HL Deb 14 May 1918 vol 29 cc1064-75

LORD BURNHAM rose to ask the Controller of the Department of Prisoners of War whether any, and if so what, steps have been taken for the exchange of noncommissioned officers and men of the British Armies captured in 1914 and 1915; and, if not, what are the intentions of His Majesty's Government having regard to what has been done for officer prisoners of war.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have placed this Question on the Paper well knowing the difficulties which beset and perplex the matter and well knowing also that any decision must be in the nature of a balance of the evils and disadvantages; and if I put it to my noble friend opposite, it is not because I wish in any way to belittle or to disparage the efforts that have been made to relieve these men from the utter darkness of a misery as great as humanity has ever been called upon to endure. I would point out, however, to your Lordships that things cannot be left where they are in face of the Agreement which it was officially announced from Berne had been made between the German and French Governments for the free exchange of all prisoners who had been for over eighteen months in confinement. And there is something more than that. For humanity's sake it is impossible to leave things where they are, having regard to the future discipline and morale of our Army, and to the social peace and contentment of the State after the war.

The men whom this Question covers are the dying and tortured remnants of the Old Expeditionary Force—the rear parties, most of them, of the rearguards of those regiments which we know saved France and saved Europe. They are the men who the Prime Minister in the other House said most eloquently had "centered in their own breasts the spears of the hosts of the barbarians." They were mostly men captured because they were meant to be sacrificed—it was inevitable that they should have been —in the onward rush of the German Armies. Well, we know what their fate has been, and I think that of all that Germany has done the worst and most shameful thing has been the official and systematic ill-treatment of these helpless prisoners. It is much worse than the use of poison gas, because, although that was denounced as "the unforgivable sin," after all it was certain that it would provoke retaliation, as it has, of a more deadly kind than the original. But in this case it was known there could be no retaliation. It was common knowledge throughout the world that in this country, whatever our failings—and they are many—we should never stoop to that organised cruelty which has characterised the treatment of our men taken prisoner behind the lines, in the concentration camps, and, worst of all, on commando and forced labour in the mines and factories. It is true, of course, that there are some people who take the view that we ought not to dwell on these things. I had the misfortune to read a speech by Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, in which he said that we ought not to allow ourselves to roll in the filth of atrocities. That was a pleasant and disinterested view on the part of one who has kept clear of any share in the war, but it is not the view which I am certain your Lordships, with all that your houses have suffered, are likely to take.

I am bound to say that I complain, and I do so with all respect to the Government, that we have not had enough official information on this subject. I do not mean to say that this is done purposely, but it gives an impression and an appearance of callousness in official quarters which, though it may not be justified, may have very bad effects. It would be a piteous thing if the remnants of our Army come back—those who have not been decimated by starvation and disease—debilitated as they will be in health and character, to bear witness for years to come of the ingratitude of their fellow-countrymen. There has been the appearance of keeping this vile state of things out of the light, not dwelling upon it, for Departmental reasons. I think the time has come when these things should be considered in the full light. I wish we had more upon which to go than the unofficial statements made in newspapers or conveyed to us by letter. It is true that we have the two Reports of Mr. Justice Younger's Committee, one dealing with the filth and foulness of the typhus camp at Wittenberg, and the other dealing—as your Lordships have read recently—with the lot of prisoners on their way to camps, and forced with frightful barbarity to work immediately behind the lines, and not registered or reported to the authorities. I think that the country owes a great debt of gratitude to Mr. Justice Younger for the manner in which he and his Committee have investigated and reported upon these methods.

