HL Deb 05 March 1918 vol 29 cc229-39

LORD BERESFORD rose to call attention to the barbarous treatment of prisoners of war in Germany employed in factories, mines, and chemical works; and to move a Resolution. The noble and gallant Lord said: My Lords, I should like to bring to your Lordships' notice the barbarous treatment by the Germans of our prisoners in Germany. The question has been before your Lordships' House several times before, but only in regard to the prisons. I want to speak with regard to the munition factories, the chemical works, and the mines. I believe there are altogether about 3.000,000 prisoners in Germany. I am not entitled to say what number of these are British, but there are a good number; and neutral visitors are not entitled to pay any visits either to the mines, the factories, or to the chemical works, although they are allowed to visit the prisons, the claim of the Germans being that, it is necessary for military reasons that they should not visit factories, chemical works, and mines.

From the information which I have received, there is a deliberate system of torture going on in these places which are not visited. Take the system of men being put into tanks of cold water, forty or fifty at a time, or the system by which cold water is dropped on their heads, causing tremendous agony, the men after a number of hours being allowed out to recover and then returned to the tanks. Then I believe there are some of these places where the punishment lasts for twelve hours. Another system of punishment is by steam cages, where they are sometimes kept twenty-four hours. If they faint they are taken out and beaten. One man's arm was broken in defending himself against the club with which he was beaten. They are made to stand in front of the ovens and look into the furnace, and in these cases, too, if they are faint they are beaten. There is the case of one man being put in a room with a savage dog, and warned that if he killed the dog he would be shot.

I believe the whole of what, I am describing is against. International Law. There is a system of payment. There is a German foreman with two workmen. When 30 marks are paid, the German foreman would get 20 marks and each of the British prisoners 5. There is the case of men being driven into a river 400 at a time. They were kept there at the point of the bayonet for from six to eight hours. On one occasion seven died and thirty-two went to hospital. Afterwards several died from frost-bite, and a good number contracted tuberculosis. Men have been made to stand in the cold, in the snow, bareheaded, barefooted, and without jackets, and at intervals a hose has been turned on them. If their output of work does not come up to the standard which the Germans think right, they are subjected to these tortures, and if they have extra shifts they get no pay. A good many of our men have died from swellings of the hands and feet and faces, shortage of food, and overwork.

I must refer to the repulsive and barbarous manner in which the Red Gross women of Germany have treated our prisoners. They have pulled off their bandages, given them water after spitting in it, and committed every atrocious and bestial act they could commit. I think it wise, my Lords, to bring these things before the public. The public ought to know how our men are being treated in Germany, when we are allowing aliens of every class to be loose in this country, and are feeding the German prisoners better than our own population.


No, no.


Some one says "No, no," but it is a fact. Perhaps the noble Lord will answer me afterwards. I can give proof of it. A great number of these prisoners are worked to death. The German thinks the British workman is with him, because we are told that this war is against bureaucracy and against the governing power, not against the nation. I say the whole nation is responsible for these brutalities. The people need not commit them even if they are ordered to do so, but they commit them on every occasion they can. I should like to give the case of Corporal Rogers, of the Essex Regiment, who was captured on April 14, 1917. A letter from him while he was a prisoner at Antwerp has been received. He states that he has been practically in solitary confinement for nine months, with not a soul to speak to, and his opportunities for conversation have been only now and then a few words in French. He is always cold and hungry, and without a pair of socks for his feet. He is unable to wash his shirt, and his food consists of one small piece of bread and a little soup daily. I do not want to refer to the prisoners at Ruhleben, because I think my noble friend Lord Devonport is to bring their case forward this week.

To make it clear that what I have said is not hearsay, I will give the names of the coal mines where the men are working. I am not sure that my German is correct, but the names are Gladbach, Thyssins, Stiemes, Herveret, Dorsten, and Lohberg. The factories are Wanheim and Mulheim, and the chemical works Recklingen and Spandau. There are some other places for which I cannot vouch, but I can vouch for these. I should like also to refer to our prisoners in Turkey, with regard to whose case I gave my noble friend warning. I received a letter the other day from an officer. It was sent by a man who lost his arm and was made prisoner at Suez. It is dated November 14, 1917. He states that of these prisoners 95 per cent. of the British have died through deliberate cruelty and neglect. Whether this is true or not I do not know, but it is in the letter. The places where our prisoners are in Turkey are Kastamuni, Angora, and Yozgad. They get no fire and no food except once a day, and they bribe the guards for bread. The country does not know of these horrors, and it ought to know how our men are being treated, not only in the memory of those who have died for us, but because of those who are suffering for us now. We seem to be forgetting in this country what these men have done for us, and I think it right and proper that these cases should be brought before the country as often as they can be.

