HL Deb 20 November 1918 vol 32 cc320-32

LORD BURNHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether there will be any inquiry by Select Committee of this House or Joint Committee of both Houses into the administration of the Prisoners of War Department and the question of their treatment by the Departments of State here.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology, except because of the clock, for again drawing the attention of your Lordships to a question of which you are going to hear a good deal in the near future, and which, owing to forms of procedure, has not been discussed or considered in another place. It is just as well that these repatriated prisoners of war should know that their grievances can be heard at the Bar of this House. We all, of coures, listened with satisfaction—I only heard in when I came in—to the statement made by the Leader of the House. But that does not go to the root of the Question which I am now putting to His Majesty's Government.

At the present moment, this very day, hundreds of prisoners of war are arriving in this country. In the next few weeks, during which Parliament will not be sitting, thousands more will be coming. The iron has entered into their soul, and I feel they are, most of them, coming with a sense of considerable bitterness against those who, in their belief, have neglected their interests. I am going to explain what I mean. I consider the question as I raise it affects the honour and reputation of the civil and military authorities which have been charged with the care of out prisoners of war for remembrance and humanity, and it affects the reputation of both Houses of Parliament as well. The Leader of the House, in moving, I think it was, the Address to the Crown, said that we had felt throughout the most intense sympathy wit those who were condemned to the cruel fate of slavery—for it was slavery, of course—in enemy countries. That was true as individuals. I cannot say I think that, during the first two years of the war, the Houses of Parliament devoted sufficient attention to the interests and to the sufferings of our prisoners.

I do not say it was the fault of the Houses of Parliament. It was due to the sheer ignorance in which the country and Parliament were kept, and owing to which we were dependent on casual stories of individual refugees and escaped men from camps abroad for any account of what was happening. Then, as we know, all was changed. A Committee, sitting under the presidency of an able Judge, who is famous for his fairness of mind and thoroughness of work, investigated the cases, and they have been pouring out week after week reports containing statements which make you sick to read. If these were merely the unsupported statements of prisoners one might fear that, owing to the cruel and humiliating treatment to which they had been subject, exaggeration might have crept in, but I think you can trust Mr. Justice Younger to have thoroughly examined into all these cases and to have sifted the evidence as a man of his experience would and could sift it. Thee statements have been abundantly justified. I do not say that all over Germany maltreatment was on the same scale and of the same order, but we know perfectly well that in kommando, in coal and salt mines, Mr. Justice Younger's report showed a uniform level of infamy.

Latterly, indeed, conditions may have been acccutuated by the scarcity of food in Germany, which has made it even worse for these men, especially those working behind the lines who would not receive parcels, because their addresses were not known, to keep up their strength in any way. I am not going to repeat those stories because they are common knowledge and have been common reading. I would, however, say that we are likely to have a fresh supper of horrors when we hear what may be told us by some of those prisoners who are coming back from Turkey, especially the survivors of the Kut Garrison of whom, I am credibly informed, only 12 per cent., or a small percent age, are actually surviving the monstrous barbarity which they have had to endure. These things will be brought very prominently to the front during the coming Election, when Parliament will not be sitting.

I hope, to-night, that we shall hear that the Government is prepared to recommend the new Parliament to appoint a body to investigate the charges, and especially how far our prisoners have had the assistance from the civil and military authorities to which they were entitled, and how far their cry of pain has been harkened to. I am afraid that in the natural resentment and indignation at their foul ill-treatment, in spite of all the conventions drawn up before the war, they may be inclined to assign blame where it is not in the least in place. I am far from saying that we could have done what they expected. Personally, I never was a believer, except in rare cases, in the efficacy of retaliation. I always thought that free and unconditional exchange was the only method by which we could have rescued these men at any time in large numbers, and I am well aware of the military objections, legitimate in their way and to a proper extent, that were advanced against it. What I fear is that scapegoats will be made in public opinion, who certainly do not deserve what has been said and will be said. I refer especially to the noble Lord who is head of the Prisoners of War Department. We know perfectly well that he has devoted himself with single-minded zeal from the first to the welfare of these prisoners. If he will allow me to say so, he has a sharp tongue and does not suffer ignorance gladly, and sometimes what he has said may have given a slightly wrong impression to the public, not only of what is in his heart, which is uniformly most benevolent towards the prisoners, but of the action of his hand. It is only fair to him that it should be known, as I believe it will be, that he had many obstacles to struggle against and many official snubbings to put up with. He ought to have the chance of making clear to those men who are now returning, that he is in no way responsible for the fact that they have not been rescued sooner from the cruel fate that they have had to endure. The whole truth ought to be known to the public. Otherwise, not only now, but even in history, names may be gibbeted which on the contrary in my opinion ought to meet with honour for public services rendered in this respect during this war.