I am not going to trouble your Lordships with a re-hash of the atrocities revealed by those Reports, and they are not strictly pertinent to the Question I have put down; but there is a great deal of unofficial information coming through which shows that these men who have been so vilely treated, and who have almost lost heart now, have had their fate aggravated, comprehensively but not in the least designedly, by the arrangements mutually made for the internment of officers in neutral countries who were in other camps but who shared to some extent the same extremes of hardship. In August last, as the House knows, my noble friend made an arrangement for the internment—I think owing to the generosity of Holland—of, I believe, 8,000 officers and non-commissioned officers on both sides. That arrangement has been carried out. There has been also the internment in Switzerland of officers, noncommissioned officers, and men who have been in the last stage of ill-health. But in regard to the internment of those who did not come in that category of extreme disability of health there was no arrangement that extended to the private soldier.

For the internment in Holland I know it was impossible to make arrangements on a big scale, because none of the neutral countries could have found accommodation for the large numbers of men they would have been asked to receive within their gates, having regard to their straitened means and supplies, but the effect must have been in some respects deplorable, because although the officers were not in the same camps many non-commissioned officers were, and when they left for internment the private soldiers, to whom they must have been a moral support, as well as to some extent a sort of championship, were left to be ill-treated and subjected to the intolerable bullying of the Prussian sergeants and other men who made a business of rendering their lives a misery.

The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette reported, a few nights ago, a letter which he had received, written on March 21 last, describing the condition of British prisoners in Germany. It said— The men at Chemnitz are having a terrible time; in fact, they say the treatment is as bad as in 1914. The men in parent camps are all right, but it's those on commando who suffer so terribly. At Chemnitz they are working 900 feet underground. If they refuse they are knocked senseless, and taken down to where they recover consciousness; they are made to work till their piece of work is done, and starved until it is finished. Unless something is done to release these 1914 prisoners from Germany soon I fear very few will return to the old country. I saw in yesterday's paper a statement from two privates who had just arrived, not belonging to that category, I dare say, but who narrated circumstances which show the sort of treatment which is still being meted out. They are two privates in the Canadian Scottish, and they say— The treatment which the Germans meted out to their captives was devilish. We were sent to a noted strafe camp at Grissen, where we were put into a small room which had no windows and no means of ventilation, and the door was always kept shut. The atmosphere became terrible. While there we were fed on bread and water, and only small quantities of that. Many of the parcels from home were withheld for five weeks, and then, instead of handing them to us, a German officer opened each parcel and dumped the contents into a big tub. The result was that everything was spoiled. It was a source of great amusement to the Huns. That is the sort of treatment which is going on; and these men, who I say are on commando from concentration camps, and who include all those still able to move and work among the heroes of the Old Army, are the men who are suffering most. These men are almost ruined in mind as well as in body. What will they become if nothing is done to bring them back to this country, even at the sacrifice of what is called military considerations?

The facts that I have stated are borne out by a letter which I had from a person in the county of Dorset, who says— I am receiving numerous letters from both N.C.O.'s and privates, protesting against the fact that only N.C.O.'s are exchanged, which both they and privates join in saying is a cruel injustice, in view of the fact that the privates have infinitely more to suffer. The N.C.O.'s do no work, while we all know the terrible slavery our unfortunate men endure, accompanied with most brutal treatment. One private writes 'We are aghast at this decision, and can see no reason for it.' Their complaints are bitter. All are men of the Old Army, prisoners from the early days of the war.

If nothing had been done by our Allies to remedy this appalling tragedy the official answer that it was impossible to move might avail, but it is not the case that the Allies are acting together. Your Lordships may have seen in the official announcement in The Times of May 3, from Berne, a statement that arrangements have been made between the French and German Governments that this class are to be repatriated head for head and rank for rank. It says— Non-commissioned officers and men of over eighteen months captivity are to be repatriated head for head and rank for rank, according to the length of their captivity. It is calculated that the exchange of the prisoners of 1914 will take fifteen months. Then there are various provisions with which I will not trouble your Lordships because you will have read them. It seems to me that this arrangement has had very scant notice in this country, and I cannot understand why no official reference has been made to it in either House of Parliament. It means that the French Government have already met the urgent demands of their own people. I hope the same thing will be done here. If not, I think that the charge of official callousness as to the fate of these men will be to some extent justified.

