§ VISCOUNT DEVONPORT had the following Question on the Paper—
§ To ask His Majesty's Government whether they have information as to arrangements recently arrived at between the German and French Governments in regard to prisoners of war; whether an Agreement has been reached whereby civilian prisoners of war of each country, regardless of age, will be allowed, if they wish, to leave the country in which they are detained if they are interned at present, or have been interned at any time since the outbreak of war; whether, additionally, civilians of both countries interned in Switzerland or other neutral countries are to be released and repatriated; whether the British Government were consulted by the French Government before the Agreement was concluded; and whether His Majesty's Government are prepared to negotiate an Agreement on similar lines in the interest of British civilians interned in Germany.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before I deal with the subject-matter of my Notice perhaps I may recall the debate that was held in this House about two months since, which dealt with the question of the continued internment of civilians. That discussion was initiated by a Notice which I placed on the Paper, in which I asked a definite question of His Majesty's Government as to whether they were prepared to resume negotiations with Germany for what I termed an "all for all" exchange. The resumption of the negotiations which followed upon those which had taken place led to The Hague Agreement and had brought about a certain mitigation of the conditions borne by civilian prisoners. I drew attention at that time to The Hague Agreement itself, and pointed out that although combatant prisoners, officers and non-commissioned officers received the advantage after eighteen months internment of being released and re-interned in Holland or some other neutral county, no such limit applied to the civilians; that the only advantage that had accrued to them under The Hague Agreement was that 400 of the hopelessly broken in health were to be released and re-interned in Holland, and consequently as regards the remainder there was nothing to look forward to in the way of a release; and that, as things stood then, unless some amelioration were brought 1095 about by the Government's meeting our views, the remainder of the civilians were destined to continue to be interned until the end of the war.
§ That was briefly the case that was submitted; and, as your Lordships will remember, the case for a general exchange was strongly supported from all parts of the House, but unhappily we failed entirely to persuade the Government to give us satisfaction. Indeed, upon that occasion—upon that occasion only, the first occasion—the Government not only resisted the appeal, but they rejected it with considerable emphasis. The reasons that they gave were these. Their naval and military advisers had put such material before them as had brought them to the conclusion that on naval and military considerations nothing could be done. The two grounds that were submitted to us by Lord Newton and also by Lord Derby, who spoke in the debate, were these: first of all, the disproportion of numbers that would be involved in a general exchange. It was pointed out then that, notwithstanding the strong objections which they appeared to harbour at that moment as to the inadvisability of exchanging on a disproportionate basis, not very long before the debate they had agreed to a general exchange as regards civilian prisoners in so far as it affected men over forty-five years of age. That was on the basis of a general exchange, and the ratio was as ten to one. I forbear from quoting again to your Lordships figures that I am afraid have been cited too frequently as to what would be the ratio as between these remaining civilian prisoners. I think the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, by what he called a process of attrition, struck a figure which wa not questioned—I think it was practically assented to by Lord Newton. He said that the situation, if an "all for all" exchange were agreed upon as regards these civilian prisoners, would be this—that we should be giving from 12,000 to 15,000 Germans in return for 3,000 to 4,000 British civilians. That is the brief outline of the matter as we left it on the occasion of the last debate two months since.
§ We were told that the military authorities could not agree to any such exchange, and that the main and outstanding obstacle to any agreement of the kind was that we had to consider the interests of our Allies. 1096 Lord Newton said that we ought to take no action of this kind without the consent of our Allies, because they might naturally be prejudiced by it. A noble and learned Lord—Lord Sumner, I think it was—spoke in the debate on that very point, and he strongly supported the view that we ought not, whatever our sympathies might be, to take any action without preliminary consultation with out Allies, and that we should act with them in hearty accord. He said, in elect, How can we take any such steps without first consulting our Allies? and he even suggested that, if we were to do so, we might involve our Allies as well. I suppose he meant that we might drag them into a situation against their will. That was the impression that he left on the House—that if we were to carry out an agreement of this kind without having the full acquiescence of our Allies we might place them in a difficulty and an embarrassment
Lord Derby upon that occasion, apparently, was not satisfied to leave the case, as it had on previous occasions invariably been left, to Lord Newton. He delivered himself of a speech giving strong reasons why the naval and military objections could not be waived; and in view of what I may term again the subject-matter of my Question, it would be rather interesting to the House to know what was the strong line that Lord Derby took. Therefore I will quote his words or this very point of doing nothing without the full acquiescence of our Allies. Lord Derby referred to the speech to which I have just made reference, that of Lord Sumner, and then he said—
But in this particular matter—the policy with regard to prisoners—we have always acted entirely with our Allies. Our Allies have taken the same line as we have with reference to these exchanges, and we are acting upon an agreed policy. We are conferring with our Allies as to whether there shall be any relaxation of the conditions now laid down.