Then I take up the paper and read of Members of Parliament speaking of "our German friends" and "our German comrades." It makes any Service man's blood boil to read such expressions as these when we know how our men are suffering abroad. One more thing I should like to say. I hope the Government will let the commandants of these places know that their deeds are known, that they are logged, that there is documentary evidence of them, and that this country intends that the men who commit these barbarities shall be punished when the war is over.


My Lords, I ask your indulgence on the first occasion on which I venture to address your Lordships' House. I do so in support of the noble Lord who has just sat down, for two reasons. The first reason is that as an officer of His Majesty's Army, I think it is my duty to do all I can to further the interests of any of the men whom I have trained and who may be out there under the conditions which the noble Lord has described. The second reason is that I have recently had an opportunity of an interview with a British medical officer who has just been repatriated from Germany. He brought me a message from a friend of mine who is interned in the same camp in which he was interned. He also took me down to see some of the men who have been recently repatriated and who are at present at the King George's Hospital. Any noble Lord who wishes for confirmation can go and ask these men, and he will get it. I asked these men myself. I saw one poor man who had been compelled to work for months standing in water sometimes up to his knees, and sometimes up to his waist. He is now paralysed. He has been repatriated paralysed. His chum has not been quite so fortunate. His chum was taken with that terrible complaint tuberculosis, and was still compelled to go on working in all kinds of weathers. One day he felt absolutely unfit to do anything. He begged to see the German doctor and to be allowed to go sick, but he was told, "No; you must go out and work." He was driven out, but had not the strength to raise a pick or wield a shovel. What do you think they did, my Lords? They tied him to a post in the rain, and the next day he was dead. Any one who wants to verify these facts can go to King George's Hospital and he will be able to do so.

I do not wish to detain your Lordships long, but I would like to give you one or two examples of what this British medical officer told me. He volunteered to go to work in one of these camps in the mining district of Minister in Westphalia. He went there. The men are sent to these districts, or kommandos. They are sent under a German officer, who is not only in the pay of the German Government as a non-commissioned officer, but who is also paid by the mine owners to whom the men are hired out in proportion to the amount of work he can drive out of them. His, my Lords, is piece work; the work of the men is not. The men are paid for work underground 90 pfennigs per day, about 9d., and for work above ground 30 pfennigs per day, or about 3d. This is for a twelve-hour shift, according to my information first-hand from this medical officer. But, in addition, every seven days they are forced to do an extension of twenty-four hours' work. The food given them is absolutely unfit for human consumption. It consists, for breakfast, of one litre of coffee, made out of the seeds of sunflowers, about 1½ pints, and for dinner they get soup made out of fertilisers or decomposed shell fish. For supper they get the same kind of watery soup. In addition to this, they are allowed 200 grammes of black bread per day. Consequently very few men who do not get parcels from home survive to tell the tale.

According to my information those men who do survive for six or eight months invariably inflict injuries on themselves to get out of it. They either drive a pick through their foot, put their hands between railway trucks in order to get them crushed, or make incisions upon themselves in order to get out of this horrible nightmare because they can stand it no longer. I do not wish to weary yon with any more details. There are plenty more of the same kind, but I desire to support the noble and gallant Lord, and I hope the Government will see their way, however distasteful it may be and however much they dislike it, to do something to mitigate the sufferings of these non who have fought for this country and have stood between it and the fate that has overtaken Belgium, Serbia, and other countries where the Hun has placed his foot.


My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord opposite, who has brought this Motion forward, expressed the opinion that it was extremely useful that information of this character should be given to the public from time to time, and therefore he felt himself amply justified in bringing these cases before the notice of the Government. I cannot help thinking that information of this kind would be very much more valuable if there were more precision about it, and if there were less irrelevancy in the noble Lord's statements. The noble and gallant Lord puts a Motion on the Paper relating to the employment of prisoners in mines and factories, and, I think, in chemical works. In the course of his remarks he introduced the treatment of prisoners by women belonging to the German Red Cross, and adduced the experiences of Corporal Rogers since his capture three years or more, ago, and then went on to ask for explanations with regard to the treatment of our prisoners in Turkey. We are accustomed to considerable latitude in this House, but I venture to think that this is an almost abnormal instance.

