HL Deb 16 October 1918 vol 31 cc709-32

THE EARL OF MAYO had the following Notice on the Paper—

  1. 1. To draw attention to the Report of the Committee presided over by Sir Robert Younger on the Treatment by the Germans of Prisoners of War taken during the spring offensive, 1918; also to the fact that prisoners of war in German hands have been made to work in salt mines.
  2. 2. To ask if any further reports have been received from prisoners interned in neutral countries, or repatriated.
  3. 3. If His Majesty's Government can give any further particulars as to the prisoners of war taken during the spring of 1918.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, I should like to draw attention to the Report on the treatment by the Germans of the prisoners of war taken during the spring offensive of 1918. This Report of the cruelty and starvation of our men is appalling. We know that the Germans have been treating our prisoners very badly front the commencement of the war, but this Report concerning the prisoners taken in the March offensive has brought home to the public of this country, and I hope to your Lordships' House, the way in which these brutes have been treating our brave men.

With your Lordships' permission I should like to read a few of the statements made by the Committee. I hope that your Lordships have read them. Some of you perhaps have; some have not. The men captured in the March offensive were in nearly every instance left without food for periods varying from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, during the greater part of which they were kept constantly on the march. The Report says— One or two instances may be given. A man captured at Lagnicourt at 9 a.m. on the 21st March was marched with a band of prisoners, including a number of wounded, to Villers, arriving there at 3 in the afternoon. Thence they were taken across country to a cage 'which seemed miles front anywhere,' and which was reached at 9 p.m. There they spent the night in a barbed-wire enclosure, sleeping in the open without food or drink, other than water from a small stream flowing near the cage. Next morning at 10 a.m., still without food, the men were marched to Marchiennes, where they arrived at 6 p.m. No food on the journey—only some coffee— Your Lordships know what the coffee given to prisoners is like in Germany— At Marchiennes they were given a small piece of bread and a little more coffee; nothing more. The men were famished. That is the evidence which was given before the Committee. It is not that these men were hurriedly marched into Germany to be put into proper prison camps; nothing of the sort. They were marched behind the line, then brought up nearer to the line and made to work under our shell fire.

I must give you just an example of the places that they were kept in, and what they had to do. The Committee say— The following account of Cantin is illuminating:—On the 12th April 200 of us left for Cantin (about 16 kiloms, behind the line). We slept in a barn over a stable on verminous straw. We worked here in a pioneer park, loading ammunition and other war materials. On complaining to an officer we were told that if we refused to work the ringleaders would be shot. The guards were very brutal, kicking us, beating us with sticks, and using their rifle-butts on us. The food was even worse here; we were all starving. There was a lot of dysentery amongst the prisoners, but the doctors made us work all the same, and stopped our pay (3d. a day) and bread ration if we refused. Some of the men were fumigated, and got a bath, but there was no soap or towel. Many of the men were covered with sores.' Now we will see what the German officer does when he is complained to— One day we refused to load shells, and one of our men complained to a German staff officer who spoke English, telling him it was wrong to expect us to load shells for them, and that we wanted to make a general complaint. His only reply was to line us up in a squad and to order that the first man who refused to work would be instantly shot. I might go on reading these atrocities from the Report for half the afternoon.

I want to refer to another point in my Question, and that is that British prisoners have also, I believe for some time, been made to work in the salt mines of Germany. They have been made to work for long periods. The Germans work in salt mines, but they do not work for long periods; they are allowed to go out and to rest at other work. But our men are kept there. One has heard of men coming out barefooted from these mines with holes in their feet.

I have now to say something about what the Government has done, or rather, what the Government has not done. This Report is dated August 29, and to-day is October 16. What has the Government done? On Monday last, October 14, there was an ultimatum to Germany issued; at least the public was then made aware that an ultimatum was issued. Our Government called upon the German Government to redress the grievances complained of with regard to our prisoners. There are five demands set forth in that document. They are all printed in The Times. One of the most important statements in that ultimatum is that unless within four weeks (being the period of notice stipulated by The Hague Agreement of 1917) the German Government treat the prisoners of war in their hands in accordance with the rule of International Law and with the practice of civilised nations there will be reprisals— The Government will take all steps in their power to ensure that the persons responsible for these outrages shall be punished for their misdeeds. Dates are important. This Report is dated August 29. Even with the delay entailed by the rules of The Hague Convention, that ultimatum, if it had been issued sooner—and it could have been issued sooner, I think—would at least have had some effect, and perhaps our prisoners would have been better treated. The Government, I consider—and I think your Lordships will agree with me—should have acted with more celerity in this matter.

