HL Deb 27 July 1916 vol 22 cc973-82

LORD BERESFORD had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give the House any information as to the treatment of British prisoners in the internment camp at Güstrow, Germany; whether British prisoners at this camp are now supplied with greatcoats; whether it is not a fact that during the whole of last winter these British prisoners were without greatcoats; whether they are still under canvas; whether beds have been provided in place of straw; whether they have now been supplied with shirts and boots; whether a Report on this camp was sent to the War Office on 15th July, 1915; whether a reply has been sent to this Report; and what answer has the German Government given to the demand of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for a reply to be sent within a week as to the better treatment of British prisoners in Germany.

The noble and gallant Lord said: My Lords, before my noble friend answers the Questions standing in my name, there are one or two points which I should like to bring to his notice on which he may, perhaps, be able to give me further information. Is he aware that the prisoners in this camp were constantly bayoneted, and that many of them had to go to hospital from bayonet wounds? Is he aware that there was an order posted in this camp, stating that— On refusal to work, the guards have been directed in the future, if occasion arises, to make use of their weapon"; and that this further order was also posted up— Guards are especially enjoined energetically to keep the prisoners at work. Should the attitude of the prisoners demand the use of the weapon, this should be employed without regard to consequences. In the first place the bayonet only is to be employed. I should also like to ask my noble friend whether it is the fact that this camp is the worst camp of all in Germany in which military prisoners are interned, whether the brutality has not been most pronounced, and whether the facts with regard to this camp were not put into the Report sent home in July, 1915.


My Lords, before the noble Lord the Paymaster-General replies to the questions addressed to him by my noble and gallant friend opposite, I would like to say a few words with regard to the last paragraph in the Notice on the Paper. My noble and gallant friend there asks "what answer has the German Government given to the demand of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for a reply to be sent within a week as to the better treatment of British prisoners in Germany." That demand has reference to the treatment of civilian prisoners at Ruhleben. Consequently I embrace this opportunity of saying a few words as regards the position of the civilian prisoners at Ruhleben. I am afraid I have already unduly trespassed on your Lordships' patience on this subject. My apology must be that the matter is serious, and one that we cannot allow to drop.

Three weeks ago we were debating the question on a Motion of my own. We were then mainly directing the attention of the Government to the very serious Report (circulated as a White Paper) from Dr. Taylor, the food expert employed by the American Embassy in Berlin; and that debate came suddenly to a close because the noble Lord sitting below me (Lord Newton) announced that there had been a reply received from Germany on the point which I have just read from my noble and gallant friend's Question, but that he had not had an opportunity of examining it carefully. Indeed he had, he said, only become aware that the reply had been received since he entered the House that afternoon; but he informed us that he was able to gather, from a communication that had been made to him from the Foreign Office, that the reply was not entirely hostile to the demand of our Government that the prisoners should be released or exchanged on some basis. I think the words that he used were, "The answer from the German Government is not a categorical refusal." We have since heard no further details of this correspondence, beyond what was related the other day in the House of Commons by Lord Robert Cecil, as to which I will say a word or two in a moment. But my object in taking advantage of this opportunity is to ask the noble Lord whether he is in a position to give us information as to what is the net result of this correspondence—in fact, what is the actual position that has proceeded from the communications which have passed between the respective parties.

The other day when we were discussing this matter I felt it my duty to express in the strongest possible terms my objection to any idea of retaliation, and I think your Lordships endorsed that view. I gave reasons then, and I am not going to repeat them now, except to say that if we attempt to enter into competition in the way of retaliation with the German nation we shall be hopelessly beaten and out-distanced. I was sorry to notice that Lord Robert Cecil made a statement the other day in the House of Commons which gives colour to the idea that the Government are harbouring the view that retaliation is the right policy to pursue. A supplementary question was put to the right hon. gentleman, in which he was asked— May we take it that the policy of reprisals is abandoned? Lord Robert Cecil replied— No, sir. The House must not arrive at any such conclusion. The Government hold themselves perfectly free to retaliate if that proves to be the only way to obtain justice for our prisoners. I would like to know whether that represents the Government's attitude, because if it does I venture to say that it is impossible to conceive a more foolish one, and one that exhibits, in my opinion, so palpable a lack of judgment and of appreciation of the consequences which will follow if the Government insist upon it.

