HL Deb 07 March 1918 vol 29 cc327-56

VISCOUNT DEVONPORT rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to resume negotiations with Germany for the release of the remaining British civilian prisoners of war interned in Germany on the basis of an "all for all" exchange.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, some considerable time has elapsed since I last had the opportunity of taking part in a debate in your Lordships' House on this question of the continued internment of civilian prisoners in Germany. I think that last year, in the spring of the year, two or three debates took place, but I, for reasons which will be within the recollection of your Lordships, had no opportunity of participating. As long ago, however, as November, 1916, this question was brought up by the most rev. Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who addressed himself in the first place to the agreement that was under consideration at that moment—I think it had been completed—between the British Government and the German Government, affecting the repatriation of those interned civilians over forty-five years of age. At that moment we were led to hope—indeed, we did hope —that the Agreement would he carried out, and that at all events as regards those over forty-five years of age their internment would soon come to an end. I am sorry to say that our anticipations were disappointed, and even to-day, although the arrangements are proceeding, there still remain at Ruhleben and in other camps in Germany a considerable number of men over forty-five years of age whose transfer so far has not been arranged for. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Newton will allow me to ask him whether he will give us information, when he replies, as to the exact situation of those civilian prisoners over forty-five years of age. I had a letter this morning from a woman complaining that her husband, who was interned as long ago as August, 1914, when fifty-five years of age, still remained interned.

The occasion upon which I last had the privilege of addressing your Lordships' House on this question was that brought about by the Question of the most rev. Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who then raised what he termed the larger question that would remain behind when the civilian prisoners over forty-five years of age would have been released, and he sought to ascertain—and the object of my Question to-day is identical—whether there was, and, if so, what is its nature, an insuperable objection to what I think he termed "a bolder and more through-going policy of general exchange." That, of course, represents the sum and substance of the Question which I have ventured to put on the Paper. Assuming that the Government show a favourable inclination towards a general exchange, there may occur to some at this moment the question of what would he the attitude of the German Government; but there is no reason to doubt what that attitude would be. For as long ago as the autumn of 1916, when a White Paper was circulated setting forth the negotiations and the terms upon which those over forty-five years of age were to be repatriated, the German Government expressed themselves strongly as to their willingness to agree to a general repatriation on what I call the "all for all" basis. Indeed, I think they intensified the expression of their desire by saying that they were prepared to undertake, provided the British Government gave a reciprocal undertaking, that none of these civilians so released should be enrolled either in the Army or in the Navy. That is to be found in this White Paper that was circulated in November, 1916, and I need not read it. Unfortunately, nothing came of the offer, and we were given to understand at that time, and later it was expressly stated by Lord Newton—I think I am right in saying this—that the obstacle to the exchange was the military objection. The noble Lord agrees. All this to which I have referred occurred as long ago as October, 1916, and here we are in the month of March, 1918, with the large bulk of the interned civilians still remaining in exile.

I think it is only fair that I should pay a tribute to the efforts that have been made since that time to bring about some amelioration of the lot of these prisoners, both combatant and civilian. In passing, I may say that the advantages that have accrued have been greater as regards combatant prisoners than the civilians, but I make no hostile criticism of that. I merely remark it in passing, and I shall say a word or two in confirmation of it in a moment. What has happened encour- ages us and leads many of us to hope that the Government may find it possible, or may have found it possible in the interim, to reconsider their attitude with regard to the desire expressed in this House, in the Press, and in the country as to a general exchange. I have said that I thought it my duty to pay a tribute, to what has happened in the interim. Of course, I had in my mind mainly the negotiations which have taken place at The Hague and which led to the signing of The Hague Agreement, which is now in operation and has to some extent, though not to a very great extent, affected civilians beneficially. It provides, as far as civilians are concerned, for the resumption of the Agreement that was come to in September or October, 1916, and it also provides for the release from Germany and the internment in Holland of 100 sick British civilians against 1,800 Germans—




Yes, 1,600 Germans, who are to be released from this country and also interned in Holland. I want to draw a contrast between these concessions and those granted to the combatant prisoners, but again in no hostile sense. In this Agreement signed at The Hague, which I have in my hand, under the heading of "Repatriation or Internment in Neutral Countries of Sick and Wounded Combatant Prisoners of War," I find under the paragraph headed "Barbed Wire Disease" that these combatant prisoners of war who have been at least eighteen months in captivity and are suffering from what is termed "barbed wire disease" were for the future to be recognised as suitable for internment in Switzerland or other neutral country. Well, there is no definition in the Agreement of what constitutes "barbed wire disease."


May I explain that "barbed wire disease" really does not enter into the question at all? Officers and non-commissioned officers who have been eighteen months in captivity are entitled to internment in Switzerland or other neutral country.


I am quite aware of that. I will come to that paragraph in a moment. I am dealing with the actual Agreement, in which it says, under the heading "Repatriation or Internment in Neutral Countries of Sick and Wounded Combatant Prisoners of War," that— Prisoners of war who have been at least eighteen months in captivity, and who are suffering from 'barbed wire disease,' shall for the future be recognised as suitable for internment in Switzerland or other neutral country. That is quite separate and apart from the matter to which my noble friend has referred. I will come to that in a moment. I only want to say this, in passing, that in regard to "barbed wire disease" there is no definition of what it may be, although we all have a very fair understanding of what is intended. The point I want to make is this, whatever may be the character of "barbed wire disease," it cannot be urged for a moment that it applies only to combatant prisoners. What I desire to ask is this. Why should civilians be excluded under this concession relating to those suffering from "barbed wire disease," seeing that the majority of the civilians have been interned now for over three and a-quarter years? I should have thought that a civilian was just as liable to "barbed wire disease" as a combatant prisoner, and the more so seeing that in the main the period of his internment is longer than that of the combatant prisoner.