Let us come to the reprisals. Here one is on exceptionally delicate ground. This is what the ultimatum says— The British Government will take, in concert with their Allies, such measures of reprisal as they may deem necessary for compelling the German Government— to do what is right. I do not know whether anybody will agree with me, but I see no reason why we should delay and consult with our Allies. I do not suppose that the German Government consulted either with Austria, Turkey, or in the past with Bulgaria, as to the ill-treatment of our prisoners. They led in this matter of cruelty, and I think the British Government should lead in the matter of reprisals. What sort of reprisals? This is the most difficult question of all. The Government have admitted the principle of reprisal. I should like to say, and perhaps some may agree with this very drastic proposal—it would be difficult to carry out—that for every British prisoner killed by starvation or ill-treatment a German prisoner should suffer the extreme penalty of the law. The worst of it is that these German brutes probably would not care very much whether we killed some of their prisoners or not. The German officers are the men who gave the orders for these cruelties, who countenanced them—and there is evidence over and over again of the way in which they treated, and allowed the non-commissioned officers to treat, our prisoners. They are the instigators; they command these cruelties. They are much too well treated in this country. They should be made to suffer, and I leave it, as I am sure your Lordships leave it, to the Government to see what measures should be taken to make the Germans feel that at last we are determined to do our best to stop the horrible way in which our prisoners have been treated, especially lately, after the March offensive. I am sure that if this were done you would see a quick change in the treatment of our prisoners. If reprisals are begun, they must be continued. You will remember they were tried before but were not continued. There were reprisals, I think on some German officers, and for every two of them that were put in the Germans put in four. That is the way they would respond. But now the situation is different. The Hun is going back, he is being driven back, and I think his feelings will be rather different from what they were a year ago, or even more than a year, ago when a Minister of the Crown countenanced that particular form of reprisal.

Now with regard to the persons responsible for these outrages. The Government say that they will take steps to see that these people shall be punished for their misdeeds. I trust that the Government have a list of these men; in fact, I fully believe that they have such a list. In a great many cases the officers, the noncommissioned officers, and the privates who have come back through Holland, or through Switzerland, or who have escaped, have been able to give to the proper Department a list of those brutal men; and when the time comes—which may be soon—I am certain that there are many in this House who will insist that the Government shall punish them for the cruelties and barbarities they have committed on our men. I think that the country will demand from the Government that their threat should be carried out. It is no good merely making threats; let us carry them out. The Germans very often do not threaten before they murder—they murder. There is a growing fury throughout the land with regard to the brutality of the Huns to our prisoners. I ask His Majesty's Government not to delay in this matter.

Before I finish, let me pay a tribute to my noble friend Lord Newton—who, I believe is going to answer—for what he has done for our prisoners, for the way he has worked and met these Germans across the table in order to get, our men repatriated. It is my private opinion that had it not been for Lord Newton's determination in this matter we should have had very few prisoners repatriated. There are two more Questions on the Paper in my name. I must ask if any reports have been received from prisoners interned in neutral countries, or repatriated; and if His Majesty's Government can give any further particulars as to the prisoners of war taken during the spring of 1918. I may mention that I have heard that there is another Report shortly to be brought out. I hope that Lord Newton will excuse me for having wandered somewhat, but I had to bring in the question of the ultimatum because it was very germane to the Report—in fact, without this Report I do not think that we should have had an ultimatum.


My Lords, as I have frequently pointed out in this House, the two worst features in the general treatment of British prisoners by the Germans have been the treatment of our men in the mines, in the occupied provinces, and behind the Western Front. I will deal first of all with the question of their treatment in the salt mines. Everybody knows that the treatment of our men in the salt mines and in the coal mines in Germany has been notoriously bad. As the noble Earl pointed out, the treatment to which they have been subjected has not been similar to that of the German civilians, because they have been employed in a different manner and have not been allowed the advantages of which the German civilian is occasionally able to avail himself. The treatment of these men has been the subject of constant protests on our part; and the question was raised, of course, at the two Conferences which we held with the Germans last year and during the present summer. At the Conference which took place this year we obtained their assent to a clause which would have greatly alleviated the condition of these men. Unfortunately, as the Germans, for reasons of their own, have declined to ratify the Agreement, that clause is non-effective; and the position now is that we have demanded that the labour in salt mines shall cease entirely.


Hear, hear.


With regard to the noble Earl's Question as to whether any additional evidence were forthcoming on this particular matter, a White Paper will shortly be presented giving the whole circumstances in connection with the employment of British prisoners in Germany. When this White Paper is published, I hope the fact will be properly grasped throughout the country, that, whereas our men are employed in considerable numbers at extremely hard and arduous labour under the surface, not only in salt mines but in coal mines in Germany, not a single German, so far as I am aware, is employed in an English coal mine at the present moment; and I doubt very much whether more than a limited number of German prisoners are employed at all, in spite of the demand for labour at present—and this for reasons which everybody perfectly well knows. I trust that this fact will be borne in mind. I hope it will also be borne in mind that at the present time we have an enormous number of German prisoners upon our hands.