Therefore I confidently ask for a public inquiry. I want it to be a Parliamentary inquiry, because it beseems Parliament to take these matters up and show in that way that it is the real focus of public opinion. Such a Committee would naturally have power to hear witnesses and examine on oath, and no body of person, officers or men, ought to be prevented from free access to a hearing. I am sure that the military authorities would not desire that they should be prevented. When the truth comes out I do not fear for the reputation of any member of this House, but I say that without such an inquiry there is a grave danger that the public will be deceived and misled as to the real course of events. May I say this, too, though it does not strictly relate to the Question on the Paper. I hope that every endeavour will be made by the military authorities to welcome back those men who have suffered so much—much more in many cases than those who come home as casualties from wounds. I hear that owing to the miscarrying of orders it has not been done in all cases and there is a feeling of indignation in regard to certain cases which I can give to my noble friend, without mentioning them here. I am certain that nothing would so much tend to allay that bitterness and soreness of spirit of which I have spoken, as every attempt not only to profess sympathy and admiration but to show and display it in the most public way possible in the days that are coming. In that spirit and purpose I have put the Question which stands on the Paper.


My Lords, I desire to say a few words in support of what has been said by my noble friend with regard to the desirability of having the fullest possible inquiry into the treatment of prisoners in those countries with regard to which we have not received full information. In particular, I desire to support and confirm what he has said with regard to the treatment of prisoners in Turkey. It has been in its way quite as abominable and in human as the treatment of prisoners in Germany, and it has reduced the unfortunate men who were taken, particularly at Kut, to a very small percentage. Many of them ultimately arrived at their destination practically unable to stand. They had become mere skin and bone, and I hope that not only will efforts be made to get at all the facts, but, if possible, to get some of the people punished who were guilty of these acts. One person was named to me—I will not give his name now, but I will give it to the noble Lord—as having been guilty not only of the greatest possible cruelty but of unmentionable crimes in regard to some of those prisoners, and if he were caught and punished it would be a good example to other malefactors in those countries.

I would like also to say that I hope that when the details are ascertained which show what were the inconceivable sufferings our prisoners have had to undergo, some attempt will be made to express our thanks to those charitable people who endeavoured to succour them when they arrived at the coast in a state of the utmost starvation and misery. I know that in Smyrna, in particular, there were some British subjects, and some members of the American Mission, who exerted themselves to save, and did save, people who were on the point of death from the sufferings that they had undergone, and I hope, when His Majesty's Government have arrived at the facts, that they will give some recognition to those who came in at the last moment to save these unfortunate remnants from perishing. As regards those who illtreated the prisoners, it is right to ascertain forthwith who are the people particularly guilty. No care could be clearer for inflicting punishment if the culprits can be discovered.