The Germans have given you a forecast and a foretaste of what the consequences will be if you attempt even to diminish the ration that you are giving to German civilian prisoners in this country at this moment. They tell you what they intend to do at once. They will first of all withdraw the permit which they have recently given to you, enabling you to send collective supplies on behalf of the civilian prisoners in Ruhleben who are receiving no parcels individually from their friends, because, I assume, they have none. And, further, they will stop the individual parcels that are sent to civilian prisoners. It is made abundantly clear that these civilian prisoners are being kept from starvation solely and wholly through the parcels that are sent by their friends here, and it would be an outrageous thing if our Government were to attempt to apply a policy of retaliation when they know—they have been told in a Despatch—what the German attitude will be. You have to consider the sort of people with whom you are dealing. You are dealing with barbarians, not with a civilised nation; and they will stop at nothing if you give them only half an opportunity.

If you attempt to indulge in retaliation, what will be your position? In the first place, you will never have the courage to carry the thing to its conclusion. And what is its conclusion? To put every interned German civilian in this country on precisely the same dietary that the British civilians are on in Ruhleben. You would never have the courage to put it through. Secondly, if you were to attempt to put it through, the country would repudiate your action. That is the dilemma in which you will find yourself if you attempt to resort to retaliation. I do not know whether Lord Robert Cecil was the official mouthpiece of the Government on that occasion to which I refer. I hope sincerely that he was not. Or it might be that the Government consider that threats may be conducive to good results. That is what is called "bluff," and it is a very poor hand to play, if that is the intention of the Government. I do not say it is. I only suggest that if they do not mean what they say they had better not say it.

Let us consider for a moment what the conditions at Ruhleben are as we know them. There is given to these civilian prisoners a dietary which is intentionally framed and scientifically reduced to such a point that life cannot be sustained upon it. To quote the words of a Minister in another place, "Were it not for the parcels that are sent, these men would starve." Secondly, I have known for a long time, and so has the noble Lord the Paymaster-General, that the housing conditions at Ruhleben are intolerable, scandalously inadequate, and insanitary. Indeed, the state of affairs is terrible. It was so bad that the American Ambassador in Berlin, Mr. Gerard, addressed a letter to Sir Edward Grey on the subject. Sir Edward Grey, in his reply, rather indicated that this communication from Mr. Gerard had brought the matter to his attention. I know perfectly well that Sir Edward Grey must have known of it. But that is the indication which his reply gives. We have known of the housing conditions in Ruhleben for over eighteen months. I will read to your Lordships an extract from Mr. Gerard's letter to Sir Edward Grey— The barracks at Ruhleben are overcrowded. The Imperial authorities, after nearly two years of war, have certainly had ample time to provide accommodation for the prisoners. It is intolerable that people of education should be herded six together in a horse's stall, and in some of the lofts the bunks touch one another. In the haylofts above the stables— I may explain that these poor creatures are housed in horse boxes, the Ruhleben camp having been the race-course of Berlin, and that over the horse boxes are hay-lofts. Mr. Gerard continues— In the hay-lofts above the stables the conditions are even worse. For example, in Barrack No. 2 one halfsection of the loft is at the centre about 10 ft. from the floor from the highest point, and the loft slopes downwards, so that at the sides it is only 4½ ft. above the floor; the floor of this part of the loft is about 10 metres 20 by 12 metres 80. The beds are so close together that they touch. In this confined space 64 men live. The light from the little window is so taint that prisoners eyes will be seriously injured, if the sight is not permanently lost, and this semi-darkness will undoubtedly cause depression and mental trouble. There were published in the newspapers last week the results of the impressions formed by representatives of the London Press who were invited by the Government to inspect the civilian interment camps in this country. I have no doubt your Lordships read those descriptions. These representatives visited the camp at the Isle of Man, the camp in Leicestershire, the one at the Alexandra Palace, and another at Islington, and at all these places they found an abundance of comfort and of food, and good treatment all round. Contrast that with what I have just read to your Lordships. Sixty-four men herded together in a sloping hayloft and down below! Many of those young fellows were simply spending their holiday in Germany; yet they are treated in this disgraceful way. What makes it far worse—I know that Lord Newton subscribes to this view—is that these civilians have had none of the excitement and glory of war. There they are, imprisoned and treated worse than any combatant prisoner. Dr. Taylor makes that quite clear in his Report. The authorities have reduced the dietary until it falls very much below the standard given to combatant prisoners.