I would like to point out that it is not very easy to make a detailed reply to the noble Lord, because the names of the places which he mentioned are not, in some cases, names of places at all. They are names of individuals. For instance, there is the name of Stiemes; that is the name of a German financial magnate. There is also the name Thyssins; that also is the name of a German commercial magnate. Unless the noble Lord will supply me with the names of the mines which these proper names denote, I am afraid I cannot supply him with the information he requires.

With regard to those places he did mention, I am able to give him some information. One of the places was Recklingen. That is a chemical work, and was visited in November of last year by the Dutch; at that time there were only two British prisoners employed there. Mulheim was visited on December 7. There were nineteen men in hospital, and sixty-two men were working there, and the Dutch report was that the conditions were satisfactory. I think another place mentioned was Wanheim. There are two Wanheims, and they were both visited in September last. Another place, I think, mentioned was Herveret. There were seventy-six men employed at Herveret on agricultural work, and the Dutch report was that the conditions were good. Lohberg, another place mentioned by the noble Lord, we have no information about. Spandau was visited some time ago, but we will take steps to have it visited again. Speaking generally, my Lords, it is perfectly true that the conditions, more especially in the coal mines, are very often absolutely deplorable, and the noble Lord who spoke last was justified in much of what he said, although it would have been better had he furnished me with some names and places.


I said Münster.


Yes, but Münster is what is called a Standlager—a central camp containing thousands and thousands of men. No doubt what the noble Lord had in mind was a small working camp, probably a coal mine, in which only a few men are em- ployed. I do not know whether he realises that there are thousands and thousands of these working camps spread over Germany, and in a few cases only are few men employed. That makes the difficulty all the greater.


They are sent free, Münster to these kommandos.


Yes, it is an Arbeiter command, and if the noble Lord will give me the name of the working kommando where these events have taken place I shall be quite ready to inquire into it. It is evident that the circumstances lend themselves to these men being treated in many cases with great brutality. They are spread about all over the place, possibly only supervised by a non-commissioned officer, and are handed over to a contractor who no doubt in many cases treats them very badly.

The noble Lord mentioned the long hours of work and the small rate of pay. As regards the rate of pay, I do not suppose that the pay received by the German military prisoners here is any higher than that received by our men in Germany, speaking generally; and as to the hours of work, I am prepared to admit—in fact, I know it to be the case—that in many instances they are very often greatly overworked. On the other hand, it must be borne in mind that the hours of labour, generally speaking, are much longer than they are in this country, and whenever we make the complaint that the British prisoners are unduly hard worked the reply is that they are not made to work any harder than German civilians.

In many of these places the conditions are no doubt deplorable. I hope that they are not so bad as they are represented by the noble Lord. If he can give me chapter and verse and the names of the men who suffered and the places where they suffered, those cases shall be inquired into. But however bad the conditions may be in those particular instances, I admit that they are absolutely deplorable in many places. It not unfrequently happens that the big companies to whom these men are handed over, occasionally—I do not say very often—do their best for the men, and make their existence as little disagreeable as is possible in the case of a prisoner of war. At best the lot of a prisoner of war cannot be a happy one, but it would be dishonest on my part were I not to admit that pretty frequently German civilian employers have done what they could to mitigate the hardships of British prisoners.

All I desire to say, in replying generally to the noble Lord opposite, is that whenever we hear of a case in which we have reason to believe that a British prisoner has been improperly treated we invariably make representations at Berlin, and we endeavour—and almost always succeed—in securing a visit of inspection from the Dutch representatives; but, as the House will easily understand, it is almost a physical impossibility for these Dutch representatives to visit every single small working camp in the country. I believe that these gentlemen do their best, and I have often myself wished that I was at liberty to publish their reports, because, after all, the reports by the protecting Power ought to constitute the basis of our information with regard to the condition of prisoners generally. If the noble Lord opposite or any one else chooses to bring forward the names of any men who have been improperly treated, or will give me the name of any place where a man has been wrongly treated, we will certainly make inquiries. I think that I can take upon myself to say with a certain amount of assurance that he will find that in almost every case his wishes have been anticipated, and that these representations have been made already. I have proposed a solution of this question myself which seems to be more satisfactory than visits, or retaliation, or anything of that kind—namely, that both Governments should agree not to employ men underground. I cannot help thinking that if we could arrive at an agreement upon that point it would be much more beneficial to prisoners and everybody else concerned than if we were to engage in perpetual recrimination with each other, and eventually wore forced to adopt retaliatory measures.