Now I turn to paragraph 11, the one to which the noble Lord just now referred. I would remind your Lordships that I am drawing a contrast between the conditions that have accrued to the combatant prisoners under The Hague Agreement and those that have accrued to the civilians Paragraph 11, as my noble friend said a moment ago, gives to all officers and noncommissioned officers, irrespective of rank or number, after eighteen months captivity, the right to be interned in Switzerland or some other neutral country. That does not apply to the civilian prisoner, and I am at a loss to know why. I rejoice heartily at any advantage that accrues to the combatant prisoner, but it seems to me that there has been a distinct preference accorded to him; or rather shall I say there has been an inequality of consideration for the civilian prisoner that is somewhat difficult to understand. Again I ask, Why should the civilian prisoner, after suffering three and a-half years internment, be treated differently from officers and non-commissioned officers, and why should only 400 of the interned civilians be eligible for release and internment elsewhere under this "barbed wire disease" condition? Now, my Lords, the last thing I would desire to do upon this occasion would be to attempt to paint any harrowing picture of the sufferings of these men. We hear from time to time—too frequently—of the horrors that are associated with imprisonment in Germany, not merely of civilians, but of combatant prisoners. We had a debate here the other day initiated by my noble and gallant friend Lord Beresford, who recited to us some of the horrors that accompany imprisonment in Germany, and I have no intention of elaborating them at this moment. But I would like to refer to art extract that appeared in The Times the other day, communicated by Mr. Gerard, the late American Ambassador at Berlin, who had kept a war diary. Some of the contents of that diary were printed from day to day in The Times last week. I came across an extract which I shall venture to read to your Lordships. I may say that these extracts from his diary were printed under dates, and the date on which he wrote this particular extract was as long ago as July, 1916. He was speaking from personal knowledge and not from hearsay, because it was part of his responsibility as American Ambassador to visit the camp at Ruhleben and other camps in Germany in our interest, to see what sort of treatment was being accorded to the prisoners interned there. This is what he said— The long confinement will make many prisoners insane. Many old men at Ruhleben, living six in a horse's stall or in dim hay-lofts, simply turn their faces to the wall and refuse even to complain. That was in 1916. We have had an abundance of evidence that many men have gone insane, among the older men especially. Of course, the younger men can stand much more than those over a certain age, but I venture to say that even as regards the younger men there is and there must be a limit to their endurance in such a depressing environment. In spite of all they have endured they have behaved well, they have continued to be patient and cheerful, and they still continue to hope against hope, but after this long and close confinement their spirits will not continue to resist the pressure on their bodies, and I am perfectly certain that if we continue this imprisonment indefinitely we are heading for what sooner or later will be a great calamity.

I want to say a word or two as to the military reasons that are supposed to prevail against any inclination which the Government may have for an exchange on the basis that I suggest in my Question. Of course, the main basis of the military objection is the disproportion of numbers. In that connection I might remind your Lordships that under the Agreement to repatriate those over forty-five years of age the basis finally arrived at was an "all for all" basis. That involved a disparity of numbers of ten to one. For every one eligible for exchange—I had better qualify it by using that word—for every Britisher eligible for exchange, the Germans were entitled to ten. Therefore I submit that the question of disproportion has already been conceded, but the objection still remains operative as regards those under forty-five years of age that we are discussing to-day.

In order to enable us to arrive at a figure as to the actual number repatriated I would inform your Lordships that, of those who were eligible for repatriation over forty-five years of age, as regards the Germans three-sevenths of them elected to remain where they were. On the other hand, as regards the British civilians interned in Ruhleben, one-sixth elected to remain where they were. I have no better basis of computation than that to apply to the remaining numbers, and on that basis I will give what I deem to be the final figures and the final numbers of those that would pass from one country to another, assuming the Government adopt the principle of a general exchange. The numbers of the German and British prisoners of war under forty-five years of age are—Germans, 22,000; Britishers, 3,800. I may not be strictly accurate, and perhaps my noble friend Lord Newton will readjust my figures if they are very seriously incorrect. Therefore, assuming the same proportion which I have just mentioned of those who would desire to remain behind, we should give in return for 3,200 British civilians, 12,500 Germans. That is as regards those interned in Europe. To these must be added those interned in the Colonies, as to whose number I have no means of ascertaining. I take a rough guess. It may amount to as many as 4,000, and, assuming it does, and adding that number to the number of Germans who would be entitled to repatriation, it would work out on a basis of five to one, as against a basis of ten to one on which we exchange prisoners over forty five years of age.

My justification for putting this Question to the Government is to be found in the Agreement signed at The Hague in which this paragraph appears, endorsed by the signatures of the British representatives—my noble friend Lord Newton and his colleagues—as well as by the German representatives. It is a paragraph under the heading "Further Repatriation of Civilians and their Internment in Neutral Countries," and it reads— The delegates will recommend to their respective Governments to give their benevolent consideration to the question of the further repatriation of civilians and to the question of their further internment in neutral countries. It is upon that paragraph that I base my Question. In that paragraph the hopes of many of us reside. I myself as are, I believe, many of your Lordships am strongly convinced that a feeling has been growing and is growing throughout the country that it is in the interests of the mental, moral, and physical condition of these unfortunate prisoners I hat the Government should review its decision of the past and consider the advisability of adopting the policy of a general exchange. The common felon who is condemned to a term of imprisonment knows the duration of the term, but these people may go on indefinitely for another two or three years. There is no saying when they may be released. Therefore, in the interests of their mental, moral, and physical condition it is important that some decision, more favourable than we have received in the past should be accorded to the matter.

