HL Deb 24 July 1918 vol 30 cc1110-4

LORD BURNHAM rose to ask the Parliamentary Secretary of the War Office what are the Regulations in force as to statements made for publication by prisoners of war returning to this country as to their treatment by the enemy; whether such statements have to be submitted to the military authorities; and whether the Army Council will issue further authorised communications on the subject.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a Question put down purely and simply for public information. I want to clear away the haze of ignorance, and possibly of misunderstanding, that exists not only in the country but I believe in the forces of the Crown as to the conditions under which statements may be made by returned prisoners of war as to their treatment—and in nine cases out of ten it is ill-treatment—in enemy prisons and in enemy camps. Prisoners of war returning are of two classes. There are the exchanged prisoners and there are the escaped prisoners, and it does not follow that the same rule ought to apply to the one class as to the other, but at the present time there is an impression that such Regulations as exist are not applied equally in all cases, and that there is an amount of restraint imposed upon returned prisoners of war which is not justifiable either in their interests or in the interests of the country.

So far as I understand, my Lords, the only Regulation that bears upon this matter is the well-known Army Regulation No. 453 which lays down that "an officer or soldier is forbidden to publish in any form whatever, or communicate, either directly or indirectly, to the Press, any military information, or his views on any military subject, without special authority." It goes on to say that he is not to prejudge questions which are under the consideration of superior military authorities by the publication of his opinions, and even if they approve and sanction publication they do not in any way endorse the contents of the statements that he may make. I think that has not been evenly applied in some cases. Statements are made in the Press in some cases, and statements are made from the platform in other cases, and it is said that there has been an official refusal to sanction any sort of publicity being given to these experiences.

I dare say that there are a certain number of people who are afraid that the full statement of what our men have undergone in enemy countries may further exacerbate and enrage public opinion. I do not think that we need fear that public sentiment can be more embittered and more enraged than it is now, and I believe that the best thing that can be done is that the whole truth shall be stated so that the public can see into the dark places of the organised and systematic brutality which we know them to have been. I do not think that the statement can be too full, but I admit that it is quite right that the military authorities should exercise a certain authority as to the mode of publication, and as to the time of publication. For example, it is undesirable that statements should be made such as we react from a Fleet paymaster which were afterwards repudiated by the authorities. These things are greedily seized upon by the directors of enemy propaganda in order to discredit the whole of the indictment that is drawn up against the barbarous ill-treatment that our men have suffered abroad. Therefore I do not question that the military autho- rities are right in insisting on all statements being submitted to them.

I distinguish, however, between ex-changed prisoners and escaped prisoners. I think that in regard to escaped prisoners there is not the same reason for a strict elimination of what might be undesirable in the case of exchanged prisoners, for obvious reasons. I am told on good authority, by a member of your Lordships' House, that escaped prisoners feel very bitterly the manner in which the tales that they have to tell have been received in some official quarters. Whether that is justifiable or not I cannot say, but I am told it upon the authority of one whose word would have credence with your Lordships. If that is so, the impression ought to be removed. In any case, it is desirable that sailors and soldiers who come back after their woeful experiences should know where they are. At the present moment there is very little to guide them, and I can assure my noble friend who is about to answer this Question that there is a feeling of great resentment that they have been muzzled from impressing upon their fellow-countrymen the horrors that are going on, especially, as we know, behind the lines and on commando in enemy countries.

I am not going to trouble your Lordships with any further observations, because I am looking forward to the reply of the noble Lord who I hope will not only be able to answer in the way that I [...], but will also be able to say that in due time the Army Council mean to make a further and authorised publication on this subject of material acquired from all the sources within their knowledge, and carefully sifted as to the veracity of the statements made. Public opinion requires it, and I venture to think that such publication can, in spite of any difficulties that there may be, do nothing but good, and it is for that purpose that. I put the Question.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has put this Question, because I agree with him. I think that there is a certain amount of misunderstanding on the subject. The only Regulation which deals with this subject is the one which he quoted, No. 453. The attention of our men as they come back to this country, whether escaped prisoners or repatriated, is [...]rawn to this paragraph of the Regulations for several reasons. I think your Lordships will agree with them all. In the first place, I may say that as far as the War Office is concerned—and I should imagine every other Department of His Majesty's Government—we feel that the more publicity is given to these statements the better. They are just exactly the things that we feel the country ought to know; we feel that any idea of an unsatisfactory peace or of accepting any statement which is made by the Germans without question is far less likely if the truth as to the treatment of our prisoners in Germany is understood.

The reasons why we imposed these rules on repatriated prisoners is this. As regards those who escape, we are anxious that no information should be published which might give away the method by which they escaped from the German camps and—perhaps even more than that—that nobody who assisted them in their escape (either our own prisoners or possibly civilians or neutrals) should be discovered and be prevented from helping other men who may succeed in escaping later on. As regards those who are repatriated, there again there is a possibility that information might be given which would be detrimental to prisoners still in German hands. We are very anxious, as your Lordships will agree, that that should be safeguarded with great care.

In addition, we feel that cases such as the noble Lord quoted should be safeguarded and that a case which, alas, is only too strong should not be spoilt by exaggeration or statements which are difficult to substantiate. Therefore we are anxious that every statement which is made should be carefully investigated before it is published. What is done is this. Every escaped and repatriated prisoner on arrival in this country is interviewed by a Government Committee which is formed for that purpose, called the Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners of War. Its chairman is Sir Robert Younger. If depositions have already been taken in neutral countries then prisoners do not attend, but in other cases I think every prisoner, escaped or repatriated, is interviewed by this Committee. There are several barristers on the Committee who are skilled in taking evidence, in sifting it carefully, and in bringing out the points which we think should be given prominence, and to which public attention should be drawn. A copy of the evidence so produced is then sent to the War Office purely for the purposes of censorship, to safeguard those three points to which I have already referred, and the censorship, I think, takes only a very short time.

In regard to the last part of my noble friend's Question, the Army Council itself is not responsible for issuing statements in regard to these prisoners. It is done by the Committee. I understand that further reports are already practically complete and will very shortly be issued, and, as we get more evidence, it will be produced and published. I am sure that if there has been any case of lack of sympathy with any prisoner who has escaped or been repatriated it is a most unusual instance, because I am sure the noble Lord needs no assurance that everybody has the deepest sympathy with them and is only too anxious to find out everything they can tell us.

We hope shortly to be able to arrange further lectures by officers who have escaped and who have returned to this country. As the noble Lord knows, a few have been given, and we are arranging to extend the system of lectures and generally to let the public know as much as is possible of the way in which our prisoners have been treated in Germany and the manner of their escape.