That makes it abundantly clear, of course, that no steps can have been taken on the part of any of our Allies without the full acquiescence of the Government. Not only that, but at that moment—and I assume the situation is continued—the Government had been in close negotiation with our Allies. That the position which emerges from the speech of Lord Derby which I have quoted.
§ Since these statements were made events have marched very rapidly, and in an 1097 altogether unexpected direction. We have learnt through the agency of the Press—and through no other channel—that an Agreement for a wholesale exchange, an exchange on a tremendous basis, has been arrived at between France and Germany; and not only has the Agreement been arrived at, but, which is far more important—nobody will appreciate this more than Lord Newton—the Agreement has been ratified. I remember well Lord Newton explaining to us in one of our previous debates that it was all very well to sign an Agreement, for instance with the Turks—he had signed an Agreement with the Turks as long ago as last November or December, but at the moment when he was speaking (four or five months afterwards) nothing had happened because the Agreement had not been ratified. Here we have this substantial fact emerging that not only has the Agreement been entered into but it has been ratified. Lord Newton told us yesterday, when the question of combatant prisoners was being discussed, that as far as he could gather the numbers affected by this wholesale Agreement for exchange was somewhere about 330,000 on either side—one-third of a million Frenchmen were going to be exchanged for one-third of a million Germans.
§ VISCOUNT DEVONPORT
I thought, in reply to some interruption, the noble Lord said it was 330,000 on either side. I am sorry if I misunderstood him. Now, what are the terms of this Agreement? They are very far-reaching; and, as regards civilian prisoners, I would like to quote one sentence from what has been published in The Times as official constituting the particulars of the arrangements arrived at. It was stated there that civilians are to be exchanged regardless of age and sex. They will be allowed, if they wish, to leave the country in which they are detained if they are interned at present or have been interned at any time since the outbreak of war; and also that civilians interned in Switzerland are to be released. This means that those who have been transferred from internment in Germany under The Hague arrangement and re-interned in Switzerland are now to be allowed to go free. I assume, of course, and must assume—I think I am entitled to assume—that the Government have been 1098 fully acquainted with the negotiations; indeed, I again assume that they must have been parties to this, although I am bound to say that I was a little perplexed when I heard Lord Newton say yesterday that the matter came to him (I think he termed it) as "somewhat of a surprise." The noble Lord first dealt with the fact that we had always been adverse to an exchange of combatants, and that one of our reasons was that the Government considered it would act as an incentive and an encouragement to all the Allies to do the same. For reasons which are no doubt sufficient from the point of view of Lord Newton and from the point of view of the Government, the noble Lord revealed to us yesterday that they had always been adverse. I have no criticism to offer on that. This is what Lord Newton said—This policy was adopted consistently by the French Government until the other day—that is to say, they were in accord with His Majesty's Government—and it was therefore somewhat of a surprise to find that … an Agreement of a very far-reaching character has been entered into and has been ratified between the French and German Governments.I assume that this was a surprise only to Lord Newton, not to His Majesty's Government. In the face of Lord Derby's express declaration that they were working in accord and that there was a working agreement, it surely could not come as a surprise to the Government that the Germans and the French had agreed to exchange 330,000 men. I should like to express my feelings, but seeing that Lord Newton has been the most persistent friend of the prisoners—
§ VISCOUNT DEVONPORT
It seems a little hard that he should be left out of knowledge of this kind, and I hope we shall be able to glean some reason why such an unfortunate omission should have been made. Whatever the surprise may have been to Lord Newton, I think it came as a greater surprise to your Lordships that a matter of this intense magnitude and importance should not have been revealed to the House in some shape or form. I should have thought that the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, would have come down at the commencement of business, as he frequently does, and made some speech, or some statement, telling us what had happened, and that this would have been 1099 supplemented by the laying of Papers. I presume that, even though the action may now be a little belated, we shall be favoured with the laying of Papers so that we can really get the most official and up-to-date rendering of this vast transaction.