And what is the advantage, or the disadvantage, of the exchange? I think I said a year ago or more that, even if nothing were given in return, even if the Germans gave us nothing whatever in return, we should be the gainers by the repatriation of Germans interned here. My noble friend Lord Newton has strong views as to what these Germans interned here are worth. He says they represent nothing but a "useless and expensive incubus," and they have become more useless and more expensive latterly than in the earlier days. The food question alone has a serious import on the continuance of these men here, and in the judgment of many of us, although numerically the balance is against us, we should be great gainers by a general exchange. The mere statement that military considerations forbid such an exchange is, in my judgment, neither convincing, nor ought it to be decisive. I think myself that humane considerations should have some play in the decision; unless, of course, an overwhelming case can be made out for the retention of the Germans in this country—an overwhelming case that it would be contrary to the national interests and would expose the national interests to great danger. But I think that until those overwhelming considerations can be revealed, human considerations should and ought to outweigh the mere military objection.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies on behalf of the Government I should like to be allowed to add a few words to what has been so clearly and cogently stated by the noble Lord who has just spoken I think that any one who has tried to follow this rather long drawn out story of talk on this subject will be surprised by two things. The first is the extraordinary monotony and sameness of the various discussions which have taken place at intervals of a few months. About a year ago there was a discussion about every three months. The same speeches were made on either side, and the same hope Was held out by the Government that something was going to be done while hints were given by the noble Lord that he would like to go a little further than those in supreme authority were prepared to go. Expectations were also held out that before long we should see matters a little more satisfactory than they were. It is somewhat surprising that we should have recurring debates with practically the same thing said on either side.

The next surprising thing—and I think there is really ground for surprise—is that in the case of two Governments of civilised nations there should be, apparently, such extreme difficulty in finding out what the other really meant and intended in this matter, while at the same time the negotiations purport to be going on quite well. It is almost as if we were dealing with two uncivilised tribes or peoples who cannot understand what the other means and intends, or what effect is going to be given to the things that are said. We have grown accustomed to something of that sort in more fields than one during the process of the present war, but any one a few years ago would have been utterly incredulous had he been told that competent negotiators on either side, anxious apparently, if possible, to come to a practical solution, should go on, having the whole matter surrounded with a kind of mystery and incomprehensibleness as to what was really being done, and capable of being done; that these negotiatiors could not understand what one another intended, or, as we should term it, were driving at, and that they could not give effect to the proposals even after they had been put into shape. Why need that be so? It certainly is not the fault of the negotiators, at least as far as we can judge, certainly not of the negotiators on our side. Our negotiator has been the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who from the very first has shown in the whole of this matter not merely the capacity, the industry, and the eagerness which we all would have expected from him, but a thorough painstaking care for which we cannot be sufficiently grateful. For all that, we remain very much as we were before. I hope that we are not going to have to-night simply a repetition of what was said on previous occasions. I hope that we are not going to have the same non possumus attitude as to the ultimate solution. Are we really, we ask, to take it now as final that the difficulty of pushing matters more forward has proved to be insuperable?

Let us try to realise, as the noble Lord who has just spoken has endeavoured to make us realise, the parlous plight of the unhappy men who for years have been expecting and hoping that something was going to take place, sometimes finding release brought almost to their doors, or ground given to them for expecting that in a few weeks time their lot was going to be relieved, and then the whole thing collapsing and going back again. It is simply terrible to contemplate the wretched condition to which they must be reduced as time after time these hopes are disappointed, and it is humiliating if we are obliged, in face of all that, to fall back partly on the difficulty of getting a real understanding between the two countries, and partly upon the technical ground which has been brought forward previously with more or less definiteness, though not always in the same way, as proving the obstacles that cannot be removed. I refer to the difficulties of transportation, difficulties as to shipping, and as to how the men are to be got across in a comparatively few hours, and, above all, the difficulties as to the numerical proportion of the persons who would be released in the two countries, with the possibility, I suppose, of their again becoming combatants.

If the accounts coming to us are true as to what is happening in the camps, it does not seem to me to be a reasonable thing on either side to expect that the men released will be dangerous to their foes as combatants. After what they have gone through it does not strike me that they are of the quality which would make them very dangerous foes to face. However that may be, I cannot help believing that we are now driven back from the arguments based on technical considerations to the larger questions of humanity which override them. The scale of the miseries we describe as being perpetrated is so vast, and the number of people, happily not increasing greatly, is so serious on whom these misfortunes and these incredible conditions are falling, that we should ask ourselves whether we cannot get over the technical objections and fall back upon principles of common humanity and common sense in order to get rid of them.

Personally, I have always ventured, however diffidently as a civilian who can have no technical knowledge on the subject, to express the view that we should be acting as two great nations should act, with wisdom and with common sense, if we were to say that we were going to do the whole thing en bloc and get rid of all the Germans who would consent to go back and who are at this moment interned in this country, even if the number of Englishmen that we should get back from Germany would be very much smaller than the number of Germans whom we should repatriate. On former occasions, when the arguments against that were brought forward and marshalled, they were in a large degree quite different from the kind of arguments that can be brought forward now, because the conditions I think have been enormously changed as regards the numerical point of view. During the last few months the whole position has changed by what has happened in the collapse of Russia. Many of the points which technically seemed to carry weight some time ago must be found to be materially affected by what has been happening in the field and by what is happening with regard to food supplies, certainly in our own country, and possibly in Germany as well.

For all these reasons, I cannot help holding that we have now reached the time when we should approach this matter in a large sense and in a spirit of what is needed by Common humanity, and that we should not find the objections to be insuperable in the way of taking that larger, more generous, and braver view which would enable us to repatriate the men who have been enduring these great hardships with a patience and sometimes with a brightness which is beyond praise, and to whom we should desire now to bring relief if we possibly can. I hope, therefore, that we are going to have to-night some more hopeful note struck in the answer that is given to us, and that we are going to hear that the braver and larger policy is at last to be taken up by His Majesty's Government and followed.


My Lords, I hesitate to intrude again on a subject upon which I have addressed your Lordships on several previous occasions, but I feel so strongly on the matter that I cannot restrain myself from saying a few words. There are three considerations which must enter into the mind of the Government in connection with this subject. There is the question arising out of humanitarian considerations, the question which is of an economical character, and the question of military expediency. There seems to be very little more to be said on humanitarian grounds. The case from that point of view is an overwhelming one. It was an overwhelming one eighteen months ago. These individuals have, since our last debate, been suffering for many months in an increasing way. They have been surrounded by the barbed wire which to them becomes insupportable mentally. Its effect is to impair then health very greatly, and to make them suffer from what is generally known now as "barbed wire fever."

