HL Deb 28 June 1916 vol 22 cc423-5

LORD GRENFELL had the following Notice on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government, with reference to the transfer of German prisoners to France and employment in that country, and the action of the German military authorities in retaliating by sending 2,000 British prisoners to Poland—(1) Has the Government now got information as to the localities where the prisoners have been sent to, and have arrangements been completed whereby these prisoners will be inspected by any representative of the American Embassy. (2) If the places where prisoners have been sent to are known to the Government, can parcels still be sent to such camps by various societies and representatives of regiments with a reasonable chance of their being received.

The noble and gallant Lord said: My Lords, the transfer of the 2,000 German prisoners to France has resulted, as we must all have expected, in brutal retaliation on the part of the Germans. Some 2,000 British prisoners have been sent by the Germans to Russian Poland, where food is scarcer than in Germany, and where, according to numerous letters which have been received, these men are suffering great privation and are being worked very hard by the Germans. Nearly all the societies which send parcels to prisoners, including those connected with the various regiments, and particularly the Society of the Red Cross, with which I am connected, have received numerous letters from these prisoners. The White Paper which has been issued gives no information as to the locality of the prisoners, but most of the letters from these unfortunate men come from Libau. It is curious that these men have been permitted for the first time to send letters openly, in which they tell us of the great sufferings they are undergoing. This no doubt is allowed so that we may know how severely our soldiers are being treated. I will read a portion of one letter which we have received— Can you possibly send out parcels and letters? We receive nothing. We are at Libau, where we are working on the railway. We get up at 4 a.m. and return from work at 6.30 p.m. We are living on practically nothing, with two thin blankets and no bed, and I can assure you it is perfect hell. We understand that this is a punishment for us on account of the brutal treatment of German prisoners in France. I am anxious to ask the noble Lord who will reply whether there is any chance of a proper inspection of these unfortunate prisoners by the American authorities, and whether parcels, upon which they are almost entirely dependent, can be sent with a reasonable chance of being received.


My Lords, the prisoners to whom my noble and gallant friend refers have been sent, we understand, to the two ports of Libau and Windau, though the latter has been given a new German name, which I fail to remember at the present moment. But this information is private information only. We have as yet received no reports from the American Embassy, because hitherto the officials belonging to that Embassy have not been permitted to visit the ports in question. We have received at the Foreign Office a number of private communications similar in character to that read by my noble and gallant friend. I am sorry to say that there is much reason to fear that these men are undergoing considerable hardships. At the same time I am bound to admit that I have seen one letter at all events from a man sent to one of these ports—I forget which—in which he spoke favourably of the conditions, and said that their treatment by the officers was kind.

With regard to the German prisoners of war in France, my noble and gallant friend will recollect that they were sent there some months ago at the instance of the late Secretary of State for War, and I have always imagined that he was largely actuated by the extreme reluctance which prevails here with regard to the employment of these men either by public bodies or by individuals. But that clearly did not afford any excuse for retaliation, because these German prisoners in France have, by their own admission, been treated in an extremely kind manner, and so far as I know have made no complaints whatever. These prisoners have been inspected by officials of the American Embassy in Paris, but so far their Report has not reached the Foreign Office. In view of the fact that these men in France are suffering from no grievance, and that they have been inspected by the American Embassy at Paris, we naturally claim that the same state of things should be instituted with regard to our prisoners who have been sent by the Germans to Russian territory, but so far the American officials have not received permission to proceed to those camps. On the 13th of this month we asked Mr. Gerard, the American Ambassador in Berlin, to endeavour to ensure that the parcels destined for or these men should arrive safely, and we have no reason to suppose that the parcels have not reached their destination. As a matter of fact it is only fair to admit—and I think it is important to take note of this—that, so far as our information goes, nearly all the parcels sent from this country to British prisoners in Germany reach their destination without fail; the percentage of parcels which do not arrive is very small. In connection with this fact I might mention that I heard recently from Mrs. Grant-Duff, with whose work noble Lords are probably well acquainted. She assures me that she has been in communication with a very large number of German commandants of prison camps, and that in almost every instance they have shown great anxiety to see that the parcels arrive safely at their destination and to co-operate with her.

As I am dealing with this question of parcels, I should like before I sit down to correct an error into which I fell upon the last occasion when I made a statement in this House with regard to prisoners. I then stated that Russian prisoners received no parcels at all. I regret very much having made that statement. I must own that I had completely forgotten for the moment that there is an organisation in this country which exists for the purpose of supplying Russian prisoners in the hands of the Germans with food, and that there is also an organisation in Switzerland for the same purpose; and I should be extremely sorry to think that I had impugned in any way the valuable work which they have done. At the same time it must be obvious to everybody that, in view of the enormous number of Russian prisoners—they amount to something like 1,250,000 in Germany alone—it is impossible to supply their needs in the way that it is possible to do so in the case of our own soldiers.