HL Deb 05 June 1918 vol 30 cc117-28

LORD LAMINGTON had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask the Secretary of State for War—

Whether the military authorities are still opposed to the exchange of prisoners of war with particular reference to the case of interned civilians; and if so, whether he can state clearly the reasons so that the public may understand how our military interests would be prejudiced.

Whether the Government of India and the Governments of those Dominions who hold enemy civilian prisoners have been consulted in this matter; and if so, whether it has been made clear to there that, in the opinion of those responsible for the conduct of the war, it would be distinctly disadvantageous to our military interests that an exchange of some 30,000 German civilians for 4,000 British should be made: and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not going over the whole ground, as the matter was very recently debated, nor and I going to ask the Government. to give any declaration about what is going to take place in Holland at the Conference. It was stated in another place that our representatives at The Hague would have free and unfettered power of negotiation in the matter of the exchange of prisoners, and nobody wants to interfere with Unit for a moment. Still, I do not see why the people of this country should not realise exactly what are the principles at stake. Although the matter has been so frequently discussed in this House, there has at no time been a clear statement made by His Majesty's Government of the very strong objections held by the military in respect to this question of an exchange of prisoners. And it is not only in this country. The noble Earl the Leader of the House alluded to the fact that the surprise Agreement that has been arrived at between the French and the Germans was really due to the French Government having kept the matter secret so that it should not come within the purview of the military authorities in France, who equally hold very strong views about the objection to the exchange of prisoners. It therefore seemed to me that for the mere information of the public it would be very desirable if the Government would clearly indicate what are these objections, and would show that they are not merely due to lack of sympathy on the part of those who control the War Office and the Admiralty. That has been the suggestion made by those who have brought forward this question from time to time—that those who are responsible for the carrying on of the war have not sufficient feelings of humanity to let them enter into negotiations for the exchange of prisoners. That, I think is an unfounded accusation.

So much for the first part of my Question, The rest of it deals with the number of civilian prisoners concerned. Up till now, making deductions for those who would not come under the negotiations, it has been held that 3,000 or 1,000 British would be exchanged for 15,000 Gentians: but I believe the numbers are far larger than that. You have to calculate those who have been interned in the Dominions and in India, and I understand that the total number would be quite 30,000 Germans to 4,000 British. I an] taking the large totals, and not making any allowance for those who, for one reason or another, would be exempted from the operation of the negotiations. As that is a very considerable increase in the number of those who would be concerned in the exchange, I desire to know whether the authorities in Australia, India, and other parts of the Empire have had I he matter clearly brought before them. I do not know what their feelings and views are. But in the discussions which have taken place have they been consulted, and has it been clearly explained to then what are the objections to this large and unequal exchange of interned civilians? Even the mere question of how their transport would be affected under present conditions is one of extreme, importance.


My Lords. I suffer under the disadvantage that I have heard only the last two of the recent debates in this House on the question of the exchange of prisoners of war, and therefore, perhaps, I am not as well posted as I might otherwise be on what has been said here before. My noble friend asks whether the military authorities are still opposed to an exchange. Yes. the reasons against an exchange of prisoners hold good as much to-day as they ever did. There is no military objection whatever against an exchange which interns prisoners of both sides in neutral countries; but there are, of course, grave military objections against repatriation of prisoners between ourselves and enemy Powers.

The duty of the military forces of the Crown is obviously to put out of action as many Germans as possible and to keep them out of action for the period of the war. Every fit German we send hack to Germany is naturally an increase to the power of that country. It is true that we get back an Englishman in exchange; but, if I might use the analogy of a game of chess, supposing I were playing a game with one of your Lordships, and at intervals, we will say of half an hour, put hack on to the board, piece for piece, every piece that we had taken, although I should no doubt he beaten, because I was against a better player, my opponent would probably take a great deal longer to win than if there were no arrangement for restoring pieces after they had been taken. I think that is a fair analogy to make in regard to war. If we put back a large number of prisoners into Germans, the opinion of the military authorities is that it must tend to prolong the war.

There are, naturally, arguments which modify this to a very large extent, and which the Government have taken into consideration: therefore they have come to the arrangement of which your Lordships are aware. For instance, we have the question that the British milicary prisoners are being engaged in Germany on work of obvious military importance. That work will have to be done by somebody. Consequently when we send back Germans to take the place of our released British prisoners a very large number of those Germans will be engaged in the work now being done by our own men. But, on the other hand, our prisoners are, naturally and rightly, doing as little work as possible for Germany. That is the patriotic attitude to take up, and it is the attitude which I am sure they are taking up as far as they can. It is possible, therefore, that a smaller number of Germans would be able to do the work which is now being done by the total number of our prisoners.