My Lords, I should like to make one point, and it is that this inquiry should be as broad as possible, not only in regard to the action of the Government and the people of this country, but also in regard to the treatment that prisoners have suffered in Germany, and especially in the working camps. It was only on Friday last that two of these poor miserable men came into Valenciennes from one of these working camps, having had to walk day by day along the roads without food. They told me that they were only two out of 500, and so far as they knew they alone had landed in the British lines. It was all that they could do to walk across the room when I asked them to come and see me, and tell me some of the facts in regard to their conditions. I wish to pay this tribute, if I may, to the Department in this country which has been engaged in sending parcels out to feed these men in Germany, that had it not been for the parcels having been regularly sent, instead of the death rate being large as it is, it would have been enormous, and very few of these men would ever have come back into this country. The men to whom spoke admitted that it was only the parcels which had kept them alive, and they said further that they could not have tramped the many kilometres of Belgium that they had traversed if it had not been for the fact that they had a little soap left out of their parcels, and they had used it in order to purchase bread to keep them alive on their walk to the frontier. When one sees these things at first hand, they perhaps impress one more even than when one reads them in the newspapers. I feel that there is cause for an investigation and a thorough Parliamentary inquiry, and I am very grateful to the noble Lord for having taken up this question, and hope that the Government will respond to his request.


My Lords, I do wish to make a speech, but I should like to support Lord Burnham in his request for a Committee of both Houses to investigate these outrages. There is, however, one point that I should like to make which the noble Viscount below me referred to. It is that the men who committed these cruelties on our prisoners in Germane should be brought to punishment. I know, and the noble Lord who is going to answer knows, perfectly well that there is a long list of these men, and I think that the country will demand that some punishment should be meted out to them. It is of no use enlarging upon the cruelties that our poor men have gone through. I have spoken to some of them when they have come home, and it is terrible to hear what they have suffered. If we do not take some means to punish these Germans—officers, commandants, non-commissioned officers, and others—there will be a terrible feeling in this country, and somebody will be brought to a reckoning. I have spoken many times in this House upon this subject, and I wish now to say that nay noble friend Lord Newton has done his very best in this matter. I might almost say that he initiated the question of repatriation of these prisoners, and I wish to thank him personally for what he has done. I know that he has been abused, but I do not think that he minds that very much. I have said before, and I say again, that it would be a proper thing if this Committee which Lord Burnham has suggested were set up, for it would clear up a great many matters which have been dealt with in the Press, and in regard to which the public have been misled in many ways.


My Lords, I endorse the appeal of Lord Burnham that the Government should consent to some Committee being set up to inquire into the policy that has actuated the Government, or successive Governments, throughout the duration of the war in relation to their action towards British prisoners interned abroad. I take it that is the motive of Lord Burnham's Question.




I feel that is necessary, and at the same time I should like to take the opportunity of expressing my agreement with the noble Lord in saying that repeatedly blame has been assigned in a quarter where we know in this House—and we are probably the only people who do appreciate it—that it is not deserved, and never has been deserved. I have had the closest relationship with Lord Newton in regard to the question of certain prisoners in whom I had an interest, and I testify whole-heartedly that he has always been sympathetic, and has been miles ahead of the Government of which he has been a member. That is where the lack of sympathy has been. I do not want to say unkind things, and I will withdraw the words "lack of sympathy." but the outstanding fact is that it has been the policy of the Government, and not of this Government merely but of all Governments from the Asquith Government onwards, deliberately to oppose any question of exchange. That is why it is these men have been left to fend for themselves.

The noble Lord opposite (Lord Newton) has been singled out for attack, but if I had any criticism to offer against the character of his speeches, I should endorse that submitted to us more than once by the most rev. Primate, that he was always an apologist, and was desirous of asserting that he was not responsible for the policy that he enunciated here, and that he had no share in the making or unmaking of it. That aspect of the question was taken up in a marked way by the most rev. Primate, who very properly reminded the noble Lord that all these questions which gave rise to almost innumerable debates were addressed to His Majesty's Government, and that therefore the spokesman of that Government ought not to be an apologist, and ought not to say "This is not my policy; I do not agree with this; I disagree with it." That really has been the attitude of the noble Lord all the way through, and in spite of the knowledge that we here have that he has always been desirous of taking what we have deemed to be the right course, he has been estopped from so doing by those who had the power which, as he frequently told us, he did not possess. There is one outstanding feature of all these debates to which I think I am entitled to direct attention—namely, that on no single occasion has a Minister on that Bench of Cabinet standing taken part in our discussions. We have always been left to the tender mercies if I may say so—I do not say it offensively—of Lord Newton. It seems to me in an all-important matter affecting the lives and the happiness and conditions of our gallant men, we might have had a word of sympathy from that Bench occasionally. We have never had it. Certainly the other day the noble Lord who leads this House delivered a great oration and said, as regards the prisoners that they had had the tender regard of this House during the last four years. That is quite true as regards this House in the bulk; they have had it in a marked degree, but they have not had the tender regard of the successive Governments that have ruled us.