Now, what I am most interested about is what has been the action of the British Government throughout these negotiations—I am assuming all the time that they were parties to them—in relation to British civilian prisoners. Surely they must have considered that if an arrangement of this kind was being come to between Germany and France it would be necessary for them to see that the British prisoners, both civilian and combatant, were participators in the benefits to flow from this Agreement. I do not think anybody will deny that, after very nearly four years of captivity, these civilian prisoners are entitled to our sympathy.
It would appear from the statement which I read out that the whole of the interned civilians in France and Germany are to be set free; and I especially invite the noble Lord, when he replies, to give attention to the last paragraph of my Question, and I hope that I may receive a definite and specific reply. In that paragraph I ask whether His Majesty's Government are prepared to negotiate an Agreement on similar lines in the interest of British civilians interned in Germany. Of course, it is quite possible that the Government have already safeguarded the situation. If so, it will be glorious news to those who have been looking for so long for some action on the part of the Government in the interests of the unfortunate prisoners who have been interned for so many months and in such depressing surroundings. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.
§ THE ASSISTANT UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (LORD NEWTON)
My Lords, the noble Viscount who has just spoken will, I think, hardly expect me to explain away an utterance made by Lord Derby, in view of the fact that it is quite a sufficiently heavy task for me to have to explain previous statements that I have myself made. It is quite conceivable that Lord Derby, who, if I remember aright, spoke without any preparation, may in an extremely complicated matter have not stated the case with complete accuracy; 1100 but the principle remains unchallenged—that so far as the question of the exchange of prisoners is concerned we have up till quite recently acted upon the same basis as the French Government; and it is only recently, as I explained yesterday, that we have learnt that the attitude of the French Government upon this question has completely changed. I will revert to the question of the joint action of the two Governments later on.
Since I spoke yesterday I have had an opportunity of examining the new Agreement which has been concluded between the French and the German Governments, and without going into much detail I will explain what are the principal provisions. The main and most important provision in it is that all non-commissioned officers and men are to be repatriated, head for head and grade for grade, if they have been in captivity for eighteen months. The second most important provision, as regards combatants, is that officers who have been in captivity for eighteen months are to be interned in Switzerland, head for head, regardless of rank; and with regard to the particular point raised by the noble Viscount, officers and non-commissioned officers and men taken prisoner before November 1, 1916, and interned in Switzerland on April 15, 1918, on the grounds of ill-health, are, with certain unimportant exceptions, to be repatriated without regard to rank or number.
The provisions which I have just read out apply only to fit and able-bodied prisoners of war; and invalids are to be repatriated or interned in Switzerland under the Berne Agreement of March, 1918. So it appears, strangely enough, that invalids are placed in a worse position than sound men. This Agreement—I am speaking of the Agreement as a whole—applies to Belgians captured by Germans and Germans captured by Belgians. As to combatant prisoners, there are also less important provisions with regard to conditions in camps and with regard to punishments, and the same class of question for which we effected an arrangement with the Germans at The Hague last year—reprisals and matters of that kind. I might add that there are certain categories—men of advanced age, and so forth—who are entitled to repatriation or internment without any equivalent on either side. So much as regard combatants.