I cannot see why there should be a greater difficulty in regard to this country than in regard to France. Of course, I know that the military view may not be favourable. It may be averse to returning to Germany non-commissioned officers and men who certainly will not be worse in health for their captivity here. We know with what scrupulous care their interests have been safeguarded in the prison camps in England. I am not saying that it should not be so, because there is nothing I should hate more than that we should be guilty of this horrible, bestial cruelty, such as is reported on commando and behind the lines right up to this day from Germany. I cannot believe that your Lordships will be insensible to the sufferings of these men. I do not see any right rev. Prelates on that [the Episcopal] Bench. In all our old prayer-books we recollect the service for prisoners and captives. No special service has been instituted, but at least we can do something to give effect to the prayer for those taken by the barbarian. We can do something through my noble friend, if he isinspired and encouraged by your Lordships to press for the same treatment for our own heroes as the French have already secured in the case of their own men.

Countless numbers are now arrayed in battle. It may be impossible to enforce any such condition as that released prisoners of war shall not be used as combatants in the fighting lines, but I think that in such an awful condition of things we must run the risk. In this spirit I have put down the Question, and I will not proceed beyond it, although I have been asked to do so and to refer to civilian prisoners, because Lord Devonport is raising that matter, and it is a separate issue, to-morrow. I therefore content myself with asking my noble friend the Question which stands in my name, and I feel assured that we shall get from him a sympathetic reply.


My Lords, I rise to say a few words in support of what my noble friend has just said, having before addressed your Lordships' House on this subject. I entirely agree with what my noble friend has said. I have seen two or three officers who have escaped from Germany lately, and they have informed me that the officers over there who have not been wounded or ill in any way have banded themselves in a body and refused to be exchanged because the men are not allowed to be exchanged. I think that speaks most highly for the officers of our Old Army, and it is just the thing which we would expect them to do.

I can vouch for the truth of the stories which my noble friend has told you, and I could tell you a great many more a good deal worse. I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time in doing that, but I venture to suggest that the Germans are acting in this way for a definite purpose, that purpose being to set class against class in this country after the war. They allow officers and non-commissioned officers to be ex changed, yet they will not allow men to be exchanged. They imagine that by so doing the men will think that we in this country have not done anything to help them to get back, although we have helped the officers and non-commissioned officers. I earnestly trust that the noble Lord who is in charge of the Prisoners of War Control Department will do his utmost to try to get some of these heroes who fought for us in 1914 and 1915 accorded the same treatment as is accorded to their officers.

Before I sit down I would ask the noble Lord if he can do anything to make a strong representation about a definite case that I can give him. It is the case of an officer who is due for internment in Holland according to the arrangement that he himself was able to make with the Germans a short time ago. This officer was brought up on a charge of assault.


What is his name?


I will give his name in private, if I may. Perhaps it would not—


I cannot reply unless I know his name.


I will give it to you afterwards. It might do him harm to give it publicly. Apparently the clause of the Agreement says that every officer who has completed eighteen months in captivity, whether under punishment or not, shall, provided there is sufficient accommodation, be interned in Holland. The Germans interpret this clause as meaning that the officer must actually be in prison undergoing sentence before becoming eligible for internment in Holland, and, therefore, it is in their interests to postpone the sentence as long as they can—for several months in the present case, during which time the officer is either kept in solitary confinement under precisely the same conditions as he has after receiving his sentence, or, at the best, allowed to live as a prisoner in the Lager. This officer has endured imprisonment under these conditions for the best part of a year. They kept him there so as not to allow him to be available for exchange to Holland, and then, when there was no room for him in Holland, they gave him his sentence of nine months solitary confinement. Not one of the months that he served in solitary confinement before he was brought up for Court-Martial counted towards these nine months. I am informed that if the noble Lord would make strong representations about that case the sentence would very probably be reduced to two or three months solitary confinement, instead of the officer having to serve the whole term of nine months.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down will, I hope, forgive me if I point out that the question he has just put to me has a very remote connection with that which appears on the Paper. If he will give me the name of the Officer to whom he refers I shall be only too pleased to inquire into the case. I think it extremely probable that the case has already been taken up by my Department. With regard to the Question on the Paper I do not think that anybody is likely to dissent from the opinions which were expressed by Lord Burnham with regard to the treatment of British prisoners in Germany generally, but I confess that I take strong exception to the expression which he used—namely, "official callousness"—as applied to the action of His Majesty's Government in regard to prisoners of war generally.