We know from those who have been already repatriated, over the age of forty-five, what the conditions are in this camp. There are 3,200 in Ruhleben. We know that a similar disease has occurred in the Isle of Man, where the Germans have been placed, surrounded by barbed wire. An individual who came over the other day said, "You have no idea what it was to me after three years and a half surrounded by barbed wire to feel the joy of being outside it. It is quite inconceivable to anybody who has not been under these circumstances to know what the joy is which you feel when you are able to walk in any direction, even as far as Land's End if you wish it." I desire exactly the same privilege for those who are still incarcerated in Germany.

Let us take the economical position. It is a great expense to us to maintain 25,000 prisoners in this country, when the supplying of our own population with food causes us anxiety. It also costs us a good deal to maintain the barbed wire entanglements, and a proper guard to surround these individuals always. On the other hand, it is a great cost to us to have to send over parcels every fortnight to these civilian prisoners at Ruhleben in order that they may be properly fed. About eighteen months ago the cost was said to be £2,000,000 a year. I am told that now, with the increased prices of commodities, it is about £4,000,000 a year. Therefore, on economical grounds surely there is an ample case for the Government to save this money and to meet the Germans and arrange for the exchange of prisoners. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for War in his place, because, if this matter is to be opposed, it will be on military grounds.


And naval.


On military and naval grounds. I should like to ask him this definite question. I will assume from that interruption that it is going to be opposed on military and naval grounds. Is it because of the transport difficulty? [THE EARL OF DERBY indicated dissent.] No, it is not on account of the transport difficulty. It had been suggested to me that it might be, but as the noble Earl shakes his head I need not argue that point, although I was quite prepared to do so. If it is on the ground of a disproportion in numbers, the principle has, as the noble Viscount has told your Lordships, already been conceded. But in the event of an option being given to these people to work in this country on work of national importance, I am quite sure that a very large number would much prefer to remain and do such work rather than be deported either to a neutral country or to their own country. There is ample work for all here, and if Germans were given the option of doing work of national importance it is quite easy to arrange for suitable work for them.

It cannot be held on military or naval grounds that these individuals would in their own country do a very great deal of work for the enemy, because I believe the majority of them would probably stay here rather than go back to their own country under present war conditions. But if there is any difficulty about that, instead of deporting them to their own country why do not the Government arrange for their deportation into a neutral country? Then they would not be doing work for the benefit of the German nation. I would urge strongly on the Government that on all these grounds—humanitarian, economical, or the ground of military expediency—a case has been made out for the exchange of these prisoners, and it is up to the Government to explain what are the overwhelming military and naval reasons which can counteract all the arguments which have been used over and over again in this House, and which I have endeavoured to summarise to-day, in favour of an "all for all" exchange.


My Lords, I desire in associating myself with all that has been said by the most rev. Primate and by my noble friend who has just sat down, to call attention to one point which my noble friend raised—that is, the cases, which I believe are very numerous, of those German interned aliens who have no desire to return to their own country, who have become thoroughly English, and who desire and are only too anxious to do national work for us here. I happen to know- of a considerable number of cases of persons of German origin who have lived many years in this country, who have married English wives, who have English children, and who have sons fighting in the war for us. I know one such German who has three sons who, from the beginning of the war, have been serving in His Majesty's Forces. Most of these Germans do not desire to go home. Some of them, of course, may he objects of suspicion. If so, they need not be released. But where there is no ground for suspicion, where they are willing to do national work, seeing how much need we have for national work and what a hardship it is for people who desire to be British and to work for this country to he still confined in this way, I venture earnestly to commend the plea that has been put forward by my noble friend, and to ask the Government whether, in considering this question, they will not also consider the cases of those whom it may be difficult or impossible, or even cruel, to return to their own country, but who could be usefully and to our own advantage provided for here.


Your Lordships have listened to three or four very powerful speeches advocating a change of policy in regard to the internment of civilian prisoners of war. There can he no one who has not the deepest sympathy with those unfortunate fellow-citizens of ours who have suffered this long period of cruel internment. Those who advocate this change of policy have certainly obtained a recruit in the person of the noble Lord who is himself responsible for dealing with prisoners of war (Lord Newton). As Lord Devonport has already pointed out, the noble Lord the other evening, in reply to a Question which I addressed to him, said that the presence of these interned civilians in this country was a "useless and expensive incubus." He has hitherto been a very strong opponent of the "all for all" exchange. I presume his change of opinion has been owing to the lack of employment found for these prisoners of war in this country. Surely that is the fault of the Government for failing to employ these interned citizens, who are no doubt only too desirous of being employed if means and facilities were afforded them. But I think it would no doubt help to elucidate the matter if the noble Lord would give some account of why he has become a convert. I think it has been mentioned that there are 3,200 interned civilians of ours now in Germany. I presume that this includes a number who have been recently added, captured on merchant ships, fishing boats, and so on, and that not all of those 3,200 have been interned in Germany since the commencement of the war. Perhaps the noble Lord can give some information on that point. Perhaps he will also say what report has been recently issued by the Dutch Government, who have undertaken the care of our prisoners in Germany, and what is the condition of those who are still interned. I think there is one thing that has been forgotten by those who advocate this change of policy. I understand that numbers of those at Ruhleben are employed and are not kept within the barbed wire fences. They are given employment outside. I see the noble Lord shakes his head.


Very few.


The most rev. Primate referred to the mystery which apparently surrounds the negotiations that have taken place about this subject, and he says that the matter turns on technical objections. I presume that the real mystery is the demand made for an "all for all" exchange, and that our naval and military authorities regard the German prisoners in this country as hostages for the good treatment of our fellow-citizens imprisoned in Germany, and thereby we do retain some hold—although it may be a very unsatisfactory hold—over the Germans in the treatment of British prisoners of war who may fall into their hands.

The most rev. Primate referred to the collapse of Russia as giving some excuse for a change of policy, but he did not follow up his line of reasoning; therefore, I do not know in what way this would affect the question, except that as hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian prisoners are in process of being released, his argument is that 20,000 or more Germans being despatched from this country to Germany would not seriously affect the position. But that reinforces my argument that the Germans in this country are, perhaps, hostages on our behalf. Therefore, whilst we all feel intensely for the sufferings of these unfortunate people, yet, as The Times' leading article said this morning, "War is war"; and if oar responsible authorities have good reasons for declining to accede to the very powerful requests that have been from time to time put before them, I believe that your Lordships' House would be wise to follow what our responsible Government decide is best. They are equally as human as any other people. and their decision surely must be dictated by what is in the best interests of this country whilst engaged in this terrific war.

