§ General Sir IVOR PHILIPPS
In rising to call attention to the treatment of our prisoners of war, I feel that the cause of these badly-treated men might be in much more able hands than mine. Right from the beginning of the War our whole treatment of this question of prisoners of war has been most unsatisfactory. These men are mainly the finest soldiers we have got. They are those who were foremost in the attack, whose troops on either side have not supported them, but have fallen back, and they have been left in the hands of the enemy; or in holding on in a retirement, they have been the men who have held on the longest. Their friends on either side have fallen back, and they have been cut off; or they have been those men who, fighting keenly in the front line, have fallen wounded, and then, when their friends have retired, have fallen into the hands of the enemy.
There was a feeling at the beginning of the War that there was something of contempt to be felt for a prisoner of war. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the War Office took this line, and I am not certain that even to-day they have quite got rid of it. They had a feeling that if they did too much for our prisoners of war, our troops would be only too inclined to surrender. That tone and that feeling show that they knew nothing of the British people. There is no question that early in the War—in the first two years—there was every possible objection made, and that when they could send supplies to our men the War Office would not let them go. And to-day every troublesome little order is issued to stop supplies going to our prisoners. We treat them as if they were prisoners, instead as if they were our most gallant servants. Even to-day there is every little pettifogging order issued, and by whom? We Members of this House have never yet been able to find out who does look after our prisoners. We have asked for Courts of Inquiry, for Select Committees: we have put questions to the War Office, and we have been referred to the hon. Member for 1312 Sheffield (Mr. J. Hope), and he has told us over and over again that he has no authority. Then we are referred to somewhere over at the other House, to a gentleman named Lord Newton. We have asked over and over again that some responsible Minister should be placed on that bench to answer these questions, and to look after the interests of these hardly used men—men, remember, with whom you have broken every contract you have ever made. They rightly and properly greatly resent the treatment to which they have been put by this country.
I know you cover yourself by saying you have made a Hague Convention, and that therefore you are not allowed to feed them, or to do this or to do that. That is your answer, and so you throw your soldiers on the charity of the British public. The right hon. Gentleman opposite shakes his head; but why have you not fed and clothed them? Is it because under the Hague Convention the country which captures the prisoner is supposed to feed and clothe him? That is the agreement the State has made. Every day in South Wales appears a heading, "Starving Prisoners." There would have been no starving prisoners, or going to charity, or need to have young ladies of the Bed Cross touting for prisoners up and down Bond Street, simply to feed your prisoners, if you did your duty.
Of course the answer is that all this was under the Hague Convention; but have the Germans followed the Hague Convention? Even if you had made a treaty with Germany, what about the contract you made with your soldiers? You made a contract with the soldier that you would feed, clothe and pay him, and you have done none of these things. You have left it to charity. These men, some of the finest soldiers we have got, would have starved—you have said so yourself—had it not been for the noble work of numbers of men and women who throughout the country have done their best to help. Have they received any encouragement or assistance from any member of the Government? Not on a single occasion! Every possible hindrance, has been put in their way. At last we have got a right hon. Gentleman who is responsible for answering for these men. But even now there is nobody who looks after their interests. What about the armistice the other day with Bulgaria? Was there a 1313 demand included that the men should be returned? It was put in as an afterthought.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson) dissented.
§ Sir I. PHILIPPS
I shall be glad to le disabused of that idea, because that is the general belief. Hon. Members will bear with me when I try to put forward the views that I believe to be held by these large numbers of soldiers. They have suffered untold misery. They feel very keenly the way we treat the German prisoners in this country—motor cars through the City of London, first-class railway carnages, every possible thing that you can do for them, and last, but not least, when you have brought these German prisoners wounded into Netley in the middle of the night you turn out the British wounded to make room for the German wounded. My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that the feeling in South Hampshire when that took place was very great, and he has not removed it. In spite of the ill-treatment by the Germans of our soldiers out there, they are extraordinarily cheery, and keep their ends up the whole time. All those who come over to this country say: "Whatever you do, do not give in to the Germans and go in for reprisals." I am not here to advocate reprisals. I am against them. But our prisoners themselves would tell you that we should not treat the German prisoners in the way we are treating them to-day. All that I can say is only hearsay, but we have to-day my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Southampton (Captain Craig) who will, I am sure, add interest to the Debate, because he can tell us these things first hand, which we can know only second hand from those who come back. I feel myself that the Government is much to blame for the manner in which they have handled this matter, but the outlook to-day is such that we may have some reasonable hope that the time of their trouble is coming to an end. What we want to see now is that the Government, who have been slack in everything to do with prisoners in the past, should not be slack any more. We want to see that this matter is treated seriously by the Government when the question of armistice is considered. We want to impress upon the Government that one of the terms of the armistice should be the immediate return of British prisoners Personally, I would go so far 1314 as to say that I would agree to no armistice which does not give us full guarantees that all our prisoners should be back across the front line as soon as railways can be made available to transport them.