I said I hoped that that could not be substantiated.


I hope the noble Lord does not include me—


I specially said so.


Because I desire to take this opportunity of repeating what I have often said before, that the action of His Majesty's Government will bear most favourable comparison as regards prisoners with that of any other Government.

With reference to the Question on the Paper, I can well understand that there should be much ill-feeling on the subject on the part of those unfortunate men who have hitherto not benefited by the arrangements that have been made. These men obviously have the strongest possible grievance. They rightly complain that they who have been worse treated than anybody else have been unfortunately excluded, and that their more fortunate companions in the shape of officers and non-commissioned officers have been provided for. I should like to repeat most emphatically that this is not due to what the noble Lord calls "official callousness" on the part of His Majesty's Government. Imyself, in common with the other delegates who went to The Hague, have suffered a good deal from abuse of a somewhat ignorant character with regard to this particular point.

Let me explain the position. Up to now it has always been the policy of His Majesty's Government to refuse to exchange able-bodied combatants, and consequently when I went with other delegates to The Hague this question was ruled out altogether. The German Government, as the noble Lord and everybody else knows, looks upon a prisoner as literally nothing much more than a beast of burden. When it came to a question of interning these men in a neutral country the German Government naturally refused to do anything of the kind, because they would have lost the labour of these men. The question of exchange naturally is a totally different matter. If there is a question of exchange both sides benefit by recovering their own nationals for employment. Up to now it has always been the deliberate policy of His Majesty's Government to refuse to exchange able-bodied combatants, and the reason is plain enough. It has always been the view of the War Office, and of the Admiralty, and of the Cabinet so far as I know, that the more you exchange prisoners the more you prolong the war, and His Majesty's Government have always refused to adopt anything of this nature, because they considered that it would act as an incentive and encouragement to all the Allies to do the same. I am only announcing what is really an open secret when I point out that the obvious motive of this policy was to prevent the enormous exchanges taking place between the Russians and the Austrians and Germans which have taken place since Russia dropped out of the war. This policy was adopted consistently by the French Government until the other day, and it was therefore somewhat of a surprise to find that, as has been explained by my noble friend Lord Burnham, an Agreement of a very far-reaching character has been entered into, and has been ratified between the French and German Governments. I have not yet seen the text of this Agreement, but I have every reason to believe that it is of an extremely far-reaching character, and that the numbers involved, including civilians and military, amount to something like 330,000 men.


In France?


No, on both sides. It is perfectly obvious that this completely alters the whole situation. I do not think it would be within the capacity of anybody, however ingenious, to persuade the British soldier that he is henceforth to stand in a totally different character from any other soldier who is fighting in this war; and after having consulted my noble friend the Secretary of State for War he authorises me to state that, in view of this totally new situation, His Majesty's Government are prepared to re-consider the question of exchange de novo. I should like to point out, although it is hardly necessary to do so, that a decision of this kind is not one which I. can take myself. It is a highly important matter which will have to be considered by the War Cabinet, and I have no means myself of anticipating what the decision of the War Cabinet may be.

