HL Deb 25 May 1916 vol 22 cc185-90

LORD BERESFORD had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government how many interned British and German civilians have been exchanged since the beginning of the war; whether any alteration or extension of the present system of exchange, is contemplated; whether a statement can be made with regard to the agreement concluded with the German Government for the transfer to Switzerland of British and German wounded and invalid combatant prisoners of war; whether the number can be given; and whether the agreement will allow of repatriation.

The noble and gallant Lord said: Before my noble friend answers this Question, I should like to call attention to the fact that there is growing anxiety and distress in the minds of the relatives of those who are prisoners in Germany at the brutality of treatment to which they are being subjected. I now have the honour to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, the number of British subjects who have been repatriated since December, 1914, is 628, and the number of Germans who have been repatriated is 1,160. As I informed the House the other day there are, roughly speaking, about 27,000 German civilians interned in this country, and that number tends to remain unchanged, because although a certain number are being continually repatriated the numbers are again filled up by fresh arrests either in this country or of men who have been taken off ships at sea. As against the 27,000 Germans in this country there are 4,000 British civilians in Germany, who are all interned at the well-known Ruhleben Camp. In view of these figures, I am reluctantly compelled to admit that the number of repatriations seems to me upon the whole to be thoroughly and distinctly unsatisfactory.

I do not know whether the House agrees with me, but it certainly appears to me that the lot of the interned British civilians in Germany is an especially hard one. In fact, I am disposed to state—at all events it is my opinion—that the case of these men is really harder than the case of the military; because, after all, when a man enlists in an Army and takes part in war imprisonment is part of the fortune of war. But these civilians in many cases have not committed any action at all. They were living peaceably in one of the two countries concerned; they were taken up, and many of them have been in these camps for something like two years. Therefore it seems to me most desirable, if only in the interests of humanity, that every effort should be made upon our part in this country to liberate these 4,000 unfortunate men now at Ruhleben. The condition of these men is so unfortunate that I am given to understand, on the best authority, that many of them are in process of losing their reason; and it may not have escaped notice that of the nine civilians who were repatriated from Ruhleben a few days ago three were described as insane.

It may be rejoined that if the case of the British civilians interned at Ruhleben is hard, the case of the Germans interned in this country is equally hard. I am not disposed altogether to dispute that assertion. But the cases are not altogether upon a par, because—I state this most emphatically—the lot of the German civilians interned in this country is appreciably better than the lot of the British civilians interned at Ruhleben. I have it on the first-hand authority of men who have come back from Ruhleben and who have visited some of our civilian internment camps, that the interned German civilians here are treated in a more humane and more kindly manner, that they are better fed and better clothed, and that they enjoy privileges which are not enjoyed by the unfortunate British prisoners at Ruhleben.

My noble and gallant friend asks me in his Question whether any extension or alteration of the present system is contemplated. My reply is that an extension is contemplated, and has already been proposed. We proposed to the German Government a short time ago that the age, which is now placed at 55, should be lowered to 50, and that in the case of men who were unfit for active service in the field the age limit should be reduced to 45. We made this proposal some weeks ago, but have not yet elicited a reply although several efforts have been made to obtain it. But I would like to point out that even supposing this proposal is accepted there will be, in effect, no considerable change in the rate of the rapidity of exchange, for this reason. Everybody must have realised by this time that the ultimate decision in regard to the exchange of prisoners, whether civilian or military, rests with the naval and military authorities, and whatever agreement may be come to with respect to the age, experience shows that the naval and military authorities, not only on one side but on both sides, will discover all sorts of reasons why these men should not go back to their own country. The naval and the military authorities are prone to regard every interned civilian as possessing some potential naval or military capacity; and if he is physically unfit, they frequently discover other reasons which in their opinion are excellent and adequate for keeping that man under restraint. Therefore if we do succeed in lowering the age limit, as we have proposed, I am afraid that the rate of exchange will not be very largely accelerated. To show the length to which the restrictions are pushed by the naval and military authorities upon both sides, I need only point to the fact that at this moment there are confined here and in Germany not only men of 50, but men of 60 and men of 70; and there is at this moment, if I am not mistaken, a retired military man interned in Germany who is actually 80 years of age.