1101 With reference to the, civilians, a question in which the noble Viscount is more interested, all civilians, whatever their age or sex, and who are either interned or have been released from internment, are to be repatriated. No distinction is made between those captured at the outbreak of war and those captured subsequently. Then there is a provision with regard to civilians which has no bearing upon the position of English civilians. Prisoners undergoing a criminal sentence are excluded, and civilians interned in Switzerland are to be repatriated. Civilians repatriated under this Agreement are not to be employed in any military service either at the Front or on the line of communications or within occupied enemy territory or in the territories or possessions of an Allied State. The transport of the civilians is to be completed within six months. The Agreement comes into force this very day, May 15, and I should like to draw attention to the fact that in the procès verbal the German Delegation declared that the German Government considers that the civilian Agreement does not apply to seamen captured on armed merchant vessels, and that the French Delegation reserved any expession of opinion on this point. I mention this particularly because we have exactly the same question to deal with here, and as the House is aware, in view of the dispute which has arisen between this Government and the German Government over the status of merchant seamen, a certain number of merchant seamen are still retained in Germany and in this country respectively.
§ LORD NEWTON
That is so. A dispute has arisen with regard to the status of men captured after a certain date on armed vessels. It is a somewhat complicated question, and I regret to say it is still a matter of dispute between the two Governments; and until the question is satisfactorily cleared up the Admiralty are not prepared to allow additional merchant seamen to leave this country.
The noble Viscount, in the course of his observations, assumed that we were parties to this Agreement which has just been concluded; he also assumed that it could not have been a surprise to His Majesty's Government, and he was rather disposed 1102 to commiserate with me for not having been informed as to what had actually taken place. I am obliged to the noble Viscount for his sympathy with me in what he imagines to be my unhappy position; but as a matter of fact, although I am not an important member of the Administration, it is quite inconceivable to me that any information of this kind would be kept from me, considering that it happens to be my special business; and I can answer with confidence that neither Lord Curzon nor my noble friend behind me (the Earl of Crawford) knew anything about the action of the French Government—that it came upon His Majesty's Government as a surprise, and that we had no intimation that any action of the kind was contemplated.
I would further point out that although it is desirable in matters of considerable importance that the Allied Governments should act together, yet it is quite impossible to secure absolute similarity of action with regard to all these questions affecting prisoners. For instance, when we went to The Hague it never occurred to us at the moment to consult the French Government or any other Government upon every question which arose. I would also point this out, that because the French Government have adopted a particular course of action and because they have agreed to an arrangement under which prisoners should come out after a certain period of captivity, it is not incumbent upon this Government or any other of the Allies to adopt an exactly similar procedure. A noble Lord yesterday, Lord Gainford, when I announced that circumstances had entirely altered and that questions of exchanges would have to be viewed from a fresh standpoint, at once rose to his feet and claimed that we should act in precisely the same way as the French Government have acted. I dispute that contention altogether. Individual Governments are the best judges of their own actions, and I deny that we are bound absolutely to follow the example of the French or anybody else.
As has been more or less evident in the course of these discussions, I myself am perhaps more favourably inclined to exchanges than all the Departments and persons who are concerned with prisoners; but what I feel about the matter is this, that it is extremely easy for noble Lords, like the noble Viscount or Lord Gainford 1103 or any other noble Lord, to get up in this House and advocate wide exchanges on humanitarian grounds—I have no doubt I could become a comparatively popular personage myself if I were continually urging that exchanges should take place upon a wide scale—but these noble Lords and I are not directly responsible for the conduct of the war. It is the business of the Admiralty and the War Office, and, I suppose I may say, of the War Cabinet, to win this war if they can, and whatever my personal views may be with regard to exchanges and so forth, however great a sympathy I may feel for these unfortunate men, vet I do recognise the fact that it is the War Cabinet who must be the ultimate judges in all these questions; that it is for them to decide; and that it is obviously their duty to take into account not only humanitarian considerations but all the other material facts which concern the waging of the war.
I do not know that there is anything which I have to add to what I said yesterday. I took upon myself then to suggest that some form of exchange might in all probability be found advisable by His Majesty's Government, and I was bold enough to make a suggestion of a somewhat vague character. All that I desire to say to my noble friend at the present moment, in conclusion, is that it seems to me perfectly obvious that if anything is going to be done for combatant prisoners who have been prisoners for a long time it is only fair and reasonable that civilians should benefit equally by whatever arrangements may eventually be arrived at.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I do not think it is fair, if I may venture to say so, to press my noble friend at this moment to go further than he has done, because evidently the whole of this French Agreement has come upon His Majesty's Government as a complete surprise. In my humble opinion, therefore, it would not be reasonable to ask them to pronounce this afternoon a competent opinion as to what lines they would take, but I think the Government must be prepared for further Questions on a future occasion.