I pass now from the question of salt mines to the much more important and serious question of the employment and the condition of British prisoners in France immediately behind the German lines. To put it shortly—the facts are probably well known to everybody here—the German procedure has been as follows. The commanders in the field, either with or without the connivance of the prisoner authorities in Berlin, have persistently retained able-bodied and unwounded prisoners behind the lines and employed them in the manner described in the White Paper. I should like to emphasise the fact that this procedure does not relate simply to British prisoners, but that prisoners belonging to all the Allies have been treated in the same way—that is to say, the French, the Portuguese, the Italians, and the Russians. In these districts they are treated—as everybody is aware now—and have been treated, with almost incredible brutality. They have been half starved; they have been left half clothed; they have been exposed to the inclemencies of the weather; they have been made to work actually within range of our own guns, in flagrant contravention of the Agreements; and, to crown all, they have been systematically prevented from communicating with their relatives. They have been allotted nominally to camps, the inside of which probably they never see at all. When these unfortunate men have been completely worn out and no more work can be extracted from them, they have been eventually dispatched to camps in Germany and there they have died, we have reason to believe, in considerable numbers as a consequence of the abominable treatment to which they were subjected behind the lines in France.

This action on the part of the German Government, and more particularly on the part of the German commanders in the field, has already, I need hardly say, been the subject of continual protests and complaints upon our part; and it was largely with a view of obtaining a satisfactory settlement of this particular question that the two Conferences to which I have alluded took place last year and during the present year. All the protests which we have made, whether written or oral, have always been met on the part of the Germans with evasions and excuses, with statements that the German prisoner authorities were quite unaware that such a state of things existed—which probably was very convenient ignorance on their part—that if any irregularities took place they were quite contrary to the wish of the German Government, who wholly disapproved of them, that if they existed at all they were due to purely temporary military exigencies, that in any case the complaints were considerably exaggerated, and that finally everything would be rectified without delay. Unfortunately, what makes all these evasions and excuses easier is the fact that, as everybody knows, these camps behind the lines are not open to inspection—as far as that goes, they are not open to the inspection of neutrals behind our lines either.

Well, my Lords, the upshot of all this is that we have now finally informed the German Government that unless we receive information within the stated period that this state of things has been put an end to, and that real improvement has taken place, then the reprisals to which the noble Earl alluded will be put in force. The noble Earl found fault with the fact that these reprisals, whatever they are, cannot take place within a month. That is in consequence of the Agreement arrived at between the two Governments—an Agreement which, I think, is only in consonance with the usage of civilised nations.


May I point out that the Report is dated August 29, and now we are in October. The ultimatum might have gone out long before it did.


I am coming to that in a moment. But the point is that by allowing an interval of a month you afford a locus penitentiœ, and it is open to either party to remedy the injustice complained of. Then the noble Earl asks why this particular Paper was not published earlier, and why the so-called ultimatum was not sent earlier. The reply to the first question is an obvious one. Of course, we held over the publication of the Report pending the ratification of the Agreement. It must be obvious to everybody that it would not have been a prudent thing to publish a Paper of this kind while the question of the ratification of the Agreement was still doubtful. But now, as I explained just now, that the Germans have declined to ratify the Agreement, there is obviously no reason whatever why the publication should not be at once proceeded with.

With regard to the other question asked by the noble Earl—namely, why the threat of reprisals had not been made earlier—that is a question which I see frequently asked in the Press, and which I also see frequently accompanied by expressions of opinion that we have acted in this way in a different manner from the French, and that the French Government have thereby secured certain advantages for their prisoners which we have been unable to secure for ours. I should like to destroy this myth as much as lies within my power. It is perfectly true that the French Government and the German Government have frequently resorted to reprisals, but nothing is going to convince me, or anybody who knows the facts, that the condition of the French prisoners has been permanently benefited in consequence. They have suffered a great deal, but nobody who knows any tiling about the facts would seriously contend that as a result of these reprisals the position of the French prisoner is in any way better than the position of the British prisoner at the present moment.

The question whether reprisals are advisable or not has been frequently discussed in this House and elsewhere. All I desire to say upon the subject at the present moment is this, that the question of reprisals upon a wide scale has always been a matter which has been decided by the Cabinet. Reprisals upon a wide scale is not a question which can be decided by a Department—by such a Department, for instance, as the one over which I preside—but it is only right that I should state that the Cabinet, and in my opinion very wisely, have always been anxious to avoid reprisals as long as it was possible to do so. This has not been done, as appears to be assumed in many quarters, out of any special sympathy for German prisoners, but because the Cabinet are convinced, from the information which reached them, that reprisals would not be likely to benefit our own countrymen.

I should like to add that in adopting this attitude they have been largely influenced by the evidence and by the opinion of officers and men who have themselves been prisoners. There is, I believe, a widespread impression that every officer and man who returns to this country is thirsting to see reprisals inflicted upon Germans. I have myself never discovered much evidence of that feeling. On the contrary, my experience up to quite recently has been that reprisals have generally been deprecated by both officers and men who have had the misfortune to be prisoners in Germany; and not only has the Cabinet refrained as much as possible from resorting to reprisals up to the present moment, but in addition to that they have also refrained from the use of threats, for the very good reason that up till quite recently there was no absolute certainty that we should be in a position to make them good.