I fear that unless some steps are taken to make a whole-hearted confession through the agency of a Committee as to the shortcomings of those who have the power to mitigate the sufferings of these men and have failed to utilise it, there will be such a gathering of angry protest on the part of those who have come back, endorsed by the whole population of this country, that it is difficulty to contemplate what may arise from it. And as soon as the new Parliament meets no doubt we shall make an occasion to go into the whole Question from the beginning to the end, and when the evidence is produced that I can produce, and have ready with me at this moment, it is the post sorry chapter of the clean abandonment of these men on the part of the various Governments to which I just now referred. I will say no more now beyond expressing the hope that the noble Lord will be able to give us some assurance that an investigation such as is indicated in my noble friend's Question will be consented to.


My Lord, I rise to support the request of my noble friend Lord Burnham for an Inquiry, in common fairness to the noble Lord who has so well looked after the interests of the prisoners. I saw an officer this afternoon who is just back from Holland, and it is as Lord Burnham says. The whole of the blame for what has happened to these prisoners of war in Germany is put on to my noble friend opposite. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men think he is responsible for the whole of the sufferings that they have undergone, and in common fairness to him I hope that an exhaustive inquiry will be made into the subject.

LORD MUIR MACKENZIE had the following Question on the Paper— To ask His Majesty's Government whether they will set up an inquiry into the conduct during the war of matters affecting the treatment and conditions of the British prisoners of war, and the steps taken to ameliorate their condition. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question which I have on the Paper is to the same effect as that which has already been put. I agree with every word that has been said by Lord Burnham. I have only one contribution to make to the debate upon a matter which is, perhaps, not known to the rest of your Lordships. I am sorry that Lord Gainford has left the House, because he and I sat together on a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament which was set up three years ago in order to inquire into the allegations that were then made about the maladministration in the business of sending parcels and other comforts to prisoners in Germany. It is a good precedent for what is now proposed that I think that there is no doubt that the results of the sitting of that committee was to remove misapprehension which had been formed to the prejudice of the very people who were doing most in the matter.

The particular thing which I wish to mention is this, that from the very beginning of our investigations—which were very close, as anybody may know who reads our Report which is on the Table—we came across the name of Lord Newton. He was the man who, we found was already working at the very beginning of this affair. And it so went on. And there can be no question that he has devoted his life to a great extent during the years of the war to doing the very thing which it is said in the most public manner that he has not done. There can be no question about it.

In this House he has been in the difficult position which we so constantly witness on the Front Bench when anything is dealt with not by the Minister at the Head of the Department, and when the spokesman of the Government has to give answers which are administered to him, and he is in a position which, I think, was once described by a noble Lord opposite as being that of a gramophone. Perhaps one of the characteristic things upon these occasions has been that the noble Lord has very often really not disguised that his answers were no more satisfactory to him than in almost every case they have been unsatisfactory to the House. After what has happened in this House, in the other House, and in public it seems to me that it is only the merest justice to him and to others in his Department who have been connected with this matter that there should be an Inquiry, and that we should know what is the truth and the whole truth about this matter. I earnestly hope that the Government will see their way to appoint a Committee such as has been recommended by my noble friend Lord Burnham.


My Lords, the Questions on the Paper relate only to the suggestion that there should be an inquiry of some sort into the whole administration of the Prisoners of War Department, and I do not think the House will expect me to enter into a laboured defence of the whole policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to the interests of British prisoners. As far as my Department is concerned I need hardly say, as I have already said here, that I should welcome an Inquiry. Naturally I cannot speak for other Departments. Various speakers have been good enough to express appreciation, probably too high an appreciation of such services as I have been able to render, and it would be ridiculous to make a personal question of attacks of this kind. I am perfectly well satisfied in my own mind that anybody who occupied the position that I have occupied for the last two and a-half years would have been subjected to exactly the same kind of attacks, and I find it difficult to believe that anybody would have made a success of this particular office. It is one of those offices in which the occupant is bound to be found fault with all round. But, as I say, it is not a personal question at all.

