and it would make very little difference in the fighting if we sent back to Germany all the German civilian prisoners in this country in exchange for ours now interned there. I hope that we shall not allow the question of numbers to stand in the way of a general exchange if it can be brought about.


My Lords, all the circum stances connected with Ruhleben and the whole of the facts have been made public. So far as I am aware, not one single fact has been suppressed. Therefore I have very little to add to the general information. I have no fault to find with the speech with which this debate was in augurated by the noble Lord behind me. There is only one portion of his remarks which I would venture to criticise adversely, and that is in regard to his proposal—favourably received, apparently, by the House—that the various Departments concerned in the administration of the prisoners question should be superseded and a single Department created to deal with the whole question. The noble Lord behind me asks for a strong and sym pathetic head. I think I recognise in that remark the opinion expressed in so many organs of the Press which are clamouring for a single man, I suppose of the strong and silent type, who will take up this question and resolve the whole of its difficulties at once. What I would like to point out is that the immediate question before us is the condition of our prisoners in Germany. I want to know, How is the question of the exchange of our prisoners in Germany going to be facilitated by the supersession of the various Departments—my own included—and the placing of somebody at the bead of a new Department? I think my noble and gallant friend Lord Grenfell made the suggestion that the whole question should be handed over to the Red Cross Society. Well, I rather think—


I did not mean to suggest that at all. I suggested the formation of a single bureau to deal with the work done at present by the various Government Departments.


That a new Government Department should be created?


A bureau.


It comes to very much the same thing. Evidently my noble and gallant friend advocates that the various Departments concerned should be superseded. But how is that feasible? It sounds somewhat of an ideal proposal that there should be one autocratic Department dealing with the whole of these questions. But is it proposed that a new Department should be created which is going to carry on, for instance, diplomatic negotiations with a foreign Government, and that the Foreign Office should be superseded? Is it suggested that the War Office is to have no voice in these questions, and that the Home Office also is to be superseded, not to mention the Colonial Office and the India Office, which are also concerned? I confess that I cannot for myself imagine the existence of any individual or combination of individuals sufficiently powerful to override the wishes and the interests of the various Departments concerned, or to dictate at once to the Admiralty, to the War Office, to the Home Office, and to the Foreign Office the line which ought to be pursued. But I repeat most emphatically that I cannot conceive that the establishment of such a Department would have the smallest effect, beneficial or otherwise, upon the condition of the British prisoners in Germany, which is really the point at issue. I do not think that anybody is inclined to assert that the question of the prisoners has been mismanaged in this country. Even the Germans do not say that.

There is no occasion for me to recapitulate the whole miserable story of Ruhleben, because everybody is familiar with it by this time; and I will not go over again the White Paper which has been so copiously alluded to. I have myself expressed the opinion, and I remain of the opinion, that the civilians interned at Ruhleben are more to be pitied than the military prisoners in Germany at this moment, although I believe there are certain persons who hold a different opinion. But the condition of civilians in these circumstances always seems to me to be harder than that of the military, because they have taken no part in the struggle. In many cases they have committed no sort or kind of offence. They belong to all classes of society, and they live in a perpetual state of uncertainty and suspense, which has a most deplorable effect not only upon their physical but also upon their mental condition. It is a melancholy fact—I have alluded to it before—that there are at Ruhleben at least some hundreds whose mental condition is no longer normal, and a large number of other men whose moral condition has been greatly impaired since their confinement. These circumstances are, of course, due to the monotony of their existence, to the want of any real employment, and to uncertainty as to their fate, to which I have already alluded. A prisoner serving an ordinary sentence knows, at all events, when his release is due. As for these unfortunate men, as was pointed out by my noble friend behind me, they have no indication at all as to when they are likely to be let out, and for all they know they may remain there indefinitely until the war comes to an end.

Lord Devonport was quite justified in what he said with regard to the way in which the exchanges have been carried out. These exchanges, I say most emphatically, have not been carried out by the German Government in a fair and honourable manner, because in many instances they have deliberately retained the men who were entitled to be released and have sent home men with much less title to repatriation or exchange. They have kept, for instance, unfortunate men there past fifty years of age who are practically useless from the military point of view; and, on the other hand, they have liberated men of much younger age who are in a comparatively sound state of health. They have taken great care to liberate persons in some instances who were of somewhat doubtful nationality, and they have even gone so far as to liberate and send back to this country men who were of suspicious character, and whose reputation and antecedents were such that they actually had to be interned here on their arrival from Ruhleben. That is a sample of the way in which we have been treated by the German Government. I do not think that the German Government; can contend for a single instant that we have not behaved in a perfectly straightforward and honourable way as far as these exchanges are concerned.

What is the position at the present moment? There are something like 4,000 of these unfortunate men at Ruhleben in the deplorable condition which I have described whom the German Government refuse to supply with adequate rations. And for this treatment there can be no sort of excuse, because the German Government know perfectly well, not only from official reports but from private information which the public does not know about, that the treatment of German civilians in this country is absolutely unimpeachable, and that they have no legitimate cause of complaint whatsoever. There are these 4,000 men in this deplorable condition in Germany. In this country we have something like 26,000 or 27,000 German civilians interned. In view of what has passed, it is perfectly obvious that had we chosen to do so we might have retaliated without any difficulty at all, and with absolute justice, upon these men. Take the case of the Germans who are interned here. Without any injustice at all, we could have abolished the privileges which so many of these men enjoy; reduced them to the position of ordinary interned aliens—in which they would be better treated than the British prisoners are in Germany; and also interned the remaining 10,000 or 12,000 German men who are uninterned in this country at the present time. We should have been amply justified by what the German, Government have done had we adopted this course. But we have done nothing of the kind.

We have been working to secure the liberation of as many of our people as possible. That seems to me to be the only practical course to pursue. To this end we first of all proposed that every man over 50 should be repatriated, and, further, that every man over 45 should be repatriated if he was unfit for service in the field. We made these proposals something like two months ago, but up till to-day we have received no answer whatsoever. As the House is well aware from what is narrated in the White Paper, we have been obliged to take further steps, and we put forward a proposal that in view of the new hardships inflicted upon the unfortunate men at Ruhleben there should be a general exchange by which neither side would profit. Up till a short time ago no answer to that had been received. But since I came down to the House this afternoon I have been informed that the reply has arrived, and that it is now being studied at the American Embassy. I am informed that the reply is very long and involved; I do not know the exact purport of it, but this I do know—it is not a categorical refusal. That being so, perhaps from motives of prudence it would be well if I made no further observations upon the question. I think that enough has been said this afternoon, and I would therefore venture to suggest to noble Lords that for the present the subject might be allowed to drop, and if necessary it could be renewed when we know the precise terms of the answer which has been received.


I trust the noble Lord will excuse me if I explain further what I meant. I had not the slightest notion of taking away the functions of these great Offices. What I asked for was a bureau, say occupying one room, in which the information received about the prisoners could be collected, and to which the societies who are making inquiries and also the public should be able to go, without worrying the Home Office, or the War Office, or any of the other Departments concerned.


I can assure my noble and gallant friend that any questions he may put to me in connection with prisoners I shall be very happy to answer to the best of my ability.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.