Now, as everybody can see, the position has absolutely and completely altered. At the present moment we hold, I suppose, at a rough estimate, sixty or seventy thousand more combatant prisoners of war than the Germans do. But that is not really the important fact. The really important fact is that the issue of the war is now completely beyond doubt. The one fundamental fact about the treatment of prisoners in Germany which stands out is that it is not governed by what is done by those who represent the interests of British prisoners in this country, but it is governed by the military situation. When the Germans are winning the prisoners will be badly treated as a whole—abominably treated will, perhaps, be the more correct expression. When the Germans are losing, the prisoners will be comparatively well treated. That being so, it would be criminal folly upon our part if we failed to take advantage of the present situation.

The noble Earl asked me if we had a list of offenders. A careful list has been kept ever since the beginning of the war, so far as I am aware, relating to the conduct of all German commandants and of anybody who has had anything to do with the management of prisoners In this list there are a certain number of men against whom nothing is to be said. The noble Lord may find some difficulty in believing that even in Germany, and in connection with prisoner camps, there are to be found humane men. In this list there are also a large number of men against whom there is a great deal to be said, and, so far as I am concerned. I earnestly hope that they will not be allowed to escape but will be held personally responsible for what they have done. I confess that I am not at all impressed by the fact that international jurists and persons of that description seem to think that there will be considerable difficulty in dealing with them. It is not in the least necessary to go back to the American Civil War or to any other war in order to discover a reason for dealing with these men in an adequate manner. The Germans have supplied us with a precedent themselves. Not long ago it was announced in the Reichstag that proceedings would be taken—and I presume they have been taken—against the commandants of prisoner camps in Rumania in consequence of the alleged ill-treatment of German prisoners. It is perfectly obvious that what applies to Rumanian officers necessarily can be made applicable to German officers as well, and when the final day of reckoning arrives I sincerely hope that these men, whose actions are well known to us, will be made to pay the penalty for the sufferings which they have inflicted upon British prisoners during the last four years.


My Lords, I am sure the House will have heard with great satisfaction the last words which fell from the noble Lord opposite with regard to the intention of our Government to do everything possible to secure punishment for those who have ill-treated our prisoners. I am certain that this announcement will be received with widespread satisfaction throughout the country. It is satisfactory to have had this discussion initiated by my noble friend on this bench, but there were one or two little things to which he omitted to call attention and which I should like to mention. One of the witnesses points to the fact that one of these unfortunate bodies of prisoners who were being driven along by mounted Uhlans got no food. He says— The French peasants tried to give us food, but the escort would not allow them. The escort had food themselves. Then, in another case, they were kept without water. They were put into a place where there was a pump at the cookhouse, but the pump handle was removed to prevent the men using it. I think these are two instances typical of the manner in which the Germans have reduced brutality to a sort of fine art. Nobody but a German would think of doing these things. They go out of their way to make themselves offensive and brutal, and I think that things like this deserve to be brought to prominent notice, because they show, more than a general statement can show, the brutality of which Germans are capable. Then with regard to what the noble Lord opposite said upon the question of mining, I understood him to say that the non-employment of German prisoners in our coal mines was a deliberate policy on our part.




He said they had not been employed.


That is so.


I want to know why they cannot be employed. We are suffering from a great coal shortage, mainly because of the shortage of labour, and probably this shortage of coal is going to inflict great hardship on many people, more especially on the poor, during the coming winter. The question of labour can only be remedied by taking men from the fighting line. There is no particular hardship in using men in coal mines, so long as they are properly looked after and properly fed. The great grievance that we have against the Germans using our men in mines is that the men are not properly looked after. We know that the conditions in salt mines are exceptionally harsh, and when the prisoners are starved and the Germans fail to provide them with clothing and boots and generally ill-treat them, then mining becomes a very great hardship. Provided these German prisoners were properly clothed, fed, and looked after in the way our ordinary coal-miners are looked after, there is no particular hardship. Why cannot they be employed in the coal mines in order to relieve the great dearth of coal at the present moment? I should be very glad to know what the noble Lord's answer is to that.


My Lords, the noble Lord, not for the first time, has admitted with great frankness the various statements that have been made as to the treatment of our prisoners in the hands of the enemy. He said that everybody knows that the treatment of those men working in mines is notoriously bad. He also admitted—indeed, he stated—that prisoners employed behind the lines were treated with incredible brutality, half-starved, compelled to work within range of the guns, and so on; and here we are, with the war having lasted more than four years and this matter having been the subject of protest practically throughout the whole of that time, and we are told again that protests are going to be made, that protests were made at the Conference, and that inasmuch as the Agreement was not ratified nothing will happen.