In conclusion, I would say that I understand that Germany strongly objects to any interchange except on the "all for all" basis; therefore to give way after all these months will be, in my opinion, a submission to the dictates of Germany, and we should be doing exactly what she wants. Consequently, unless the Government are weak in the reasons that they bring forward, I think it would be a very unwise departure to suggest that the Government should now surrender on this point.


My Lords, as the most rev. Primate observed in the course of his speech, we have been debating a familiar topic this afternoon. The speakers and the arguments have been the same; and, as far as I am concerned, I am afraid that I am not likely to throw much fresh light upon the circumstances.

I will begin by stating that with which I am sure everybody will agree—namely, that from the humanitarian point of view the argument of noble Lords opposite and of the most rev. Primate is unanswerable. There is no other word for it. I have so often expressed my sympathy for the sufferers in Ruhleben that I feel it unnecessary to say anything further on the subject to-day; but my sympathy on behalf of these men is heightened when I consider what was termed by some of the speakers as the patient and cheerful attitude which those prisoners have taken up during their melancholy imprisonment, and it will be recorded eternally to their credit that they have let us know more than once that, sooner than embarrass His Majesty's Government, they are prepared to continue in their captivity.

I think there are two propositions in which everybody will concur. I have already stated the first—namely, that from the humanitarian point of view there is nothing more to be said; and everybody is agreed that, if the question is to be considered from that aspect alone, it is unnecessary to discuss it any further. The second proposition with which I think all sensible people will agree is that in order to effect exchanges we must be prepared to make a certain amount of sacrifice. There are a number of extremely foolish people in this country who are apparently under the impression that you have only to signify your wish to Turkey, or to Germany, or to Bulgaria (whatever the nation may be) in order to get your wishes carried out upon the spot. It is hardly necessary for me to point out that before you can dictate your terms to an enemy upon this or upon any other question you must first have beaten him in the field. The most rev. Primate seemed to be under the impression that there was some inscrutable mystery with regard to the negotiations which have been carried on between His Majesty's Government and the German Government over this particular question. I have enjoyed the unique advantage—if it be an advantage at all—of negotiating direct with the German representatives; there fore there are no mysteries that exist as far as I am concerned. The plain and simple fact is that we want to exchange prisoners but the Germans do not; and this constitutes the difficulty which the most rev. Primate and other noble Lords were unable to fathom. If you have one side always anxious to make a bargain and the other side not only extremely reclutant, but seizing every opportunity to obstruct and, if possible, to destroy the negotiations altogether, it is not surprising that there should have been what I am prepared to admit—namely, intolerable delay with regard to all these matters.

In that connection I would revert for a moment to what fell from the noble Viscount who opened the debate with regard to the question of the exchange of civilians. The noble Viscount found fault with the negotiators for not having done more on behalf of the civilian prisoners compared with what they had done for the combatant prisoners. He asked, in the first place, Why were not arrangements made to put the former in the same category as the combatant prisoners in respect of their eighteen months' captivity; and, in the second place, why could not arrangements be made to intern them in a neutral country? There are two obvious answers to those questions. The answer to the first is that there is no room for all these people in any neutral country. I do not think the noble Viscount realises that it is not a question of interning 3,000 or 4,000 British and 3,000 or 4,000 Germans in a neutral country; it would be a question of interning 3,000 or 4,000 British and something like 25,000 or nearly 30,000 Germans ; and neutral countries capable of providing that amount of accommodation were not to be found six months ago any more than they are to be found to-day.


The noble Lord puts it on the ground that all these people are prepared to be deported, which I think is false.


I am coming to that point presently. There are, no doubt, a large number of Germans who would prefer to remain in this country; but I cannot help thinking that, if the alternatives were put before a German of remaining in an internment camp here, or of being transported to Holland or to Switzerland, he would he distinctly likely to adopt the second alternative.


I was dealing with the question of repatriation only, not with the question of their being interned in a neutral country.


When I was at The Hague, in company with the other British delegates, I did my best to obtain the repatriation and the direct exchange of British and German civilians. We failed conspicuously. That failure arose from the fact that the Germans did not want to do it. If the noble Viscount or anybody else can suggest to me any plan by which the Germans can be forced to do what we want, I shall be intensely obliged to him, and so will His Majesty's Government. But the fact remains that we did our best. Anybody who was there will bear me witness that I was prepared, as far as I was concerned, to make large concessions if we could obtain an exchange on any sort of. reasonable terms. I conspicuously failed to obtain anything of the kind.

I have said that I do not consider it necessary to say anything more with regard to the humanitarian aspect of the question. What I prefer to do is to explain, as shortly and in as dispassionate a manner as I can, what the actual circumstances are at the present moment. When all existing Agreements have been carried out, there will remain in Germany between 3,000 and 4,000 British civilians. Lord Lamington asked to what class these belonged, and how long they had been interned. The majority of these men are merchant seamen, who are naturally men of an extremely useful class whom it would be very beneficial to get back to this country. With regard to the period of their internment, the great majority of them, both ordinary civilians and merchant seamen, have been in Ruhleben since the beginning of the war, or practically since the beginning of the war. Perhaps the House will recollect that the internment of civilians in Germany did not begin systematically until November, 1914; but your Lordships may take it that the great majority of the inmates of Ruhleben have been interned since November, 1914, and have therefore passed more than three years in that camp. There will remain, as I have said, between 3,000 and 4,000 British civilians in Germany. In this country there will remain, when all Agreements have been carried out, no fewer than 21,000 German civilians, and I do not think that the fact is sufficiently appreciated. in this country that these 21,000 German civilians remaining here are men out of whom this country is getting nothing at all. Hardly any of these men are employed. I am not exaggerating when I say that I do not believe more than 200 or 300 of them are engaged in any really proluctive work.