My noble friend who has just sat down repudiated very strongly the idea that the policy of this country in the matter of the exchange of prisoners can be governed by the policy of the French Government 1104 or others of our Allies. It is a little unfortunate that that was the main ground upon which the Government answered us on the last occasion on which we addressed your Lordships on this matter. Then Lord Derby, who represented the Government, pressed very strongly the point that he could not make a concession in respect of British prisoners because he was acting in strict accord with the French Government in the matter, and it was necessary that they should all be in the story. My noble friend now says that this is entirely a ridiculous position, a position which no reasonable Government could ever take up, and that, as a matter of fact, each Government must decide for themselves.
I cannot agree with my noble friend there. I think there is a necessity for a certain accord between the Governments in the matter of the exchange of prisoners. I do not think that British public opinion would be at all satisfied if French prisoners should be exchanged for German prisoners on the terms on which they have been exchanged while nothing similar was done on the British side. When the noble Lord comes to consider it, and when the Government consider it, I think they will find that something of the kind must be done on the British side. My noble friend said most frankly last night that the action of the French Government made it necessary for His Majesty's Government to reconsider the whole question. I understood him to say so last night.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That is a perfectly fair attitude for him to take up, and I presume I may take it that the reconsideration will have regard not merely to combatant prisoners but to the noncombatant prisoners, the civilians about whom the noble Viscount has questioned the Government this afternoon. I hope they will consider the question, and I hope they will consider it in a liberal spirit. I do not want to go into the figures which were given on the last occasion in regard to interned civilians, but I think your Lordships will remember that the fact emerged from the discussion that the number involved was really very small—that is to say, the difference between the number of German civilians who were to be repatriated in return for British civilians 1105 was very small. No doubt there were to be more Germans, but the excess was not a great one. I remember that that was the result of the figures. The whole number was not only small but almost insignificant in comparison with the great Agreement which the French have just carried into effect. I forget the exact number of civilians.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The whole total was under 20,000 taking both sides, whereas the Agreement which the French have entered into recently runs into between three and four hundred thousand. Therefore, the whole question about civilian prisoners, raised on the last occasion and again this afternoon by the noble Viscount, is insignificant compared with the numbers concerned in the big Agreement which the French have entered into recently, and which my noble friend opposite has just described. I only remind the House of this to show that after this big Agreement it will not be possible to contend that anything very important is being done if the civilian prisoners are exchanged. It is a small matter, but though the numbers are small the question appeals very strongly to the feelings and the compassion of your Lordships' House and the country, and I earnestly hope that during the Whitsuntide recess the Government will reconsider the whole subject, and that as a result my noble friend will be able to give a favourable reply to the Question which no doubt the noble Viscount will repeat as soon as we reassemble.
§ LORD NEWTON
Perhaps the noble Marquess would like to know the exact numbers of civilians. So far as I can ascertain, the number of British civilians left in Germany at the present time is about 3,750, and of these about 2,600 are seamen. As I have already explained to the House, the number of Germans who will remain in this country when the Agreements are concluded is, roughly, about 21,000. Yesterday I suggested that if we entertained the proposal which was brought forward by Lord Burnham—that is to say, that combatants of 1914 and 1915 should 1106 be exchanged—we should lose largely over it if the exchange was limited merely to combatants.
§ LORD NEWTON
Yes; but if the suggestion which I ventured to make is ever adopted by the Cabinet the bargain would be practically a fair one. For instance, if the Germans could be persuaded to exchange not only the combatants who were taken in 1914 and 1915 but the civilians as well in return for their own civilians and their own combatants, the numbers would work out fairly equal. Of course, that is only an idea of my own, and it is not the exact system upon which the French and German Agreement is based. But I believe myself it is a practical proposal which might well be considered.