I think we are entitled to express a very strong feeling that the Government—I am not referring merely to this Government, but to those which preceded it since the outbreak of the war—have entirely and completely failed to do their duty in this matter. They have shown, not one scintilla of courage in the matter. They have been afraid of Germany all the time, and I think that the statement which the noble Lord made just now—that the conditions and the treatment of prisoners rise and fall according to the success or non-success of our arms—is a dreadful statement. At this moment when our arms are certainly successful—more successful than they have ever been since the commencement of the war—one would think from the statements just made that the treatment of prisoners now has been ameliorated and is improving. It is doing nothing of the kind. It is as bad now as it has been at any time since the commencement of the war; and I entirely contradict the noble Lord when he asserts that the position of our prisoners, as regards good treatment or bad treatment, has fluctuated according to the success or otherwise which we may have achieved.

Reference has been made to what happened at the Conference. In response to public pressure, and nothing else, that Conference was brought about. In response to public agitation, and nothing else, Sir George Cave was sent out to represent us. But what happened? In the middle of the Conference, at the most critical moment, what became of Sir George Cave? He came home. Who was left to conduct the negotiations on our account? I have always testified, and I shall continue to do so I hope, that the noble Lord has done his best, but the conduct of negotiations was left to the noble Lord and General Belfield. That was, in my judgment, an express violation of the pledge that was, in effect, given to the country that Sir George Cave should go out as a Minister. The country demanded that a Minister should go with the authority of a member of the Cabinet. His withdrawal by the Government at the most critical period of the negotiations was an express violation of that pledge.

What was the Agreement that Lord Newton and General Belfield signed? The noble Lord knew perfectly well when he came back that it would not be ratified. He stood up here in the House and made a statement in which he warned us to have no high expectations of ratification. He was certain it would not be ratified.


I did not say so.


Well, the noble Lord was not certain; he was almost certain. The conditions which the Germans sought to impose upon us were of such a blackmailing character that I maintain that the negotiators ought then and there to have cut the whole business and left the Conference table. To come back here to raise hopes and expectations which are bound to be falsified, to come back here and do that because the Germans insisted upon inserting conditions which could never be agreed upon by this country. And yet our negotiators entered into that Agreement. Well, that having been endured by us for over four years, I suppose now we shall have, to submit to it till the end of the chapter, though that may not now be long to look forward to. I am perfectly certain that we shall get no amelioration, simply because the Government will not put the necessary amount of pressure on these champions of brutality in this ill-treatment and starvation.

How are the German prisoners treated? I refer not only to those that are here, but those that are retained and working in France. I have seen some of these German prisoners camps not so very long ago, and I inquired most carefully, because I was interested in the treatment of prisoners, as to how they fared. I saw them working, and I am bound to say that in the factories and so on they were working extraordinarily well in many cases; but they were well-fed, well-housed, and kindly treated. Yet, in spite of all the harassing that we are familiar with in the treatment of our men, all this good treatment of German prisoners goes on, and no steps are taken to bring pressure to bear upon Germany in any way.

Let me give one simple illustration of what pressure can do. I think I am light in saying that there is an Agreement between ourselves and Germany with regard to the employment of men behind the lines. I am not quite sure, but I think it is 30 kilometres; no prisoner is to be employed within 30 kilometres of the line. Now, during our retreat—the German advance which began in March and continued—I know that at St. Omar the men were withdrawn strictly in accordance with the Agreement; they were taken away directly the Germans advanced, and were only brought back when they were driven back. On the one hand there is a strict observance of this Agreement, but on our part we allow the Germans to violate it. The noble Lord admits it; it is known to the Government, but still it goes on.

My view of the matter is that we are ourselves to blame. The Government, I say again—not this Government, I am not making an attack on any particular Government—all the Governments have acted weakly in that way, and that is why it is we have received no amelioration. The German understands very well the disposition of the people with whom he is in conflict, and if there is no strength shown he does not thank you. He goes on abusing the position. We have fared worse in this particular, far worse, than France, because France has retaliated; the noble Lord himself admits it. He holds the view that retaliation is not effective, that it leads to no result.


We are going to employ it now.


; A fervid belief in retaliation is no good. Why are you going to serve a threat on Germany that you are about to begin to retaliate?


I endeavoured to explain in my speech that the military situation is completely altered, and we are now in a position to do what we were not able to do in the past.


I know. I have referred to it already. I used, perhaps, too strong a term; but it seemed an extraordinary statement that if and when the military situation serves we will exert pressure, and if it is not going well we will take things lying down. That is exactly what the noble Lord said. I could not help thinking the other day, when I was seeing these things that there will be a bad time for somebody when these men come back, when those return who have suffered and endured this terrible treatment. There will be somebody in this country who will have to be called to account for having left these men year after year to their fate.

And if I may venture to ask the noble Lord a question though if he prefers not to answer it he need not, as I have a Question down for Tuesday which in view of this debate I need not press now—it is, What is the position of Bulgarian prisoners? There can be no obstacle in the way of returning these prisoners. There are no physical difficulties that I am aware of that would interfere with their immediate return. And perhaps he will not mind telling us what is the position of the Turkish prisoners and the Agreement which does exist between Turkey and ourselves. I apologise for putting these two questions, but I do so in the interests of saving another debate upon the matter next Tuesday. Perhaps the noble Lord will be able to say a word on those two points.