What is the history of this civilian internment? I give this for a reason that I will explain in a moment. The Germans, at the beginning of the war interned nobody, or very few—a person or two whom they suspected of spying, or something of that kind, but generally civilians were not interned in Germany, nor were German civilians here interned. But in October, in response to a great agitation in this country—I am not complaining of it—the Government began to intern on a large scale. They were not consistent; they did not carry the thing through to the bitter end. When the Police delivered to them vast quantities day after day, about 5,000 a day for about six days, the Government said "Stop," and they have never resumed internment on a wholesale scale, there being at the present moment probably 20,000 Germans still uninterned in this country. Anyway, the Germans did not commence to intern until we began it here. They took the view, so I have been informed, that all civilians at the outbreak of the war should have been allowed to return to their respective countries. That did not happen. But in the early days of the war—I do not assert this, but it is my impression, and I have it on fairly good authority—the Germans offered to exchange our civilians in their hands against theirs here, and the Government refused. Again I make no criticism; I simply state the fact.

I understand that in this last communication the German Government still offer to exchange the British civilians whom they have interned in Germany for the Germans interned here. His Majesty's Government, apparently, are not inclined to accede to this offer. They are standing out, I believe, on the ground that there are 26,000 German civilians here and only 4,000 British civilians in Germany, and they do not feel inclined to deal on those terms. Meanwhile what is happening? Our unfortunate countrymen at Ruhleben would be absolutely starved were it not for the parcels. They are herded together in an overcrowded and insanitary compound. I ask the Government, Do you prefer that this shall continue, that men shall, as Mr. Gerard suggests, lose their reason and their sight, that their constitutions shall be permanently impaired, all because you are sticklers for what I may call arithmetical proportion, and that, rather than exchange on a basis of six to one, you will leave these poor creatures to their fate? If that is the position of the Government I do not think it is a creditable or dignified position for a great country like this to take up. What would be the harm, what should we suffer, if we said to the Germans, "Take your 26,000 men and let us have our 4,000 back"? Would that be a very serious thing? Of the 26,000 Germans interned here, if the opportunity were accorded them to go back, I do not believe a very large proportion would go. But make the offer, try and arrange things on that basis, and release these 4,000 unfortunates from a terrible condition.


My Lords, the circumstances with regard to the camp at Güstrow are more or less in accordance with those indicated by my noble and gallant friend in the course of his Question, but it is hardly necessary for me to point out that the reports upon which my noble friend's statement was made deal with an early period of the war and do not extend beyond March of last year. The case of Güstrow is very similar to the cases of camps generally in Germany. The conditions in Güstrow, as in almost every camp in Germany, were abominable in almost every respect; but those conditions, as everybody must now be aware, have largely changed. I might say that the noble and gallant Lord was correct in his statement about the notices which were placed in this particular camp, and they are typical of the views which prevail in Germany with regard to the custody and guarding of prisoners.

This camp at Güstrow, which the noble Lord was justified in saying was one of the worst camps in Germany at an early period of the war, was visited on April 10, 1915, by Mr. Jackson, of the American Embassy at Berlin, and his Report upon that occasion was generally favourable. Evidently considerable improvement had taken place. He stated that the barracks were well lighted with electricity, that they were heated, that there were good washing facilities, that the hospitals were well arranged, that clothing was issued if asked for, and that there were workshops where money could be earned. He also added that men complained of rough treatment immediately following their capture, as unfortunately was so often the case, but he stated that the commandant was anxious to improve matters as much as possible.