While there are obviously distinct advantages in a policy of general internment, there are at the same time obvious disadvantages: One obvious disadvantage from the point of view of the Government is that these interned aliens cost a great deal of money, and they also require a great-amount of guarding. On the other hand, take the case of the interned civilian himself. It is highly probable that when you intern him you ruin him commercially; it is quite possible that you may ruin his health, too. But what is, perhaps, even more important is that by adopting this process you turn men who were originally friendly into most determined enemies. You take a man who has lived for a long time in one of these two countries, either in England or in Germany, a man who in all probability was extremely friendly to the Government under which he lived, and you convert him into a man who becomes animated with the bitterest spirit of hostility against the Government which has imprisoned him. We shall be confronted with this problem unless the rate of exchange is accelerated, that at the end of the war there will be thousands of men in this country who will be liberated, and who, in consequence of the change I have described, will form a most undesirable element in the population. I think any thoughtful person who has given consideration to this matter must have realised that this is an extremely grave problem. It is certainly open to argument whether the present principles upon which both countries act ought not to be modified or changed to a considerable extent.

The noble and gallant Lord also asks me whether any alteration is contemplated with regard to the system of exchange. I am glad to have this opportunity of stating that there is one—I do not know whether it would be correct to describe it as an alteration—but one principle upon which we are all agreed at the present moment. When I say "all," I am alluding to the four Departments more immediately concerned with prisoners—namely, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Admiralty, and the War Office. All these Departments have come to the conclusion that the principle of what is known as individual exchange is thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory for various reasons. In the first place it involves, as experience has shown, very long preliminary negotiations which lead in most cases to very inadequate results. In the second place it creates, and must inevitably create, the strongest feeling of dissatisfaction and discontent on the part of the unfortunate people who are, unable to command any influence upon their behalf; because it is undoubtedly the case that many of these proposals for individual exchange are the result of political or of social influence, or, if they are not really the result of that, the general belief is that they are caused by the exercise of influence of that kind.

Then it is also evident that a process of individual exchange takes the form of a bargain, and each Government is perpetually trying to get the better over the other, with the result that it develops into little better than a kind of blackmail. I will give the House an instance in point. Everybody knows the case of Lord De Ramsey. Lord De Ramsey suffers from an unfortunate physical infirmity which naturally prevents him from being of the slightest military value. Yet in spite of this the German Government detained him for something like a year upon the pretext that he had at one time in the course of his life been a soldier. Of course, the obvious reason why they detained him was in order to get somebody back from this country whom they considered of particular value to them. But the strongest condemnation of this system of individual exchange is to be found in the fact that scarcely any individual exchanges have been effected under it at all; and it is also a melancholy and painful fact—it has been brought to my notice frequently—that there have been many cases in which elaborate efforts have been made to procure the liberation of British officers and civilians by means of individual exchange, and these unfortunate men are now no nearer liberation than they were months or even a year ago. That alone is sufficient to condemn the whole system of individual exchange.

In my opinion, and I believe it is the opinion of everybody who has had anything to do with this question, there is only one fair basis of exchange, and that is that the question should be decided solely by the man's age and physical condition. That is a principle which I think I may say will be adopted in future, and it will not be departed from unless it can be shown conclusively that the exchange of a particular individual will be one of definite public advantage.

With regard to the latter portion of my noble and gallant friend's Question, he is probably aware that the arrangement with regard to the transfer of British and German incapacitated soldiers to Switzerland has been agreed to. The Swiss Commission have already arrived in this country. They are in process of visiting the various camps, and have already, I believe, examined a certain number of men. It is hoped that by the end of the month sufficient progress will have been made to permit of the actual transfer of some of these men on both sides. I am unable at this stage to give the noble and gallant Lord any figures, because, of course, the figures depend upon the result of the examination. We have heard in a somewhat vague and indefinite manner from Switzerland—not from Germany—that the number of British prisoners expected there amounts to something like 1,200, but whether there is any foundation for this assumption I am not in a position to say. All I can say is that every effort will be made to carry out the arrangement as quickly as possible, and it is to be hoped, in the interests of all concerned, that a large number of these unfortunate men in both countries will find their way to Switzerland.

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