That is not all. We have got to consider those who for the last four years have ill-treated our men. That is a question which undoubtedly raises great difficulty. But I hope and believe that some satisfactory arrangement can be come to by which we may insist, as a condition of the armistice, or that we will give notice at the time the armistice is arranged that we will certainly insist at the Peace Conference, on all those, whatever their rank or class, who may be shown to have been guilty of cruelty and of inhuman conduct to these prisoners, whereby their lives and health have been lost or injured, should be brought up to their trial, and not in a civil court—we do not want anything of that sort—but that there shall be a trial under military discipline, with no great lawsuits going on for the benefit of lawyers for the next twenty years, but a summary drumhead court-martial. That is what we want to see, and I believe that if the Government had announced definitely and determinedly months ago or years ago that they mean to deal with this question of the ill-treatment of these prisoners seriously, these things would not have happened. But no one on the Front Bench has ever taken any interest in these prisoners. Could anything be more hopeless than this last attempt at an agreement with the Germans? We, who have taken an interest in the matter, knew by the representatives whom you sent to make a treaty that it was bound to fail, and we told you so, and begged you to change the members of that Commission. But you would not do it, and the result, as we foresaw, was failure. You sent men with no sympathy with the task which they took up, who treated the matter in the other House with levity, and who, unfortunately, throughout the length and breadth of the land, are known as not being suitable in any way whatever for the task in which you employed them. We knew that it was going to fail, and it did fail, and our men have suffered. Remember that the soldier to-day knows all this just as well as any Member of this House. He does not want to be told them. He follows these things in every detail himself. It is because we feel anxiety on account of the way in which this matter has been treated in the past 1315 that we wish to impress on the Government that they must take a strong line in the matter and show that they are determined to support our men who are prisoners, and do their utmost to get them released at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
I want, if I may, to deal more with the one question of the cruelty of the Germans towards the British prisoners rather than with the general question which has been referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend, but I would support him especially on one point in regard to the feelings which exist not merely in our Army but throughout the whole country in reference to the very good treatment which German prisoners have had from us. It is nothing short of a scandal, and when these details are coming back, when our men are dribbling back from Germany, where they have suffered diabolical cruelty, when the people of our country are really beginning to realise, as I do not think they did realise until within the last few months, what our gallant men have suffered, there is additional indignation to see how extraordinarily well the German prisoners are treated here. I am not one of those who want the German prisoners to be treated harshly, but I want them to be treated in such a way that people will realise that the Germans in our midst are prisoners. There is a general feeling that far too much leniency is shown to the type of Prussian officer in our midst, but I want specially to deal with the cruelties which have been inflicted on our men in Germany by Prussian officers, non-commissioned officers and men. I want to found my claim on the Government on the breach of international law. It has been admitted in international law for many years past that a prisoner is entitled to at least decent treatment, and that no prisoner may be wilfully, deliberately and barbarously ill-treated, as these men in Germany have been, merely because they were, as the Germans frequently said to them, "English swine." I want to be allowed to give one or two definite cases which have been recently sent to me from the Hague, in order that the House may realise the depths of cruelty which our men have suffered. I want the House also to realise that these are the men who, if any men deserve well of Great Britain, because they were the first of the old army who went out in 1316 August, 1914, and threw themselves—though they knew what they were going to suffer—in the path of the Germans and who, after having fought with all their might, day and night, battered, toil-worn, weary, were taken prisoners at last and then, I would almost say that it would have been better for them if they had died on the battle-field, rather than have endured the long torture which for years they have endured, and which they are still enduring to-day in German prisons.
I will give a case which has been sworn to by two non-commissioned officers of the Coldstream Guards. The evidence was taken recently in Holland, to where these men had made their escape, and was sent over here. A sergeant in the Coldstream Guards was taken early in the campaign of 1914, and this is what he says—I was standing next to Private B in camp at Schneidemuhl. A German sentry, armed with rifle and bayonet, said something which we did not understand; he rushed at B and struck him. B then ran away. He was eventually found in a hole in the ground. I should like to explain here that at that time we were only quartered in holes dug in the ground, for we had no huts in our lager, and we had to make ourselves as comfortable as we could in the open and in holes which we ourselves scooped out in the ground. A barrel was fetched in the lager by order of the German adjutant. Private B was then stripped to the waist and placed across the barrel by about six German soldiers. Each of them had a wooden post in his hand. They struck Private B over the head, bare back, and the body with these posts. He cried for mercy, but this punishment went on for at least ten minutes. Private B was practically unconscious, and had to be carried to a hut outside the lager where the Russian cooks stopped. Private B shortly after died. I would add that after he had been carried out of the lager he was tied to a post, about 20 yards from the gate, with wire round his chest, middle, and ankles; he was in a very fainting condition A German barrack inspector came up to Private B and struck him with his sword, which was in its scabbard, on his legs and chest. Afterwards he spat at Private B and called him, 'Englische Schweine.'That is not, I believe, an exaggerated case. That is sworn to by one of the sergeants of the Coldstream Guards, and it is also corroborated by a company sergeant-major in the same regiment. This sergeant-major also gives another case. He mentions the case of Private S., and says:On the 7th November, 1914, he was standing to attention when the German camp adjutant drew his sword, said, 'English Schweine,' and thrust his sword into Private S's left buttock. It penetrated at least 5 inches. He bled profusely, but we managed to support him. There was no medical attendance, but we looked after him for a fortnight, and were then moved to 1317 another lager, and he lay in my hut for another fortnight, and became paralysed from the hips downwards. He subsequently died.He believed