My Lords, as is so often the case here, the debate has covered a wider range than that covered by my noble friend. I wish to emphasise, not so much for my noble friend who is the head of the Department, because we all know his zeal and we know how closely he must be in touch with opinion outside by reason of the communications that he daily receives. I wish to impress upon the House that it is impossible to exaggerate the depths of public feeling on this question throughout the country, and the manner in which it is growing day by day in intensity, and, I think the House will agree with me, with good reason. The vile treatment of our prisoners is one long agony of torment for them; it is also one long agony of anguish for relatives and friends here. Every document which is published, like the Report that has been under discussion, must add to that when they read more and more of such remarks as "For God's sake, do something to get us out of this hell!" You must think of what that means for the fathers and mothers at home.

And the truth is all the stronger because for a long time it was the deliberate policy of the Government not to disclose the full facts. I am not dealing now with recent months. Previously for months and for years the public was only informed by casual statements made by escaped prisoners of war in any irregular way, which could be questioned, and were actually criticised as being, as they doubtless were in some cases, exaggerated or inaccurate. Then came the publication of the full Report of Mr. Justice Younger's Committee, and the hopes of the relatives of these men were raised to the highest point, and when this House separated it was fully expected that there would be a ratification of the Convention entered into, and that the men would be home, some thought, within four or six weeks. Instead of that, we learn, on semiofficial authority, that irrelevant conditions have been demanded by the Germans with respect to the internment of their nationals in China and the Treaty Ports, and there is practically no chance now of the Convention being ratified. This means an indefinite postponement of all hope to these men, and of all hope to those who are dear to them at home.

It affects principally and most of all the men who have been kept in Germany as prisoners since 1914. I gather that now practically all the French prisoners of that date have been exchanged. I am not sure whether that is so or not, and I should be glad to hear from the noble Lord whether it is. I ask now whether there is additional information of the manner in which the prisoners of this year are being treated behind the lines. I have recently had the opportunity of seeing German prisoners kept, as the noble Viscount has just said, under proper conditions at work behind our lines, and you could not see men looking healthier or on the whole happier in their work. So far from maltreatment, I believe that they are well satisfied with the work that they are doing, and they must be well fed judging from their appearance, and they are certainly not overworked. Therefore you have two direct contrasts in close proximity behind the Armies. You have the cruel ill-usage, of which the last Report gives such abundant evidence, behind the German lines, and the contrast of the excellent treatment of German prisoners behind our lines. I understand from the noble Lord that it is particularly in regard to the men who are retained for work in France that retaliation will be applied. Whether that is so or not I do not know, but I am quite certain that this is the easiest way of applying it.

In regard to the work done by prisoners in this country, one wishes that there had been a franker interchange of opinion between the noble Lord's Department or the Government as a whole and the trade unions. Allusion has been made to the work in the mines. The noble Lord who made that reference knew, I suppose, that objections have been raised by the Miners' Federation to the employment of prisoners tinder these conditions; but if there had been a proper interchange of opinion, and a proper explanation that certain provisions would be made for keeping the prisoners in compartments by themselves so far as that could be done, so that they would not be closely mixed with the ordinary workmen, I believe that these objections would not have been persisted in. Of course, there has been and is the case made by the trade unions. I have known it in other trades in connection with the London Advisory Committee of Labour. The objections raised by the trade unions in this country have no doubt hampered the Government considerably in dealing with the German prisoners here. But the object of my rising was to ask the noble Lord that the steps taken should be sharp and decisive, and that there should be no delay, because delay means a growing resentment of the public at home, which is in itself a danger and may have untoward results in the development of national opinion us to the war itself. I am persuaded that the gravity of the case is urgent from every point of view, and I hope, in the interests of the prisoners themselves and in the interests of those who are looking everyday with weeping eyes from the homes of this country, that there will not be a succession of those disappointments such as up to the present have taken place.


MY Lords, I should like to say a word or two in support of what has just fallen from the noble Lord opposite and from other speakers who have spoken to the same effect. I do not think that those of us who have tried throughout the war to look with as much calmness as possible and with the absence of such emotional excitement as was sometimes not unaturally displayed upon the whole subject, will doubt that at this moment, among thinking people, the feeling that has been aroused by these Reports upon the condition of prisoners is more deep-seated and more indignant than anything that has happened since the war began. We have had outrages on sea and on land which have excited widespread indignation, and rightly so. As to some of them there was some kind of answer to be given on behalf of our enemies, but with regard to this Report there is no pretence made that there is any answer to be given. These things are not concocted lies. They are outrages so gross that the indignation aroused among thoughtful people is deeper and more unsparing and unqualified than it has been upon, I think, any other subject of wrong during the war.