But perhaps, without committing too great an indiscretion, I may be allowed to express my own personal opinion that the importance of exchanges may very well be over-estimated. It strikes me that under any reasonable proposals the numbers involved could not in any circumstances be very great, and I do not think the fact is sufficiently realised that, even if you arrive at agreement with regard to exchange, the actual operation takes so long a time that the eventful influence upon the war cannot be of much importance for a considerable time to come. My own view, therefore, is —for what it may be worth—that if, for instance, we were able to arrive at an agreement with the Germans for the exchange, say, of all combatants and all civilians who had been either in captivity or interned for a period of three years, not only should we put an end to the extreme hardships which these men have undergone, but it would not be a bad bargain from our own point of view, because the numbers would be approximately equal; and, as I have already pointed out, the actual operation of exchange would take so long that it would be hardly likely to have any very serious effect upon the war. These are, of course, only my own personal opinions, which may be of no value at all. This is, I repeat, a highly important question which must be considered by the War Cabinet, and I have not the smallest doubt that the War Cabinet will take everything into consideration, and will be guided solely by what they consider to be the real interests of the country.


My Lords, I am sure that every one has heard with pleasure that there is some prospect of the Government reconsidering this question of exchange. I understand that the French and German Governments are proposing the exchange of those who have been in prison for a period of eighteen months. I think the noble Lord mentioned three years as the period for which they would have to be imprisoned before they would be exchanged, if an exchange took place between this country and Germany. It seems to me, if the French and Germans exchange all their prisoners who have been in prison for over eighteen months, that our prisoners ought to be exchanged if they have been in prison for eighteen months, and should not be retained in Germany for three years if it is possible to avoid it.

There is one other point I wish to touch upon. When I was a member of a Committee appointed to inquire into the distribution of parcels for prisoners of war we had a great deal of evidence from escaped prisoners, as well as from some of those who were subsequently exchanged, as to the character of the food received by men in the ranks who were working in Germany. At that time we had very definite information to show that the parcels, whilst they were received by those in the "parent camps," were not forwarded in many cases to those who were in the working camps, and consequently the men who were working in Germany, British subjects, were underfed and treated in the brutal manner described by Lord Burnham. Therefore these men are not really able-bodied men in the ordinary sense of the term. They have been underfed for many months, in some cases for year, brutally ill-treated; and whilst the exchange would be an unfair one from one point of view, yet on humanitarian grounds I am sure it ought to be done. It is unfair because we should return to Germany men who have been properly and decently treated in the prison camps here and in France, whilst we should receive in return men whose health in many cases has been destroyed and who have been subject to gross and brutal treatment at the hands of the Germans.


May I ask one question of the noble Lord? I brought before his notice the case of those prisoners who are working in mines, and he gave me to understand, as far as I remember, that he did not know how many there were. These men are those who are particularly subject to brutal treatment, because neutrals are not allowed to visit and inspect them. The Germans say it is against military interests. Can the noble Lord give us any information about these men?


I am afraid it is impossible to give an answer as to the number of men who are working in mines at the present time. Generally speaking, as I said just now, the Germans utilise prisoners for getting as much work as they can out of them, and use the most brutal methods. The men who suffer most are undoubtedly those of whom my noble friend speaks, who are sent on these working commandoes, and who are frequently employed in mines, and whom the Netherlands Legation find it extremely difficult to visit. I can assure my noble friend that whenever we hear—and we constantly do hear—of cases of ill-treatment and suffering on the part of our prisoners, we invariably ask the Netherlands Government to visit these particular places, and in most instances they do their best to do so. These are the men who would benefit if an Exchange Agreement were arrived at, and they are the men who deserve to benefit. The other men who are in equally bad case are the men who have been detained behind the German lines in open defiance of the Agreement which we have made, and who are exposed not only to the brutality of their guards, but are also in many cases even exposed to the fire of their own men. The case of these men is, if such a thing were possible, even worse than that of those who are employed in the mines. There will be further information available on the subject before long, because we are shortly producing fresh Parliamentary Papers which deal with these particular points. In the meanwhile I am afraid that it is impossible to give the noble Lord the figures for which he asks. All I can say is that the Germans leave no roan idle if they can possibly help it. Every private is removed from the main camp if he is able to do any work at all, and is employed in some capacity, very often under the deplorable conditions which have been alluded to this afternoon.

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