At the end of January of the present year the same gentleman, Mr. Jackson, again visited the camp and reported further improvements. He stated that a new bakery had been built, that the barracks were warm and dry, that the men were generally well clothed, that he had tasted the food and found it satisfactory, that there were theatres, orchestras, and a circulating library, and also that he was able to talk freely with the prisoners without being interfered with by the German guards—a state of things which unfortunately does not prevail in all the camps at the present moment. Then on February 12 of the present year, in consequence of the reports to which my noble friend alluded with regard to alleged bayoneting of prisoners, the camp was again visited by a member of the American Embassy, Mr. Osborne. Mr. Osborne did not announce his visit beforehand; he talked to the men out of hearing of the Germans, and the men with whom he spoke were unanimously of opinion that if any British prisoners had been bayoneted they would have heard of it. Of course, that is not conclusive. We have never been able to ascertain for certain whether bayoneting actually took place, although there is not the smallest doubt that there was a considerable amount of brutality at this camp, more especially in the early period of the war.

In April of this year the Government Committee for the investigation of the statements of returned prisoners sent us further evidence with regard to this camp, and we asked, through Mr. Page, that the camp should again be visited, and that we should be furnished with a further Report. That Report is not yet to hand, but no doubt we shall receive it before long. To sum up the case of Güstrow, I may repeat that it is a typical case where, as I stated in the earlier portion of my remarks, the conditions were abominable at the first, but they have now greatly improved, and there is no reason, so far as I know, to class Güstrow amongst the really bad camps at the present moment.

With regard to Ruhleben, I do not feel that I am in a position to add much to the general information upon the subject. The circumstances have been explained, more or less fully, in the House of Commons. The noble Lord behind me (Lord Devonport), as he has done before, related to your Lordships the absolutely deplorable conditions which have always prevailed at Ruhleben, and which I have been one of the first to acknowledge. I have never concealed my opinion that the men who are imprisoned there are, for reasons which I am not going to repeat to-day, more to be pitied than any other body of unfortunate prisoners in Germany at the present moment. I accept fully all the statements that have been made by the noble Lord behind me. In fact, there cannot be any doubt as to their correctness, because he has only been quoting from Reports which are available to the whole world.

The noble Lord again took the opportunity to denounce any question of retaliation, and criticised to a certain extent the statement made by my right hon. friend Lord Robert Cecil in the House of Commons a short time ago. With regard to the general principle of retaliation, everybody will, I think, be in agreement with the noble Lord behind me. At the same time I cannot help expressing the opinion that it would be an extremely rash proceeding for the Government to announce to the whole world that in no circumstances would we resort to any means of exercising pressure upon the German Government. It does not require any great ingenuity to realise that there are means of exercising pressure upon the German Government which would not necessitate cruelty to any individuals in this country.

Lord Devonport also had something to say about the question of a general exchange. As he correctly stated, the German view of a fair exchange was that we should hand over our 26,000 or 27,000 German civilians here in return for the 4,000 British civilians in Germany; and the noble Lord thinks that it would not be a bad bargain from our point of view. I am disposed to agree with him that it is conceivable that a not large proportion of the German civilians interned in this country might be very desirous of returning to Germany, Germany possessing at the present moment few attractions of any kind to anybody, including Germans interned in foreign countries. But this is one of those questions upon which there is a great deal to be said; and in view of the negotiations which are going on I think it would be rather rash on my part were I to examine too closely this proposal.

As the House is aware, our reply to the German Government was an offer to release an equivalent number of civilians here, and I cannot believe that there would be any question of any very nice and particular—as the noble Lord called it—arithmetical calculation with regard to the exchange. As I said just now, I do not like to say too much upon this point, because I do not want to say anything which would imperil the present negotiations; but I think that without being unduly indiscreet or optimistic, I can hold out some hope that before long we may at all events arrive at an exchange of the older men—I am speaking of men over 45—and if we only succeed to that extent as a first instalment it will be admitted on all sides that we have done something useful and beneficial, for these are the men, above all others, who most deserve our sympathy.