There are, as has been stated in the House to-day, a number of people in this country—intelligent people whose opinion is valuable—who consider that it is very desirable to get rid of these Germans, this large German element, as quickly as possible; and it stands to reason that if you really do want to get rid of Germans, it is much easier to get rid of them now than it will probably be at the end of the war. I would also like to point out that as there are 21,000 Germans interned, we have to feed and guard them—I do not suppose we can employ fewer than between 2,000 and 3,000 men in guarding them—and in addition they make considerable demands upon our transport and other facilities. These men, I say, will remain on our hands, and we are getting nothing out of them in the shape of work. It seems almost incredible that such a state of things could exist. It is due to various reasons It is due partly to the cold-blooded—the typically cold-blooded—policy of the German Government, which has intimated that it would strongly object to these unfortunate men taking up any work outside their own camps. It is also due to the fact that there are a number of incredibly foolish people in this country who resent the idea of a German being employed at all, and who are only happy as long as they can think of him sitting behind barbed wire, gorging at their expense, doing nothing, and costing us a considerable amount of money. That is what will be the position when we have carried out all the existing Agreements for exchange.

But, as has been already pointed out, it would not be possible to get rid of the whole of these 21,000 men in any circumstances, because, as has been pointed out by the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, there are a certain number of Germans in this country to whom it will be obviously necessary to give permission to remain. It would really require what I. may call a double dose of Prussian brutality to deport many of these men from this country—men who have lived here practically all their lives, who have married English wives, who have sons fighting in the British Army, and who possibly have lost sons in those circumstances. I do not believe for a moment that any Government of this country would be capable of the brutality of fercing that class of man back to Germany. As an instance of the feeling that prevails with regard to this particular question, I may mention that only yesterday I heard of the case of two Germans who recently committed suicide because orders for their repatriation had been made out.

It therefore stands to reason that in any case you will have to tolerate and permit the presence of a certain number of Germans in this country, and it is very difficult to arrive the exact number of men who in all probablity would remain. One of the noble Lards who spoke in the course of the debate made a calculation by which I think he arrived at the conclusion that it would only be necessary to send over about 12,000 men. No census has ever been taken by the Home Office, but I think we may safely assume that about one-third would probably wish to remain in this country, and that it might be impossible to get rid of them. That would leave, in round figures, something like 15,000 Germans to be repatriated, as against between 3,000 and 4,000 British subjects who would return to this country. I also desire to point out that if it were decided to effect an exchange of the kind suggested it would take a very long time to carry out. There have been several observations in the course of the debate this afternoon upon the length of time which has been required to carry out the existingAgreements. No one is more sensible of the truth of those observations than I am myself. I signed an Agreement with the Germans on July 2, and it was not until January 2 of this year that the Agreement came into force. I signed an Agreement with the Turkish delegates on December 27 or 28, and that has not even yet been ratified. Those are specimens of what I might almost call the heart-rending delays which take place with regard to all these prisoner questions. Supposing that we made up our minds to embark upon an Exchange Agreement with the Germans with regard to civilians. I calculate that at the usual rate of procedure it would take us something like a couple of months to arrive at an Agreement and get it signed. Then with regard to getting the men away. At the present time we are repatriating Germans at the rate of about 800 men in every ten days. If you had, therefore, to repatriate 15,000 men, the transport of those men alone, without taking into consideration antecedent delays, would occupy no less than six months.

In spite of these facts, the military and naval authorities in this country are not prepared to hand over 15,000 men to the German Government, and their view is a very natural one. They say, "These are men of military age; they are, for all we know, able-bodied men, and we are not prepared to make the sacrifice involved." The other argument which they use—an argument which has very considerable force—is that we ought to take no action of this kind without the consent of our Allies, because they might naturally be prejudiced by it. As the House is aware, I am not in the position myself to dictate what is to he our policy upon a question of this kind. I have to act in conjunction with various other Departments, the most important of which and the two most concerned being the. Admiralty and the War Office. I should like to say parenthetically that hitherto my relations with these two Departments have always been of a most friendly and harmonious description, and as far as I know they are not particularly anxious to see me replaced by anybody else. But, as must invariably happen in all such cases, we have had differences of opinion. Sometimes I have had my way, and at other times they have had theirs.

In this particular instance it is not merely a question of the Admiralty and the War Office, but it is a question of other Departments as well. They are all of the same opinion. I have always recognised—I think I have stated it on several occasions in this House—that in dealing with prisoner questions military and naval considerations should be paramount. It is comparatively easy for noble Lords here and for myself to advocate what seem to be generous schemes for exchange, and we all of us get a certain amount of deserved or undeserved credit for doing so, but we are not in the position of the War Office and the Admiralty in a matter of this kind. When I say "we" I am speaking of myself and noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. We are not responsible for the conduct of this war. The Admiralty and the War Office are responsible for it, and if they are able to give convincing reasons why their policy is to be carried out, then I for my part am not prepared to dispute it. As long as those two Departments are able to give conclusive reasons against proposals of this kind, I think it would be unreasonable to suggest that proposals should be carried out against their will; and until the War Office and the Admiralty are converted it seems to me that you can hardly expect His Majesty's Government to alter their settled policy with regard to a question of this kind. But let me say this, that they have been known to alter their minds before now, and it is conceivable that the same phenomenon may occur again.


My Lords, there is a disarming candour about my noble friend Which makes it a little difficult for us on this side of your Lordships' House to deal with the matter very completely. I think most of us are aware that we have in my noble friend a true friend of the prisoners. He is evidently most anxious to do all he can to obtain their release, and I am not sure that when he undertakes to defend the great Departments of the War Office and the Admiralty he is quite so successful as when he is defending himself. But, my Lords, he has at any rate given us a good deal to think about. Let me, if I may, deal with one or two of the points which he made. First of all he told us that there would be great delay in carrying out any policy of exchange. With that we are, unfortunately, familiar, but that is hardly an argument for postponing action any further.


I did not say it was.