Then there comes the question of whether an arrangement could not be made with Germany by which released prisoners should not be employed in the battle from or on the lines of communication. The view of the military authorities is that although, so ar as I know, no released prisoners have so far been found fighting again on the battle front, if the Central Powers were pressed to a very large extent there is no reason to suppose that they would stick to the agreement not to employ released prisoners on the from any more than they have stuck to any other agreement which has been made with them in the past. We hope that we shall get some proof that the enemy Powers propose to stick to an arrangement if it is come to on those lines by putting to them the case of exchanging civilians for military prisoners. It is obvious that, if neither side proposes to employ released prisoners on a battle front, there is no particular advantage in getting a released militaryindividual instead of a released civilian; and, therefore, if Germany really intends not to employ released prisoners on the battle from she ought, I think, to be prepared to accept a German civilian in place of somebody who has served in His Majesty's Forces at the Front. There is this additional difficulty. Even if we come to an arrangement by which released prisoners should not be employed on the battle front, the Central Powers have now announced that they no longer consider Russia as a theatre of war; consequently, unless some arrangement is come to, Germany would be at liberty to employ released prisoners on her Eastern From and to send back to the Western From all those men whose places have been taken by prisoners sent from England.

For these reasons the military authorities are naturally against an exchange of prisoners. The question is not as serious as perhaps it might sound, because, as the noble Lord knows, the difficulties for an exchange between ourselves and the Central Powers are far greater than they are for any of our European Allies. In regard to France and Italy it is only a question of putting the prisoners into a train and sending them across the frontier through Switzerland; but in regard to the United Kingdom and the British Empire the question of shipping at once arises. We hope that we shall be able to come to an arrangement for an exchange of prisoners with Germany, and that it will be carried through to the great advantage of our own prisoners; but we cannot hold out great hopes that the exchange will take place with rapidity, for the obvious reason that it must mean diverting shipping from other necessary objects, such as bringing over our Allies from the United States and the provision of food and other necessaries for this country.

I now come to the second part of the noble Lord's Question. As he knows, no action would ever be taken by His Majesty's Government without entering into full consultation with the Government of India and the Governments of the Dominions. No actual arrangement has yet been come to in regard to an exchange of prisoners; therefore I understand that no actual consultation has taken place between His Majesty's Government and the Governments overseas. As the noble Lord sees, the question is one even more intimately connected with shipping than the question of exchange between this country and Germany. It has always been opposed by the naval authorities and by the shipping authorities for reasons into which I am sure it is not necessary to enter; and probably their opposition still holds good. But if it is found that any arrangement is possible—which I doubt—for the exchange of prisoners between the Dominions or India and the Central Powers, that arrangement will not be ratified, of course, until it has been submitted to, and approved by, the Prime Ministers of the self-governing Dominions when they attend the forthcoming Imperial Conference which is about to be held in London.

The War Office, as the noble Lord said, has been accused on more than one occasion of lack of sympathy for our prisoners in Germany. I think that this is an extraordinarily unfair accusation, and, if it is considered for one moment, a very absurd one. Practically every officer who is employed at the War Office has at some time or another served at the Front. It is not amongst those who have served at the from that there is any feeling that the Germans are kind to those who fall into their hands, or that they do not exercise the utmost brutality and cruelty towards them. Therefore all officers, at any rate, realise what it must mean to fall into the hands of Germany as a prisoner. Most of them have friends, or old brother officers, or rank and file from their old regiments, who have been in the hands of our enemies, possibly wounded, for a considerable period. It is obvious, I think, how anxious every individual must be who knows how our prisoners are treated, to get these brother officers and the rank and file released at the earliest opportunity. There is this further reason. Every soldier is only too anxious to get rid of every German out of 'this country, and then, having got the Germans out, to keep them out. There is no question about this at the Front, and I have heard some very forcible views expressed, on more than one occasion, as to the advisability of kicking every German out and keeping him out. Therefore every opportunity of getting our own people back and at the same time getting rid of the Germans will obviously be welcomed by every one at the Front.