the cause of his death was stated to be typhus, but this man goes on to say that it was a lie, and that he died as the result of his treatment. And so it goes on with story after story of that kind. May I tell the House the kind of treatment our men had from the doctors? Here is a case which occurred in 1917. A private had a bad foot as the result of a wound, and was very weak. A doctor called to him, and an amputation wag ordered. He lay for a week waiting for the operation, during which time his wound was only dressed once. The attention of the doctor was again called to him, as the man was gradually getting weaker. The doctor paid his visit, but nothing was done. About four hours after the doctor's visit, the man died of gangrene in the foot. That was the kind of medical attention—deliberate cruelty—which our men have had in these German camps. I will only give the House one more case. This is a case even more definite, sworn to, as it is, by twelve English soldiers, and the treatment in this case was not accidental but was deliberate from the German soldiers. This was on 18th January, 1918, at the notorious camp of Sennelager, and it is witnessed by a sergeant of the Hampshire Regiment. He says—At about five o'clock on the morning of 18th January, 1918, a German soldier entered the room, and ordered eight men to draw the coffee from the camp, which is about 500 yards away from the receiving compound. Seven prisoners of war complied with the order, but as the English cannot drink the German coffee no Englishman went forward to draw the coffee for the twelve Englishmen there. The German soldier ordered Private B of the Scots Guards to fetch the coffee. Private B said that they could not drink the coffee. He ordered him a second time, and Private B again refused. The sentry then attempted to strike Private B with the butt of his rifle. Private B pushed the rifle down with his two hands. The sentry then ordered the remainder of the prisoners to the other side of the room, and then turning about he walked to the door, a distance of about ten paces. On turning about again there were two Frenchmen standing in front of Private B in the line of fire. He ordered these two Frenchmen to get over to the left. He threw open his overcoat and came to the aim. As the aim was not comfortable, he cleared his shoulder of the wercoat. He then came to the aim a second time and fired, hitting Private B in the left side, and he died in about four minutes.There were twelve British witnesses, whose names and regiments are in this sergeant's possession, who are prepared to swear this 1318 was not an accident but a deliberate thing. Then people are surprised that some of us have felt rather deeply and rather strongly on the question of the treatment of our prisoners in these German prison camps. I will not give more cases of that kind, but a grave refraction of international law is the compulsion of prisoners to work under fire of their own guns close behind the lines. The Government knows from a report which has been recently made by Mr. Justice Younger's Committee that large numbers of our men who were taken prisoner in our defeat in March, 1918, were kept working just the other side of the German lines, and have been the whole time under the fire of our own guns, and have been badly treated. Here is a Report, presented to this House by order of the Government by Mr. Justice Younger's Committee, showing that prisoners in German hands have been ill-fed—one might almost say starved. It is stated that there were some men just behind Arras who got a drink of coffee in the morning after being called at 3 o'clock. They then went out to work, and worked all day long, and, with the exception of that drink of coffee—and I take it from this Report this was not an isolated case but was a regular system—with nothing but a drink of coffee in the early morning, and some tea at 7 o'clock at night—no food at all—they had to work close behind the lines the whole of that time. They were even not allowed to get water on the march or at work. There are many other similar cases—we were under fire…. There was a large dump of ammunition, and there were two or three Red Cross flags put over it.That is rather a well-known German dodge. But I want to remind the House that the date of this Committee's Report was 29th August, 1918, and that date I shall ask the House to remember in a minute, because I think there must have been some delay on the part of the Government in dealing with the facts set out in that Report. At a place called Salome there were from 1,300 to 1,500 Britishers close behind the lines, billeted in a church. They were not able to sit or lie down, day or night, it was so crowded The food was bad. They received no parcels, and were not allowed to write any letters. It is believed—perhaps my right hon. Friend opposite will be able to tell us and relieve the feelings of many parents in this country—that there are 1319 large numbers of our prisoners who are never allowed to write home at all, whose names do not come through, and are compelled to work in these conditions. Sometimes they are compelled to write postcards home, and the cards are taken to various camps in Germany from which they are posted, so as to make the parents believe the men are not working behind the lines, but are in more or less decent camps. There is one other case I must give—quite a recent one, at the hospital at Valenciennes, which we all hope very soon will be out of German hands—A man named Private Ellis was in my ward with a bullet wound through his lung. He was left for some days unattended to, and was then taken to see the doctor. As he was in great pain he was calling out. The doctor hit him a hard punch on the jaw and sent him back to the ward. He came back crying, and died next morning.That is from a Government publication. I want to ask quite seriously—I am not desirous of making any party attack against the Government, but I do want this thing put straight once for all—why it was that the ultimatum was not dispatched until the 14th October, when the Government knew all the facts from the Government Report, and many more, as long as 29th August? They were known before this, but there is the latest Government document published on 29th August, and I want to ask my right hon. Friend what steps were taken, and by what Department of the Government dealing with the charges made in the Government Committee's own Report, and why there was, so far as we know at present, no ultimatum sent to Germany prior to 14th October? The last Hague Conference produced an admirable agreement if it could only be carried out, but it was vitiated by that annexe with regard to German civilians interned in China. When the Germans wanted to put that annexe to the Report, and declined to sign the Report without it, I want to know what steps the Government delegates took. I think my right hon. Friend was not there at the time. There wore Lord Newton and General Belfield. Did they say at once to the German delegates, "This is blackmail. This is an attempt to keep our prisoners in torture in order that you may blackmail the British Government with regard to your nationals in China, which has nothing to do with this agreement"? How did they speak to the German delegates? Did they use the 1320 language of Lord Newton or the language of President Wilson? I believe the Germans would have better understood language of the type used by President Wilson than language of the type that Lord Newton, so far as we know, used.