I believe that the White Paper which has already brought sorrow and distress into thousands of English homes—rightly published, but necessarily bringing that sorrow and distress—is only a foretaste of what is going to happen when the men come back from those prisons. Once it is truly realised in the homes of England what has been happening, I believe that the feeling stirred will be deeper and more burning in its wrath than either bombs or submarine outrages have caused. We have been exercising such patience as was possible knowing something at least of what was taking place, because those of us who held no official positions thought that possibly we might do more harm than good, that the moment might be inopportune, and that it was not to the public interest to raise this point or that. Owing to those considerations matters have been not infrequently dropped. We desired to leave the Government to do what was possible in the matter. We now find that the Government accepts responsibility for endeavouring to do some- thing greater and more strenuous and effective than it has thought it possible to do before.

Upon the question of reprisals I do not want to go into detail to-night. I have my own feeling that we shall always be beaten at that game, and that our reprisals in the mere sense of doing something as bad as our enemies have done can be met by their redoubling the horrors they can inflict. I am not trying to argue that question now. I am desirous of leaving it in the hands of the Government. They are responsible for the line of action they take. I have heard again to-night a little of that note upon this particular subject which I have ventured to call attention to before in the straightforward and strong and fair replies of my noble friend. Lord Newton. He has told us again to-night that it is not his Department, that it is the Cabinet or some other body that has to do with it. My Lords, when we ask these questions we do not put them to any Department; we ask His Majesty's Government in its entirety. They are the supreme authority. We do not want to be told that it is not the business of this Department or of that. Those who have the custody and care of our interests on the largest scale are, I am quite certain, at heart as keen as any member of this House can be to have this thing righted. But I do want to say that a keen eye will be cast upon the record of what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen in regard to this matter, with a sense on the part, of the public that they do demand the very utmost exercise of eager care to mend the horrible wrongs which are at this moment going on, and that that feeling is more widespread and more deeply rooted than it has been on almost any other subject since the war began.

The noble Lord who has just sat down referred to the expression of sonic man who said, "For God's sake, do something to get us out of this hell!" That was last April; we are now in October. What will be the feeling up and down England when it is realized how many months have while this sort of thing has been going on? This is what those who are in authority should take most seriously to heart. I have sometimes felt that in the exigencies of a great war it is almost impossible for those who have to do with the great affairs of the conduct of the war day by day to give in adequate proportion attention to a subject like this. The time has, at all events, come now when attention can be given to this whole-heartedly, and is I hope being given to it by the Government; and we shall be most anxious to watch with scrupulous care what is being done now and what record can be given of what has been done during the last six months.


My Lords, I feel that the noble Lord who has spoken on behalf of the Government has consistently done all that it was possible for any man to do strenuously and resolutely to alleviate the condition of our prisoners. But he has been up against an insurmountable obstacle and that insurmountable obstacle is the character and determination of the German Government. The German Government in their official documents have been preaching systematically that it was their duty to emphasise the frightfulness of war. They set out with that. They threw aside the old undertakings, understandings and honourable feelings which had underlain the conduct of former wars, and determined, as they proclaimed, that war should be made frightful.

It is not only in reference to prisoners. At this moment when they are fleeing front towns, when they are being driven out of Laon, with the spirit of destruction hanging over their heads, they must still be carrying off hostages, as they call them. I see it is stated that they shot forty or fifty people in Roulers the other day; whether it is true or not I do not know, but it would not be at all different from what they have done. The sinking of ships, the "Lusitania" and others—all these things are of a piece. I think the noble Lord must feel now of the Germans what he himself said of the Turks, that they are comparatively indifferent to the sufferings of their own people if they can only terrify us by maltreating our people. But, as the noble Lord said, we think now that we see the end, and the end a very gloomy one for the Germans.

As to reprisals, I must say myself that I rather agree with the noble Lord. With mere reprisals two can play at the game, and the ruffian can play at it more ferociously than a humane man. Even if you have a list after the war—if you have got some brutal sergeant who has been knocking down men with the butt end of his rifle and you shoot him, you are shooting the man who is the outcome of the German ferocity that has been taught him by his High Command. Perhaps you will say it is not worth while giving them a lesson, because if this war ends in hopeless calamity to them they will learn a more terrible lesson from it than you can teach to any individual. But if you want to rub it in to the people who are really answerable for this conduct and the people who must suffer, you must go higher and higher till you come to the very top of all authority in Germany itself, and then you will bring it home to the people.

I cannot help feeling that now you have got a Chancellor of the German Empire from whom you may hope something. I do not want to estimate him one way or the other, but there is no doubt that in former years he has shown by open action and open statement a disposition to mitigate the cruelties to captives and to treat them more fairly than other people will. The man who is now Chancellor, especially when we are told that the civil authority is beginning to assert itself over the military authority, could certainly, even at this late moment of the war, do something to stimulate the exchange of prisoners. I do not know whether the noble Lord can say in his reply whether he has some hopes of that, but I cannot help thinking that during the short time that I hope will elapse before there will be a complete wiping out of all thin maltreatment by the restitution of all the captives, the new Government of Germany may be able to do a little more than has been done in the past.