The charges which are made against the Government are, however, I must point out, of a vest vague and general character. Broadly speaking, they amount to this, that the interests of British prisoners have been systematically neglected by His Majesty's Government; and to this is occasionally added the astonishing accusation that, owing to the secret and occult influence of the German Government here, justice has been denied to British prisoners in Germany. I cannot help thinking that if an Inquiry is to be held it would have to be held on some rather more definite charge than that. I am unable to say what course the Government propose to adopt, but it is perfectly obvious that a Parliamentary Committee at this moment is out of the question. But I suppose that I am justified in assuming that the speeches which have been made here this afternoon—all of a moderate character—are speeches which ought to be treated by the Government with a great deal of consideration, yet what precise effect they will have I do not know.

There is one small circumstance which I should like to point out, and which seems to be generally forgotten—namely, that in these allegations and accusations against His Majesty's Government of indifference to prisoners and of neglect of their interests, it is not only a question of bringing charges against the Government and against the officials who have been responsible for the policy of the Government, but it also involves very serious charges against the American Government and the Dutch Government to whom our interests have been entrusted and who have exercised the office of protecting Powers. I cannot. help thinking that this is a very regrettable feature, but I can hardly think that it is a sufficient reason of itself for granting an Inquiry. However, as far as I am concerned I can only repeat that I should welcome any Inquiry by a properly constituted body.

I did not intend to say anything upon any other subject, but, as the question has been raised by some noble Lords of the present conditions of prisoners in Germany, the House may be interested to learn that, in view of the information which we have received, the following Message has been sent to the German Government— Information reaches His Majesty's Government of shocking lack of organisation in release of British prisoners in German territory, and of their return march on foot, miserably clothed, without food or transport, and with no escort or guides to the Allied lines, with the one result of lamentable suffering and heavy mortality— I understand that this message has already been read to your Lordships; therefore I need not read it again.


Please go on; some of us did not hear it read earlier in the evening.


The Message proceeds— His Majesty's Government cannot tolerate a continuation of this cruel treatment, and must insist on adequate arrangements being made in all above respects by German authorities with whom responsibility lies; otherwise we shall be compelled to take this into account in any question of revictualling Germany or satisfying the requirements of the German population. His Majesty's Government are ready to lend all available assistance by forwarding food, clothing, and transport to prisoners' camps where they are not otherwise forthcoming, and are addressing Allied Commanders in this sense. In addition to this, Sir Douglas Haig has been instructed to take every possible step to provide with the utmost rapidity food, clothing, and means of conveyance for the use of our prisoners in Germany; and our Allies have been asked to co-operate in this action. I hope that this announce- ment will reassure those of your Lordships who think that His Majesty's Government are failing in their duty towards prisoners.


My Lords, the noble Lord is not sure whether the Government will grant an Inquiry, but I can assure him that the country will insist upon one. The state of our prisoners has been shocking. I brought the question forward three times in the other House, and I have brought it forward twice in this House. I agree with Lord Devonport that not one word of sympathy or consideration has ever been uttered by a Cabinet Minister from the Front Bench opposite or from the Front Bench in the other House. That is what has irritated the people. My noble friend Lord Newton has frequently expressed his sympathy. His difficulties have been enormous, and, I said the other day, if he had had his way he would have done a great deal more. The only fault I find with Lord Newton is that when his proposals, in such an extreme case as this, were not accepted, he should have asked for another Committee, or resigned. That would have taken the imagination of the public. Perhaps his ideas are better than mine, and, no matter how difficult it was, he was right in remaining in office and doing his best. I am satisfied that the demand made by Lord Burnham will be insisted on by the country, and that there will have to be this Inquiry with regard to the position of our prisoners in Germany and in Turkey.

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