I want to speak without any offence, but quite frankly with regard to those two-gentlemen. It was a most ill-advised proceeding to send Lord Newton to the Hague. He was a nobleman who, throughout the whole of his dealings with the prisoners, has shown a sense of cynical levity and a lack of sympathy; or, should I say, who is believed by all the prisoners' friends in England, and by the prisoners themselves, to have shown a cynical levity. It may be he is a hardly treated individual. It may be he is an excellent man, and that the charges of cynicism and levity fall wrongly upon his shoulders. But we do know this, that in his present office he objected to the internment of Germans here, and we know that in a speech in the House of Lords he condemned some of us in this House because we referred to Germans as Huns. He objected to Germans being called Huns, and that was the man whom the Government sent over to negotiate this treaty with four or five Prussian officers! I wonder if I might read an extract from a letter which appeared in the "Times" of 10th October? I do not say it is true. I have not the honour of the writer's acquaintance—Lord Newton has been for several years the chief spokesman and apologist of the Department, and as such has come more prominently before the public. He has displayed in his utterances a cynical levity, and a frank brutality which prove him to be absolutely out of sympathy with the whole painful subject, and which has earned for him the reputation of the prisoners' evil geniusI can vouch for that. I have had a letter myself from a regular officer of the old Army who wrote me from the Hague the other day, wondering why it was the Government continued to employ Lord Newton. I have seen officers who have come back from the Hague. They tell me the whole feeling amongst our interned prisoners at the Hague, was that Lord Newton was the very last man to be appointed by the Government to represent their views and to try and get justice done at the Hague. I do ask my right hon. Friend to give us a full statement this afternoon. We, in this House, know my right hon. Friend. No one has accused him, or ever would, of levity. We believe 1321 he has a kind heart we believe his intention throughout has, been to do what he could for the prisoners, and I for one regret most intensely that Parliamentary business made it necessary for him to return from the Hague.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
My hon. Friend spoke of the two delegates at the Hague. He means, I have no doubt, Lord Newton and General Belfield. I hope he does not include General Belfield in the charge of levity. I have worked for three years with him, and never found anyone less open to such a charge.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
I am quite satisfied with the right hon. Gentleman's explanation. It is perfectly justifiable. I did not include General Belfield. I personally have had the honour of working with General Belfield in other matters. I think he would be inclined to take the old Army view of prisoners. I do not accuse him of levity or anything of that kind, but I say he would rather take the view of the War Office that the War must be got on with, and that these prisoners were rather a troublesome matter. I do not suggest anything further than that. I should not have said that if my right hon. Friend had not interrupted. What are the Government going to do? I am afraid the mentality of the Germans, particularly the highly-placed Germans, know nothing but force, and the only way to deal with the Germans, if necessary, is by reprisals—stern, as the Government have threatened. The hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hope) told us a week ago that if the Austrians killed our aviators for dropping pamphlets over Vienna, the Government would take stern measures of reprisals, and the Home Secretary, in his statement of 13th October, stated quite definitely that reprisals would be undertaken, and I want to assure him, as I think I may generally on behalf of the prisoners' friends, that if the Government deem it necessary—we do not like reprisals; we do not want to take them in this country—but if they deem it necessary for the protection and safety of our men who have suffered so long, to exact stern reprisals on highly-placed German officers here, they will have the unanimous support of prisoners' friends.
Lastly, I want to enforce what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend regarding the armistice. I cannot imagine that the Government would enter into any negotiations with the German or any other Army 1322 without making it a definite term that all our prisoners in Germany or any other country should be immediately released. I want the Government to see, by hostages or by some other arrangements, that they are released immediately, and that weeks and months are not allowed to elapse between the armistice and the repatriation of these men who are entitled to every possible help that the country can give them. The men who have been responsible for these crimes must receive condign punishment. I know my country well enough to know that as soon as this War is over there will be a feeling of kindness and a disposition to let bygones be bygones, but this is a matter of justice, not vengeance. If we allow cruelties of this nature to go unpunished, it will be an inducement to any other nation in the future to say that Great Britain will stand anything. We demand: first, armistice; secondly, the punishment of those who are guilty; and, thirdly, if the armistice is not given, that the Government will carry out the terms of their own ultimatum and insist by such means as they think right that justice, or at least mercy, should be extended to our prisoners in Germany.
§ Captain CHARLES CRAIG
I feel that the responsibility upon my shoulders is great, because I know that the House, owing to the fact that I have been a prisoner of war in Germany for two years, will receive all that I have to say with confidence, believing it to be absolutely and strictly true, and will naturally pay more attention to any firsthand statement made by me than to a statement made by any other Member of the House who has heard it from a third person. For these reasons, I desire to be as moderate as I possibly can in stating the case of the prisoners of war to-day. I regret that the first thing that I have to do when I come home, after two years in Germany, is to level as strong an indictment as I possibly can against the Government for their treatment of this prisoners of war question during the last three or four years. I wish I could tell the House that my experiences assure me that the Government have done all that they could for the prisoners of war. Unfortunately, I have to say the very reverse. As far as my experience goes, they have done little or nothing for us. I have to say, further, that they could have alleviated our lot to a very considerable extent. If they had done their duty as they ought to have done, they could have made the lives of 1323 those thousands of men who have been spoken of by my hon. Friends who have preceded me, I will not say happy, but comparatively easy, instead of which they have been lives of unutterable misery all these years. I was amazed, when I came home, speaking to a variety of people in trains and other places, to find that a great many of them took no interest in the question of prisoners of war, and those who admitted taking any interest in it said to me: "Surely these stories which we hear of the bad treatment of our prisoners of war are not true!" They said it in a tone of voice which showed me that they expected my answer to be "No." Why is it? God knows that we prisoners of war have done our best as far as we could to make the condition of affairs in Germany known to the people here. Yet when we come home we find that the stories that we have told are not believed. There is something wrong there. One of my hon. Friends says "No, no!" I know that it is not true absolutely, and that there are plenty of people who do believe the worst that can be told, but the general public do not believe half of the true stories that have been circulated about the condition of prisoners of war.