May I say that I am only filling a few of the gaps which my noble friend left in his argument? The fact that we have to discuss matters with our Allies, to which he also called attention, is vet another reason why no further delay should take place in beginning the negotiations. Then my noble friend says that he is not prepared to try to override the War Office and the Admiralty if they have a strong case. The question is, Have they got a strong case? That is exactly what we want to know. I do not think we gathered from my noble friend that they have a very strong case. Let us make a little calculation. How many men are there involved? My noble friend has told us that about one-third of these Germans in England will be unwilling to return. That reduces the figure, by his own calculation, to 15,000, and against that we have to balance the number of our own fellow-subjects who would be returned in exchange. I understand there are about 4,000 of them.


Between 3,000 and 4,000.


Taking the balance, that is a matter of 11,000 or a little more Germans. But then you have to take off another figure. He told us that we wanted a large guard in England to look after these Germans. How many? Perhaps 3,000 men.


Between 2,000 and 3,000, I believe. It was considerably more.


If we take it as 3,000, that reduces the number on balance to 8,000 or 9,000, because you must take off the 3,000 who would be released from guard duty if you get rid of the I Germans. You would not then need the guard. The number of men required by the Germans are very few, I imagine, because in the first place there are fewer men to guard, and in the second place they do not want so many men for the purpose. By a process of attrition we get down to about 8,000 or 9,000 men. Really is it worth while making a fuss about 8,000 or 9,000 men? It really reduces the question to minute proportions if you look at it in that analytical way. Let me add that these are not arguments that I am originating. I am only taking the arguments of my noble friend and putting them more clearly than he thought it discreet to put them. There is the question of cost. Against the military and naval advantage of keeping these wretched 8,000 or 9,000 Germans on balance we have to put also, the cost of keeping them. That has to be reckoned on the other side. I venture to think that if the Government and the great Department which my noble friend Lord Derby represents would consider it from that point of view they would see that the interests of humanity in this case are worth more than the advantage which could be gained by the Germans in having 8,000 more men. If they look at it from that point of view, I cannot help thinking they will come to a different conclusion from the one at which they have already arrived, and if the do that I am sure it will be a great relief to the members of your Lordships' House.


May I ask this question, Is it a fact that a large number of mercantile seamen were arrested before August 4, 1914—in other words, before the war? I am told that something like 2,000 were arrested before the war.


My Lords, there is a consideration which I think has hitherto escaped the notice of your Lordships' House. How can we take a course that is not concurred in by our Allies? if we arrange for some exchange on the "all for all" principle, and it does not suit the convenience of our Allies to do the same, the matter is left in an unsatisfactory position. Has anybody considered what numbers of Germans there must be interned in France and how the balance of numbers would stand if the "all for all" exchange took place between France and Germany? I dare say it is less conspicuous in Italy, because the Germans had a longer notice in which to repatriate themselves before war broke out. Italy was full of Germans, and I imagine there must be a large number of Germans interned there.

If this is looked at as a common matter, which I think it should be, we have to consider, not how much we can reduce the balance, the number of persons we should get rid of here, and the amount of rations we should save, but how it would strike our Allies. If we, in the fullness of our hearts, press on the Government, who naturally cannot state all the reasons which must actuate them, a course which would involve our Allies as well, we ought to consider how many thousands of Germans now interned in France would have to be handed over in return for a similar number of Frenchmen interned in Germany. It is not merely a question of tenderness of heart; otherwise I am quite sure the efforts of every one of your Lordships' House, awl the Government, would be unanimously directed to the almost insuperable task of softening the heart of the German Government. It is a question, and we cannot shut our eyes to it, of purely military considerations. Here are large numbers of persons who, interned as they are, appear to be of no use to anybody, but if returned to Germany, would, if they are non-combatants, release persons who could be combatants, and they would undoubtedly in some way he utilised for that purpose.

I hope, in having said this, that I shall not fall into the condemnation of appearing to be indifferent to the unparalleled sufferings which have been endured by our fellow-countrymen, contrary not merely to every rule and practice of law but contrary to the most elementary considerations of humanity. But there it is. If we do not win the war there will not be any considerations for humanity at all; and the first thing we have to think about is how not, in the slightest degree, to lend any assistance to our enemies.


My Lords, before the noble Earl speaks I should like to ask whether he is in a position to give us figures in connection with the number of Germans interned in France and the number of Frenchmen interned in Germany. We have never had those figures placed before us. I should not like the debate to close without expressing my sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, upon the unsatisfactory speech which he has been compelled to make to-day, because we all know the great interest he has taken in this question and how he has worked for the exchange of these prisoners. We also know—it has been admitted by the noble Lord himself—that he has to content with the War Office and the Admiralty.

In this debate the noble Lord has said that in his opinion the mere numbers, 8,000 or 9,000 Germans being exchanged for those we should receive, was a reason why these Ruhleben prisoners should not be released. After all, what does it matter whether the Germans have 8,000 or 9,000 more men to fight their battles in comparison to our receiving home 3,000 or 4,000 of our interned Ruhleben prisoners? For my part I am quite prepared to make the sacrifice, and I believe other noble Lords are willing to do the same. The noble Lord said there may be convincing reasons on the part of the War Office and Admiralty. If that is so, let us have those convincing reasons. We none of us wish to do anything against the real interests of our country, but do not let us be so foolish as to sacrifice the lives of our fellow citizens simply because we will not have 8,000 or 9,000 more Germans fighting their battles.

My noble friend Lord Devonport gave no illustrations. Here is a very simple one, just a few lines, and no claptrap about it. It is a letter written on December 23 by one of those interned in Ruhleben, and it shows the sort of condition that these poor people are in. The letter says— I cannot realise that this is actually the fourth Christmas. I am living in stables. I sometimes forget myself so far that I do not know who I am, or where I am. To do away with such pitiable letters I am sure we should be quite willing to sacrifice 8,000 or 9,000 Germans who are in this country and at the same time relieve our own soldiers from looking after them. I say, let us have back the 3,000 or 4,000 Englishmen in exchange for the 9,000 Germans.