My Lords, since I spoke a variety of topics has been raised more or less connected with prisoners, and I am disposed to think—without, I hope, causing offence—that some of the speeches have not been of a very helpful character because they have consisted of very considerable criticism of His Majesty's Government, without any indication of an alternative course which might have been taken with advantage. We have been blamed by some of the speakers for doing nothing, and the most rev. Primate has not obscurely intimated that he disapproves of the steps which His Majesty's Government propose to take with regard to retaliation. This is obviously one of those subjects upon which it is impossible to satisfy everybody.

But I must say that I strongly resent the charge—I do not care who it is that makes it—that His Majesty's Government, or the Cabinet, or any portion of the Government, have not adequately discharged their duty and done their best, for the British prisoners. I maintain most emphatically that the British Government has done as much as, if not more than, any other Government for its prisoners, and any criticism to the effect that they have neglected their duty, and that they have not done what they could is, in my opinion, totally unjustifiable. I regretted, when I heard some of the speeches made in the latter portion of the debate, that my noble friend Lord Curzon was not present, he being a member of the War Cabinet and in a better position to speak as to the views of the Government, and more especially of the Cabinet, than I am myself. However, I desire to pass from those critical speeches to various questions which have been addressed to me.

The noble Viscount opposite, Lord Devonport, and one or two other noble Lords raised the question of the recent Conference at The Hague. I rather deprecate discussing that Conference at the present moment, because the Agreement will shortly be published. It will be in the hands of noble Lords, and if any noble Lord desires to raise a debate on the subject the material will be there. But I should like to take this opportunity at once of disclaiming any responsibility for the fact that in the midst of our negotiations Sir George Cave was brought back to this country for the purpose of assisting in the campaign which was then being waged against aliens here. Nobody regretted his departure more than I did, or than General Belfield did, because we knew perfectly well that, whatever happened, we should be blamed. We should be told that, if Sir George Cave had remained, a much better Agreement would have been arrived at. That is a question which, I think, might well be left for another opportunity.

I pass from that to a question raised by the noble Viscount as to Bulgaria, and I am happy to assure him that directly the Bulgarians applied for an armistice steps were taken to secure the liberation of British prisoners; and I trust, although we have no information with regard to it, that they are free already. As to Turkey, that country has not yet approached us with regard to an armistice, but I think I may take it upon myself to predict with some confidence that should Turkey approach us with regard to an armistice, one of the first things we shall demand will be the immediate liberation of all the British prisoners in the hands of the Turkish Government. Lord Burnham asked me a question with reference to the Franco-German Agreement, and he seemed to be under the impression that all the French prisoners who were taken in 1914 had already been exchanged.


No; I merely asked for information.


I can assure the noble Lord that it is not so. With regard to that Agreement, I cannot refrain from making this observation. That Agreement has always been thrown in our teeth; we have been told, "See how inefficient you are; the French have made a magnificent Agreement with the Germans by which they are going to get back thousands and thousands of men." But that Agreement broke down within a very short time, almost immediately after it was instituted; and although I believe that it is going to be resumed, up till now only about 2,000 Frenchmen, out of more than 150,000 who are due, have been repatriated.

Lord Denbigh asked me a further question with regard to the employment of German prisoners in coal mines in this country. The employment of German prisoners in this country is no concern of mine—this, I imagine, will be an additional subject of criticism on the part of the most rev. Primate. The employment of German prisoners in mines is a question which has to be settled between the War Office and the miners' representatives. I drew attention to this matter not because it was any business of mine, but because I thought it was desirable to direct public attention to a ridiculous anomaly of this character.

The only other remark which I desire to make is that I omitted to state in my speech that the Report of the conditions on the Western Front will be continued and brought up to date. We are waiting only for the depositions of some prisoners who were repatriated within the last two or three days, and as soon as their evidence has been taken a fresh White Paper will be issued dealing with the events that have happened within the last few weeks.


My Lords, before the House adjourns I would like to emphasise one point made by my noble friend Lord Sheffield. The noble Lord pointed out that since the German Government refused to ratify the Agreement there is a new Government in Germany, or at all events a Chancellor who has shown a certain amount of consideration for British prisoners. Possibly his tenure of office may not be very long, but at any rate there is a new Government in Germany which professes to be a democratic Government. If this Government have any consideration at all for public feeling in this country, if they are really in earnest in their peace proposals and desire to conciliate public opinion here and in the other Allied countries, I think they could find no better method than by carrying out the Agreement arrived at by my noble friend at The Hague without what Lord Devonport described as "the blackmailing conditions" which made it perfectly impossible for His Majesty's Government to agree to the German proposals I do not know whether my noble friend can in fairness be called upon to make a still further reply to the suggestion that I have thrown out, nor do I know whether it is possible for His Majesty's Government to communicate with the present German Government to find out whether they would care to carry out the Agreement as I have suggested. I put that point to my noble friend, and possibly he will consider it.


My Lords, I will ask my noble friend beside me (Lord Newton) to take note of what has been said by Lord Denman; but there is no Motion on the Paper, and it was only by the leave of your Lordships that my noble friend spoke a second time. I think it would be rather irregular if he were drawn into making a third speech on the same subject.