Why is there that indifference of the public and that inability or disinclination to believe the truth? Where are we to look for the cause of it? I ask myself: Is it due to the old idea that a prisoner of war is a person who is not deserving of any consideration? Is it that the people of this country think that our prisoners of war in Germany, of whom I was one, have brought their own fate upon themselves, have made their own bed and must lie upon it—that they have no right to be prisoners of war at all, but ought to be dead rather than in an enemy country? Is that the idea, the old-fashioned, hard view that used to be taken a century ago—an unjust one even then? Surely at this time that is not the correct view to take of prisoners of war! Surely it is not the correct view to take of those men who have suffered most in Germany—the men who were taken in 1914, men of the old original Army, men belonging to the most distinguished regiments of the British Army, men who were taken prisoners fighting to stop the onrush of the Germans at Le Cateau and Mons! Are those men of whom it ought to be said that they allowed themselves to be taken prisoners when they might have 1324 fought it out to the end and have been killed? Not only have we those men, but we also have among our prisoners of war in Germany men of the Royal Navy whose ships were sunk beneath their feet, and who were picked up out of the water. Is it to be said that those men ought to have refused to have been saved? We have, too, men of the Mercantile Marine whose ships were also sunk beneath them, either by gunfire or torpedo or mine. Could those men help themselves being taken prisoners? No, Sir. Let me add a fourth class. They are the unfortunate civilians. Surely no stigma attaches to them. Poor devils, they could do nothing. They were in Germany, and were taken prisoners at the outbreak of war, and they have had to suffer, like all prisoners, very severely. I do not suppose the public believe all that. I do not believe that the view suggested is the view taken by the public with reference to the prisoners of war. I believe the public takes the view that the vast majority were only taken prisoners after they had done their utmost for their country. There may be one or two per cent. of the total who gave in sooner than was necessary, but the public does not believe that there is a greater percentage.
While that is not the view of the public, I am perfectly convinced that it is the view of the War Office. The War Office is a corporation without a soul, and I am sorry to say that I believe they have been able to impress that view of prisoners of war upon every Department which has had to do with them. One of the first difficulties of our position has been that we have not had to deal with one single Department, but with a number of Government Departments. The Foreign Office, the War Office the Army Council, the Home Office, and all sorts of Departments have had to be consulted before anything could be done. If I am asked why I say that, I believe that is the view taken of us by the War Office.
I can quote two—more than two, four—very significant facts which I think will bear out my contention that the view of the War Office was that when we were taken prisners we were of no further use, that the country had plenty of other things to look after, and that it was not their business to bother about prisoners of war till the War was over. The 1914 star was granted to people who took part in the early part of the War. At first it was not intended to give it to prisoners of war. Probably there was an agitation 1325 by some friends of prisoners of war, and at last it was agreed that it should be given to them, but it was given grudgingly. It was intimated to them that it was only provisional, it was stated in so many words—I believe in the Army Orders—that they were liable to have the star taken from them if, after the War, it was found that their conduct when taken prisoner was not correct and proper. Any soldier or sailor may be covered with decorations from top to bottom, but if he be guilty of cowardice, or if he be found to have given himself up without proper cause, every single one of his decorations and medals will be ripped off his coat. That is known to every soldier and sailor; but in this case the War Office rubbed it in, so to speak, and put it into the Army Orders that this 1914 ribbon was only given provisionally, and that it was liable to be taken away as soon as prisoners of war came back. A worse case was with regard to the chevrons granted for length of service, and I ask the attention of the House very particularly while I describe what happened. It was decided that prisoners of war were not to be allowed to count the time that they were in prison camps for the extra chevrons and this was the nice, gentle way in which the War Office made that intimation to the prisoners of war. In the Army Orders of January of this year they say:The qualifying service for additional chevrons need not be continuous. It will include periods of leave up to one mouth, where the individual returns overseas at the conclusion of such leave.This is the part to which I want to draw attention—Periods of absence without leave, in prison or detention, in hospital from sickness due to avoidable causes, or in captivity as a prisoner of war will be excluded when calculating the twelve months required to qualify for an additional chevron.The House will realise that the unfortunate prisoner of war is grouped together with persons who have been absent without leave, namely, deserters, persons who are in prison or detention, namely, the drunkard, or the person who has done some criminal act, and persons who are in hospital from sickness due to avoidable causes. We all know that is the man suffering from a self-inflicted wound or from venereal disease. Those are the people with whom the prisoners of war are coupled in this Army Order. I say it is a disgrace. If the War 1326 Office thought that prisoners of war should not have been granted these chevrons, they should have taken care to have intimated that fact in some way without bracketing prisoners of war with the people I have mentioned. There is another thing. One of the Mercantile Marine captains, to whom, as I have said before, the country perhaps owes quite as much as it does to its Army or Navy, on arrival of the tender of the hospital ship in the Wash, a few days ago, was approached by an individual in military uniform and asked: "Have you any means?" The Mercantile Marine captain very properly told him to mind his own business. The officer said: "I only ask you because if you have not any means we have a small fund out of which we can pay for your tickets from Boston to London." That means that while military officers get a free pass to London, a member of the Mercantile Marine, who has, while in Germany and Holland, been treated like any other officer, has to pay his own fare to London.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir G. Cave)
I heard of that, and I got it altered at once.—[An HON. MEMBER: "When?"]—Within the last week or so. The Committee appointed to deal with these matters was only formed a few weeks ago.