My Lords, I should like to say, as regards the zeal and energy shown by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that I ventured to call his attention the other day to the case of an officer who was interned in Germany, and in a very short period, owing to his kind efforts, that officer (with others) was released and removed into a neutral country.


My Lords, I think there is nobody in this House who does not endorse what has been said with regard to my noble friend Lord Newton and his efforts on behalf of our prisoners, and I am sorry if for the moment I am unable to play the humane, rôle to the same extent as he, but I want to put before your Lordships certain considerations which I think must weight before you come to the conclusion that the naval and military authorities are at the present moment doing something which in the best interests of the country they ought not to do.

The noble Lord who spoke last on this side of the House, Lord Southwark, cheerfully gave the information that 8,000 or 9,000 Germans would go into the ranks against us in France. It is a presumption that I do not think they would be estimated at a very high value by those who would have to fight these men but I want to bring to your Lordships' notice what these men are whom we are asked to exchange. I will take the numbers of 15,000 against 3,000; rough numbers that have been given. Of these 15,000 whom we are asked to send back to Germany the vast majority are old reservists and non-commissioned officers of the German Army. I wonder what we should give to have even a small proportion of our old non-commissioned officers of the "Contemptible Little Army" sent back to us at the present moment to help us with our troops. The exchange is, on the face of it, 15,000 to 3,000. The noble Marquess added some more to bring tip the balance by saying that guards would be liberated, but he took the whole number of guards employed, and did not remember that there would still be 9,000 or 10,000 civilians to be guarded in this country. It is, therefore, 15,000 to 3,000. In those 3,000 there are many mercantile marine.




2,000 out of 3,000 are mercantile marine men. There is one point that has not been made to-night that I should like to mention to your Lordships. We are talking only of civilians. The Germans have refused to recognise the men of our mercantile marine as being civilians, and insist that they shall be treated as combatants. Our Admiralty and the country generally will not admit that, but if you do admit it you get a proportion of exchange of 15,000 men for 1,000 men. That seems to me to make a very great difference in the value of the exchange. Lord Lamington spoke of hostages. I do not put that forward as one of the views that we should hold, but I think that if you are going to make the exchange of civilians, and you allow the Germans to count our mercantile marine prisoners as combatants, you are taking out of our hand a weapon by which we can compel the Germans eventually to treat our mercantile marine, as they ought to be treated, as non-combatant prisoners. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will see that when the War Office and the Admiralty object to this "all for all" exchange they are fortified by reasons which justify their objection to making an exchange upon such a basis as that proposed. With regard to prisoners at home, my noble friend made a slight slip. He said that there were few civilian aliens employed at home. I am informed that there are about 7,000 employed.


Perhaps the noble Earl will allow me to explain. Those who are employed are not interned at all. The point is that there will be 21,000 left interned who will not be employed in any capacity.


My information is that the National Service Department hope to get a great deal more employment out of these prisoners, and that they are doing all they possibly can to this end. All these considerations have been weighed at a meeting that was held between the War Office, the Admiralty, and the Home Office. Those three Departments came to the conclusion that in the best interests of the country it was not advisable to make this change in the form in which it is now proposed. The National Service Department, which is also interested, is entirely of the same opinion.

I will now take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Sumner, raised. I cannot, I am afraid, give you the figures of the German civilian prisoners in France and in Italy. I believe that the number is very considerable. But in this particular matter of policy with regard to prisoners we have always acted entirely with our Allies. Our Allies have taken the same line that we have with reference to these exchanges, and we are acting upon an agreed policy. We are conferring with our Allies as to wherther there should be any relaxation of the conditions now laid down, and I shall perhaps be able before long to give the result to your Lordships' House. In the meantime, I beg your Lordships to support His Majesty's Government in not giving up these prisoners in the proportion that is named, and to wait at all events until we can have a proper quid pro quo, and until we have established the right of our mercantile marine men to be considered non-combatants.


Can my noble friend give the figures which Lord Southwark asked for, as to the number of German prisoners in France and of French prisoners in Germany?


No I am sorry to say that I have not got those figures. But if the noble Lord wants them, I will find out and let him know.


My Lords, may I ask Lord Newton a question, for he can speak with authority? It is news that the Germans refuse to treat our mercantile marine men as civilians, and that they regard them as combatants. Lord Newton was present at the Conference, and I should be glad to know whether he endorses that statement, which is new to us. Moreover, I challenge the actual figures. There are not 2,000 mercantile marine men out of 3,000 prisoners at Ruhleben. No such proportion exists. That I can say on my own authority.


There were 2,000 originally.


The only other point that I would like to refer to was the one made by Lord Sumner, and that I think is a false point in connection with this debate. There is no question of our Allies in regard to agreements for the repatriation of civilians. It is a matter of arrangement between this country and Germany, and the best proof is that as regards those over forty-five years of age we agreed to a basis of ten to one. There was no consideration of any Allies policy coining into the matter at all.


My Lords, I cannot give the exact number of mercantile marine prisoners, but my impression is that there are more than 2,000. The noble Lord probably has forgotten that Ruhleben is not the only civilian camp in Germany, and that many of these merchant seamen are in combatant camps. With regard to the very important point as to whether the mercantile marine men are to be treated as combatant prisoners or not, the facts are as follows. We have been aware for a long time that the Germans were going to claim that they were combatant prisoners, but we thought it advisable not to raise the question, and when I got to The Hague I was requested by the two Departments concerned—the Admiralty and the Board of Trade—not to raise the subject. The reason why we did not do so and why it has only recently been raised is obvious. We wanted the exchanges to be in operation, and did not want them to be wrecked utterly, as they might have been had we fallen out with the German Government over this point. The question is not decided one way or the other. Naturally His Majesty's Government contend that these men are civilians, and they have never had any intention of vitiating that claim. I presume that if the question of exchange is ever entertained His Majesty's Government obviously would make it a condition that these men should be classed as civilians.


A large number were arrested before the war.


Quite so. That has no bearing upon the numbers who are in internment camps at the present time. My noble friend is quite correct. Sonic of these men were, I believe, quite illegally arrested before the declaration of war took place, but that has no effect upon the numbers.


It shows that they were civilians.