As far as sentiment is concerned, the feeling is entirely in favour of exchange. But it is not only a question of sentiment, but also of duty—the duty of keeping as many of the enemy out of action as possible, and for the whole period of the war. Now, even as regards sentiment there is an argument against exchange. Let me put it in this way: A father has one son who is a prisoner in Germany, and he has another son who is, say, nineteen years of age. If we are correct in thinking that any release of German prisoners is likely to prolong the war, that second son will be called up for duty in the trenches. If during his term of duty in' the trenches he is killed, the effect of releasing prisoners and getting the first son home will be that the second son is killed. You will say that this is rather an absurd dilemma, and that it is very improbable. It is not only not improbable but absolutely certain, because England is the mother of all her sons, whether in captivity or about to be called up for service at the Front. Therefore from an entirely sentimental point of view any increase in the strength of Germany must mean more casualties if we agree that increase in strength means a prolongation of the war.

It might be said that, the military authorities having strong views upon the military disadvantages of exchange, His Majesty's Government should not have taken the steps which they have taken with a view of effecting an exchange of prisoners. His Majesty's Government feel that it is worth while to suffer some military disadvantage in order to release our unfortunate officers and men from the great hardships and the miseries and brutalities which they suffer at the hands of the Germans. That being so, it is proposed to make an arrangement with the Germans for an exchange, and I feel sure that I need not tell your Lordships that, strong as are the views of the military authorities against an exchange, they will most loyally and fully carry out the wishes of the Government in any arrangement which is made. I have seen it suggested that this or that officer should not be sent on Missions because of his known opposition to exchange. Soldiers are accustomed to obey orders, and if the Government come to the conclusion that an exchange is desirable I am sure your Lordships may rely upon every officer doing his utmost to carry that decision into effect.


My Lords, I have listened to the most extraordinary speech that it has ever been my privilege to hear, and one of a most unconstitutional kind. We have had the representative of a great Government Department getting up and for a great number of minutes denouncing the policy accepted by the Government on matter affecting British prisoners of war.


The Question is On the Paper.


It is usual, when a Question is on the Paper drawing attention to a possible difference of views among members of His Majesty's Government, that the Minister who replies does not argue against the policy which His Majesty's Government have accepted after weighing every argument for or against that particular policy; but this evening we have had the policy of His Majesty's Government, in regard to the exchange of prisoners repudiated by the War Office. Arguments have been placed before us why it is undesirable that this exchange should take place, and, of course, the argument has not been advanced by the noble Earl to justify in any way the course which the Government and Ministers have thought fit to pursue. I think it is right that I should draw attention to a speech of that kind, because I think it does prejudice a policy which, after the matter has been fully thrashed out, has been reached by the Government.

I acknowledge that in the closing sentence of the noble Earl's speech there was an attempt at some little desire to be loyal to the decision at which the Government have arrived. He did say that officers were under discipline and it was their custom to obey orders. But I also desire to say before I sit down, that having taken part in a large number of the debates in connection with the exchange of prisoners of war I have never heard in this House, and certainly have never made, any such charge that there was lack of sympathy on the part of the War Office with British prisoners of war in Germany. They have realised the sufferings which our prisoners have had to endure, and I have not suggested, and I am sure no other noble Lord has suggested, that the action of the War Office in advising the Government up to a recent period not to permit any exchange of prisoners has been influenced by any lack of humanity. Far from that, I believe that the soldiers realise the sufferings of British prisoners of war as much as any member of the civil population. They have argued it upon grounds referred to this afternoon. When all those arguments have been taken into consideration it has been found on the whole advantageous, in the interests of humanity and even of the war itself, that some step should be taken to commence an exchange of prisoners, and I think it is a pity that we should disturb this decision just at the very moment when the representatives of the two great Powers are to meet in conference at The Hague in connection with this matter.


My Lords, the last thing I wish to do is to intervene again in debate, but the Parliamentary Secretary of the War Office has made a grave statement of the military policy which will be misunderstood outside this House unless it is cleared up this afternoon. Like my noble friend who spoke last, I was astounded to hear the representative of the Government criticising in such unmeasured language from the military point of view the decision of the Government and the War Cabinet. I am the last person in the world to suspect General Officers at the War Office, or any other officers, of being lacking in sympathy for those who have been so cruelly afflicted as prisoners of war in Germany. On the contrary, I know it to be a gross libel on them to insinuate anything of the kind. They have, of course, not only the common feelings of humanity, but also the peculiar affection which I am glad to say binds officers and men in every British force and every British regiment.