Before I conclude, I will allude to what the noble Lord said with regard to Kut prisoners. I am not prepared to make a statement upon that in reply to what were mostly rumours from the noble Lord. As the noble Lord knows, I was not so very long ago occupied—and it took me a very considerable time—in negotiating an agreement with the Turks with regard to the exchange and the general treatment of our prisoners. That agreement, I regret to say, has not yet been ratified, and we cannot expect any substantial improvement in the treatment of our prisoners in Turkey until that agreement has been ratified and is in process of being carried out. As soon as it is ratified, I shall be most happy to give the noble Lord and everybody else all the information that is within my power. At the same time I rather deprecate the somewhat vague statements which are made, I am convinced, by the noble Lord in good faith, but really without knowledge of the circumstances. They lead to a somewhat mistaken view as to what the conditions actually are, not only in Turkey, but also frequently in Germany.


Can the noble Lord state what is the pay of a German prisoner working above ground in this country?


No; I cannot tell the noble Lord. That really is a question for the War Office; but he may take it from me that the rates of pay approximate in the two countries.


Is not the rate of pay here for an agricultural labourer 5d. per hour?


The noble Earl is probably speaking of civilian prisoners.


No, German prisoners of war. There is a leaflet which gives the rate of pay at 5d. an hour.


That is not my affair. It is settled by the War Office.


My Lords, the noble Lord alluded to a case where I think there were nineteen prisoners in hospital and sixty at work. That seems to me to be a high proportion of prisoners in hospital, and to suggest that the treatment meted out to the English prisoners in Germany, at any rate in some cases, is not what it ought to be. I have had experience of many camps of ours where German prisoners are, and I have been startled by the lack of illness among German prisoners in British camps behind the lines in France. If I may do so, I will allude to just one case. I went into a German camp where there were between 350 and 400 prisoners. I saw them all at work in their different occupations, and I went into their camp hospital and found in the hospital only two out of the 380 men at work in the camp. I asked what the two in hospital were suffering from. One told me that he had a slight attack of diarrhœa, and the other that he had toothache. That speaks very highly indeed for the way in which German prisoners in France are looked after by our authorities, and it does seem to me that something must be lacking in Germany when you get nineteen in hospital out of sixty employed.


I think I can explain those figures. I am speaking on supposition, but I have little doubt that at the place where I mentioned, Mulheim, there were nineteen in hospital. I did not mean nineteen out of the sixty employed there. This is most likely a central hospital to which sick cases would be brought from the neighbouring working camps.


Did not the noble Lord say that there were nineteen in hospital out of sixty at work?


Yes; but Mulheim itself probably is a hospital to which men are brought from surrounding places where they are employed.


My Lords, I am very disappointed with my noble friend's reply, especially in view of the way that he himself has worked in the interest of these prisoners. He charged me with bringing forward a series of undigested statements, Ix something to that effect. My statements are bona fide, for I got them from the men themselves. The noble Lord wants me to give him further information. Why does he not go down himself, or send some one down from the Government, to the hospital to see these men and get the information from them? He said that I had made certain statements about Stiemes and Thyssins. These are chemical works, and are called by the names of the people who own them, and I was perfectly justified in bringing them forward.


Where are they?


I cannot tell the noble Lord where they are, but I can tell him where he can see the man who knows where they are. They are in Germany.




That is where our prisoners are, and that is where they have to be looked after better than they are at this moment. I spoke about the prisoner at Antwerp. I think that I was justified in bringing forward his case. I had a letter only two days ago about this man. Had I known about it earlier I would have informed the noble Lord that I was going to mention the name. With regard to the Turkish prisoners, I wrote to my noble friend and told him that I was going to bring up the question of the Turkish prisoners. I think if my noble friend looks into the case of the pay he will find that he is entirely wrong. The hours are much longer in Germany than they are here; the pay, I think he will find, is double here; and at any rate the food is good here and the food is not good there, and the German prisoners are not tortured and treated brutally as the English prisoners are in Germany. I will look up the question again and bring it before your Lordships on another occasion. I do not think my noble friend's reply was at all sympathetic. I expected him to be much stronger on the question of these brutalities which our men are suffering, and I still think I was right to bring the question before your Lordships' House and the country, and to let the people know how these men are suffering who have fought for us in this war.