§ Captain CRAIG
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that nine-tenths of the criticisms I am making are levelled at the procedure of the Prisoners of War Committee before he became Chairman. I am speaking of the past, and the rising anger of the public has produced the appointment of the right hon. Gentleman as Chairman. Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that up to the present a civilian prisoner coming from Ruhleben had to pay his fare the whole way, or give a written undertaking that he would pay it back to the Government.
§ Captain CRAIG
I know this has been going on for six months or more, and I am pleased to hear that it has been changed. I quote the incident to the House to let hon. Members see how these matters have been attended to in the past. I think I have shown quite plainly that what was said by my hon. Friend below me is right—that the War Office looks upon 1327 prisoners of war as people worthy of no consideration, and they have been able to impress that view on other people.
§ Captain CRAIG
If it has nothing to do with the right hon. Gentleman's Department, then I address my remarks to the Department to which it does relate. A Committee was appointed to safeguard and look after the affairs and interests of prisoners of war, and when that was announced the friends of prisoners of war naturally said: "At last the Government has recognised the necessity of doing something. A Committee has been appointed, and no doubt the interests of prisoners will now be properly safeguarded." It is quite true that the Committee was appointed, but of whom did it consist? One of the most important members of it was the representative of the War Office (General Belfield). I am not going to say anything particular about him further than that he was the representative of the War Office, and I have not the slightest doubt that he was sent with specific instructions to look at every point strictly and solely from the War Office point of view, and I have indicated what I think is that point of view. I am convinced that is the view General Belfield held and put forward at every meeting when anything came up for discussion on that Committee. Another most important member was Lord Newton, of whom we have already heard. With regard to Lord Newton, I do not want to say anything offensive. I have already indicated that I have not much confidence in the Committee, and that remark applies to Lord Newton as well as the Committee.
§ Captain CRAIG
I am referring to what we prisoners of war have known as the Prisoners of War Committee, which was supposed to look after our interests at home, and we looked upon it as consisting of Lord Newton, who was the head of it, with General Belfield as one of its principal members.
§ Captain CRAIG
I am sure the House will understand my difficulty. If I am not right in my description of these Committees I will change the name and speak of it as the Government. I have only been back a short time, and I have not been able to solve the intricacies of these Committees and the various Departments which are supposed to look after our interests, but at the top of them all is the Government. We know that whatever Committee the Government set up, General Belfield and Lord Newton were members of it, and they were very important individuals from our point of view. I have already described what we thought General Belfied was—that is, he carried out strictly the views and instructions of the War Office. Lord Newton, we thought, was a man who took an entirely wrong view of the nature and mentality of the German. He thought that the German was a humane and ordinary gentleman, and we prisoners of war look upon him as a brute. He apparently thought the German could be brought to reason by ordinary methods and means, and by corresponding with him as one gentleman or one honourable enemy would do with another. We found out that that was not the right way to approach a German, and that the only logic and argument which a German understands is the argument of the big stick, which he has very often applied himself when it was in his power, and it is an argument which, I am glad to say, we are applying to him at the front at the present time. Our complaint is that that argument was never used in our interests.
This brings up the question of reprisals. I have had many arguments on that subject. I have been told, and shall probably be told again by those who speak on behalf of the Government, that they have consulted numerous prisoners of war, and that they have invariably been told that prisoners of war are not in favour of retaliation or reprisals. I can say most authoritatively that the vast majority of prisoners of war with whom I have discussed the, subject—and the question has been discussed thousands of times in Germany—would be willing and ready that reprisals should be taken against prisoners of war in this country at once. 1329 There is nothing which goes to the heart of a prisoner of war in Germany more than the fact that he has to suffer all these indignities, cruelties, and barbarities—those which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) are a mere fraction of them—than the fact that he knows nothing has been done here in regard to this matter except a polite request through the Dutch or Swiss Ambassador from our Government to the German Government to discontinue these practices. Surely after three years our Government ought to have known that these methods were of no use!