The noble Marquess will clearly understand that this is far too important a matter for me to decide myself. It will have to be considered by the Government, and I agree that the sooner it is considered the better. As far as I am concerned I should be only too thankful if this question, which has occupied me now for two years, could be settled in some measure on the lines suggested, and I trust that nothing I have said will produce the impression that I am in any sort of way reluctant to come to an arrangement with the Germans with regard to the exchange of military and civilian prisoners of war.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I desire to enforce what was stated by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and to assure the noble Lord opposite that nobody here will suppose that he has himself taken an over-rigid attitude in this matter, or that he has personally desired to hamper any large exchange of prisoners. On the contrary, it has been quite evident through all these discussions that the noble Lord has desired to do what he could in this direction, but that he has, like everybody else, felt himself hampered by what is understood to be the military view of the matter.
There are, I think, hopes that the military view may now receive some definite modification. After all, nobody is more responsible for taking the strict military view than our French Allies. They, as we know, are by common consent in 1107 supreme control on the Western Front; and if to them, in concert with their military advisers, there appears to be no insuperable objection to the exchange of prisoners of war and civilians on this almost colossal scale, it does not seem reasonable that our military authorities should take a different view from that which the French General Staff apparently hold. That, I think, is a hopeful fact, and to civilians it certainly does seem, with the vast masses of men engaged on both fronts that in regard to the military objection to certain additions of strength, either directly or by the release of present noncombatants for combatant purposes, the accession of strength cannot be so great as to weigh against the obvious humanitarian and personal considerations which must be involved.
I should like to say that I feel we are not entitled to criticise the action of the French Government in having taken this step without previous consultation with His Majesty's Government. I confess I wish myself that such consultation had taken place, and I think it would have been reasonable that it should. If, for instance, we had entered into a separate arrangement of the kind with Germany without saving anything to France I do not know that our action would have been criticised in France, but I am quite sure it would have been severely criticised here; and therefore I confess I was not entirely convinced by the argument of the noble Lord that this is one of the questions which each nation might be expected to settle by itself in complete independence. It belongs to the class of questions which are not necessarily settled in concert, but which might advantageously be so decided.
But it is far from my purpose to lodge any criticism against the French Government for the steps they have taken. I only congratulate them on their success, and I trust that the noble Lord will be able to bring all the pressure which his experience entitles him to exercise on the Cabinet, who, after all, have a great many other things to think of, in order to achieve a similar result. I hope that the noble Lord will not be weary in well doing, but will even persevere in boring the Cabinet with this subject until some conclusion is arrived at.
§ LORD SOUTHWARK
May I ask the noble Lord whether his efforts for the 1108 exchange of prisoners will be extended to those in Bulgaria? I am interested in the case of six officers who have been prisoners in Bulgaria since 1915. I am told that they are suffering from a shortage of food and clothing, and that the parcel post at the present moment is suspended. I presume that in speaking of an exchange of prisoners with Germany there are also included those prisoners of war who are in enemy countries associated with Germany, and I shall be glad if the noble Lord is able to give me some encouragement in this matter.
§ LORD NEWTON
The information that we have received regarding prisoners in Bulgaria does not coincide with what the noble Lord has just said, but it is possible that he may have received more recent information than I have. With regard to the question of whether these prisoners in Bulgaria will benefit in the same way as prisoners in Germany may possibly benefit, it would be quite premature for me to make any definite statement. I can only say that in principle I cannot believe that any distinction will be drawn between prisoners of war in any country, and any Agreement which applies to certain classes of prisoners in Germany would, I imagine, also apply to prisoners of war in similar circumstances in the other countries with whom we are at war.
§ VISCOUNT DEVONPORT
May I ask the noble Lord one question with regard to the figure of 21,000 German civilian prisoners interned here? I think that on a previous occasion when we had a debate the noble Lord expressed the view that of the 21,000 one-third did not desire to be repatriated. Is that the situation at this moment, in his judgment?
§ LORD NEWTON
Lords, it is rather difficult for me to form a judgment on the actual numbers, because the Home Office have never taken a census of the German prisoners here upon the point as to whether or not they wished to return to Germany, but I should think that it was not an unfair calculation to assume that about one-third will decline to go back to Germany. I may recall to the House the melancholy fact that several Germans have recently been reported in the newspapers as having committed suicide rather than be repatriated to Germany against their will.