But that is not the point. If the military considerations are to be held valid, not in the exclusion of any arrangement carried out, but in the negotiation of this instrument, then the whole value of the debates which have taken place here and the answers given in another place go by the board. There have been two or three debates in this House, one of which I had the honour to initiate not long ago, and the ground on which the case was put was perfectly simple. We admitted—all of us without exception, I think—that the military considerations were very likely against a system of free and unconditional exchange of prisoners. That not only applied to this country, but equally, or even in greater measure, to France and Italy; yet the Governments of both these countries had negotiated with Germany arrangements for the free and unconditional exchange of prisoners of war. We asked that considerations of humanity, and, more than that, the moral issues involved in public opinion in this country and in the Empire, should also be taken into account, anti that the example set by those two countries should be followed practically in the letter. We were told that the Government would certainly have dune a great deal if they had known that anything of the sort was going on, but that they had been kept in a state of u[...]ter ignorance by our Allies as to the negotiations and as to their result. However, they were now seized of the facts, and we have understood that Lord Newton, Who no doubt has been constantly snubbed in days gone by when he put the case forward, is going to Holland with General Belfield and the Home Secretary to negotiate exactly the same sort of arrangement between Germany and ourselves as has already been made between Germany and our Allies.

I want to have it quite clear this afternoon, not only for the information of your Lordships but for the information of the public outside, that the General Officer who is going as a member of this Mission will not go in the spirit which has been explained by the noble Earl here this afternoon. The noble Earl said that the soldiers would loyally carry out their orders. That is not the point. General Belfield does not go as a subordinate of Lord Newton or of the Home Secretary, but, as I understand, he goes as their colleague equally charged with them to negotiate an arrangement on the terms which have been agreed in this House and in the House of Commons. I cannot think that it has been a wise performance of my noble friend this afternoon—I have no doubt he was not in the least responsible—to make a declaration of this nature on the very eve of the opening of negotiations. Nobody has forgotten the gravity of the military issue. I do not suppose it is forgotten abroad either, especially at such a time, and now that Parliament has accepted the terms and it is understood from the representatives of the Government that they were determined, after weighing the case in all its bearings, to negotiate on the same terms in regard to our prisoners of war as has been done by the other Powers, we want also the assurance that the military opinion which has been so forcibly expressed shall not be allowed to go any further than the War Cabinet. The responsibility has been with the War Cabinet, weighing entirely the balance of advantage and of humanity involved. The War Cabinet came to their decision, and I do not think it was for the War Office or its representatives here or in the. House of Commons to protest against what the War Cabinet have done. I am bound to say that that was my feeling while I listened to my noble friend's powerful indictment of their policy, and I very much regret that it has been necessary to carry on this debate at all.


My Lords, if I may address the House again I would like to say that I think the two noble Lords who have spoken have done the greatest disservice to the very cause they represent. This is an attack on the Government.


On the contrary


You say our representatives ought to go on the plea of humane considerations only. The noble Earl has made, I think, a careful, reasoned, and clear statement, which, had it been made two or three months ago, would have placed us in a far better position to negotiate than we are in now. Now you practically upset the whole of these considerations and prevent our representatives from taking such a strong line as they might have taken and from getting better terms from the Germans, who no doubt will press them very hard indeed. The frequent debates that have taken place in your Lordships' House have, I believe. from time to time weakened our position in regard to any possible exchange that may take place. It is not my business to defend the Government, but as the author of the Question I must say that nothing could have been more remote from my mind than the thought that I was going to upset the negotiations. I said it had been clearly stated in the House of Commons that those who represent this country have at absolutely free hand. I wished that the country should know the reasons that have in the past dictated our police. The military authorities have been accused of lack of humanity and sympathy. I cannot conceive for a moment that a statement of the reasons for our policy should preclude their cooling to, as far as possible, satisfactory arrangement in Holland with our enemies.


My Lords, as you are aware, I am not in a position to give any authoritative statement upon this subject. I am not connected with any of the Departments concerned, but I wish to remind the noble Lord opposite that the statement made by my noble friend was really in answer to a specific Question put upon the Paper by Lord Lamington. Lord Burnham asks for assurances about the General Officer who is going or is likely to go to The Hague. I can merely refer him to the statement made by Lord Newton to your Lordships a short time ago that a decision had been come to by the Government. I do not pretend exactly to quote his words, but they were, broadly speaking I think, that every effort would be made to carry into agreement some arrangement similar or analogous to that achieved by the French. No assurances are required about the officers concerned when a pledge so specific has been given and when an envoy of special status and responsibility has been, or is shortly going to be, despatched to a neutral country to discuss it, and I should hope also that the very clear assurance given by my noble friend beside me as to the loyalty with which the War Office and its officials will carry out the instructions that may reach them will be a sufficient pledge to your Lordships and to the country that no obstacle will be put in the way of carrying out as large and as satisfactory an Agreement as circumstances will permit.