Things went from bad to worse even after the Hague Agreement of 1917 was passed, at which resolutions were adopted that the conditions of prisoners of war should be improved. Even after that, from the beginning of 1917 to the time I came out of Germany, the condition of prisoners of war got worse from day to day, as far as their treatment was concerned. One of the conditions of that agreement was that interned people who had served eighteen months in Germany were to be sent to Holland. The way that was carried out shows that the prisoners of war were treated with the utmost callousness and want of feeling. That agreement was passed on the 14th of July, 1917. Naturally prisoners of war, and especially those who have been in prison since 1914, were overjoyed, and they said, "How long will it be before we get out of this country?" They gave the Government two and a half months, and we agreed that it would take until the 1st of October. That date came, and actually a number of prisoners who had been longest in prison were removed from the camp I was in about that time. They all thought they were going to Holland. The remainder remained behind for a fortnight, and we were then removed to the same camp. I remember in the train the older prisoners of 1914 were betting freely as to whether the first party of fifty prisoners had gone to Holland, but when we arrived at Holzminden they were there. There they remained, eagerly scanning the papers from day to day and week to week, for three months before the first of them was sent to Holland
To prove that it was not an unreasonable assumption that two and a half months would be the time required to make the necessary preparations, some of those committees at home who had been in 1330 the habit of sending parcels wrote to a number of these officers saying that they had stopped sending parcels, because before they were likely to arrive the prisoners would be in Holland under the agreement. May I inform the Committee that it was the 1st of January before a single one of those prisoners got to Holland, and it took six solid months to carry out an arrangement for transferring 7,000 men and 700 officers to Holland? You may say that the reason was that you had great difficulties with the Navy and the other people in fixing up a port from which the Germans were to sail. That may be, but if we had bad, as we have now, a responsible head of the Prisoners of War Department, then these negotiations could have been got through in one month or six weeks. Owing to the fact that you had the Navy objecting practically to every port being used for the purpose, and you had difficulty with other Departments, the Board of Trade probably making objections about railways, and so on, the result was that it took six months to do what might easily have been done in two months.
I further blame the Government because when they knew that this time was going to be occupied, they did not inform the prisoners of war that it was likely they would be detained until the beginning of the new year. I can assure the House that the last three months which these officers spent in Germany had more effect upon their health than the whole of the three and a half years they had spent in Germany before. That is an instance of the want of feeling the authorities at home have for the prisoners of war. They have no conception of what it means to a man to be a prisoner of war in Germany for four years. I was there only for two years as compared with four years spent there by other people, but I know the mental anxiety through which one goes, especially when the time is approaching for release to Holland is very great, and when I know that these poor people had been there in the early days, two years longer than I had been, and when I remember that in the early days the condition of the officers' camps were much worse than they are at the present day, I am confident that if the public had only known of the mental anguish which these officers, non-commissioned officers and men had to go through at that time, they would have risen, and told the Government that this 1331 transfer must be carried oat at once and must not be left hanging over the prisoners of war for months.
I do not want to go into details of bad treatment. If I did I could keep the House quite easily for another hour; but I can assure them that all the extracts from the cases which were quoted by my hon. Friend who spoke before me are typical of thousands of others which have happened in the past in Germany, and are happening to this day. There was no exaggeration among them These cases actually happened. I have determined, however, to read one case to the House for the simple reason that, although it was an old case, it was what one might call an unsolicited testimonial, and it only arrived on the 14th of this month from a non-commissioned officer who is at present in Switzerland. It was written to an hon. secretary of a Relief Committee. He says:Just a few lines to you in answer to your kind and welcome letter dated 16th September, which I am afraid was delayed somewhere; but better late than never. You ask me how I was treated on the Russian Front. I think, myself, it was beyond all records. I left Munster, Westphalia, on the 6th May, 1916, a strong able-bodied man. My weight was then 13 stone 6 lbs., and after doing eighteen months in and behind the German lines I returned to Germany a complete wreck. My weight was then 10 stone 6 lbs. Our work consisted of road-making and railway-making from six in the morning to any time at night; in fact, we never knew when we were finished. Our parcels used to come once a month and we were fifty miles from the nearest railway station, so we had to pay the Russian people, to go and fetch them up on their sleigh. That used to take three days' journey there and back, and perhaps when they were sorted there would be none for you or perhaps there would be one, and when you opened it half the contents would be missing. One night on the Russian Front we were ordered to the German first line of trenches to put barbed wire up under shell fire the whole time, and if any man refused he was shot dead on the spot, which happened to several. After we were finished they took us to a place called Mitau and put us into small tents, where there were 3 ft. of snow and ice, kept us there all night, and when they had a roll call in the morning they found there were several men frozen to death and about eight with severe frost-bite, while some lost their legs and others their arms, etc.That is an unsolicited testimonial, and I say so because I know that some people assert that for the purpose of making our case we go out of our way to get hold of these cases. That is not so. There are thousands of cases, and the Government have the fullest details of these cases in their possession. In fact, I understand 1332 that they boast that they know a great deal more about the condition of prisoners of war than any single prisoner of war can possibly do. I believe them, because they have the fullest details of all the cases.
The question is, what is to be done? The War has taken a turn now. That may improve matters very much; but we have had many false alarms in the past. We thought two or three years ago that the War could not possibly last another year. If I was sure that the War was going to end now and an armistice was going to be accepted by the Germans, I might say that to some extent this Debate would be useless. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] Perhaps not for the purpose of punishment afterwards, but for the purpose of alleviating the condition of the prisoners of war, if an armistice comes sooner, then I fear our discussion this afternoon may be more or less useless. However, we have no guarantee of any sort that that is to be the case. We do not know that the War will not last for another year. We do not know whether the military leaders in Germany may take hold of things, and say that in any case they are done, that whatever happens they will have to go, and therefore they will fight to the bitter end. If that be so—and there is great probability they will do so, the War may go on for another year. During that time food will become scarcer in Germany, conditions will be harder for the Germans themselves, and it is safe to prophesy that the condition of our prisoners of war will be very much worse rather than better, unless we take a very strong line.
There are two things to be done, and we must do both of them. We must make it quite clear in our armistice or by public statement that the fullest, I will not say vengeance, but justice must be done to those inhuman wretches who have created so much trouble, and who have treated our prisoners in such a vile and barbarous manner. At the same time, I submit that we must let them know that if these things do not instantly stop, we will take reprisals. I am glad to see that the Government has intimated that to a certain extent. I want them to be firm on the subject, and not to repeat the fiasco into which they were forced in the early part of the War when they tried reprisals on the unfortunate crews of the U-boats. I remember that incident, and I was very grieved about it 1333 in the first instance because I thought they could not have chosen a worse case in which to begin reprisals. We showed our hand at once to the Germans and showed them that we were not prepared to carry these reprisals through. It stands to reason that if you are going to go in for reprisals you must carry them through. There was a soft, silly sentimental feeling in this country—at least those are the adjectives which I apply to it—that reprisals must under no circumstances be resorted to, that they were not British and Christian. That, I think, is absolute nonsense, and I guarantee that if hon. Members who express views like that were prisoners of war in Germany for a short time, they would very soon get rid of such feelings. If you are prepared to send your sons, your relatives and friends to the War—and they have been shot down in their thousands—you ought, when you know that your own people are being done to death in Germany, to say, "I will take the Germans we have here, and for every man you kill in Germany we will kill one German here." That is only common sense. In times of peace all these other ideas of Christianity are all right, but now they are out-of-date. As long as these Germans are cruel and kill thousands of our men in Germany, I maintain that justice demands that precisely the same treatment should be meted out to Germans here.
I hope the Home Secretary when he replies on the whole subject will reassure us on this matter, and will make the whole country and the Germans quite confident that the most severe reprisals will be employed by us to protect, our people from the enemy. That should be done now. He will probably tell us that it was impossible in the past, because the Germans thought they were winning, and reprisals would have no effect upon them. That is not the case now. We are winning the War. The Germans know it and they know they cannot last much longer. Therefore we can do as we like in regard to this matter, and I press the right hon. Gentleman very strongly to make such a statement that the Germans will have no doubt whatever as to our intentions. I may say that the criticisms which I have made were not directed at the right hon. Gentleman. They were directed at the Government's conduct before he accepted the position of Chairman of the British Commission at the Hague. I would leave the interests of the prisoners of war very 1334 gladly in the hands of the right hon. Gentleman if he had to look after those interests alone, and had no other work to do; but I say that with the multifarious duties which he has to attend to as Secretary of State for Home Affairs—aliens, police, and a hundred and one different questions with which he must deal every day—no single man is capable of properly attending to the prisoners of war when he has all this other work to do. However, apparently, we cannot hope for that. We cannot hope that he will become Minister for Prisoners of War alone. But I am sure he will do his very best, and I have the utmost confidence on that point. I cannot sit down without expressing my disappointment at the Government that when they were appointing a Minister who would be supreme on this question, they did not appoint a Minister of great powers like the right hon. Gentleman, and one who would be able to give the whole of his time to this very important question.
Captain STANLEY WILSON
The House has listened to a very interesting speech, and I am sure hon. Members will congratulate the hon. and gallant Member on his return to this country and to this House. I have no intention of making any such strong attack upon the Government as has been made by preceding speakers, although at the same time, as one who has suffered from capture in the hands of the enemy, I entirely agree that the Government has done very little for the prisoners of war.
Take my own case. I was offered in exchange for a full year, and then was repatriated by the generosity of the Austrian Government. I had intended this afternoon to have referred at some length to the position of British prisoners in Austria, but this morning's news appears to make it unnecessary for me to make any long speech with regard to their situation. It appears from the morning news that Austria has capitulated, and I earnestly hope one of the first things we shall see is the return of our prisoners from there. Undoubtedly the Government are aware that there are a considerable number of military officers now at the camp at Salzburg, at which I was a prisoner. The last letter I received from that camp stated that the number now amounted (in August) to thirty-four military officers. What number of men is in Austria at the present moment I have no knowledge at all. But if there were that number of officers there must be a considerable number of men in 1335 captivity there. As my hon. Friend the Member for the Central Division of Sheffield (Mr. Hope), who may reply on this particular point, is aware, there are some twenty-five merchant ships' officers at that camp. Their captivity has been from one and a half to two years in length, and only one of these merchant seamen has been repatriated on account of his age. It is in regard to these men that I particularly wish to call the attention of the House this afternoon. More than one-half of these merchant seamen officers are over military age, and they are being kept in captivty for one reason, and one reason alone—and that is, because the Central Powers, Germany and Austria, maintain that these merchant seamen are combatant officers and because we maintain that these men are civilians. Now the Austrian Government sent a message back by me when they repatriated me to this country, saying that they were perfectly ready to negotiate for the exchange of these officers. I suggested that if the British Government allowed these men to give their parole—the men over military age—that they would not take up a ship again for the duration of the War, they should be repatriated to England, and perhaps younger men under military age might be sent to Switzerland. The Austrian Government asked me to tell the Government that they were prepared to negotiate for the return of these men on that basis.
I have begged the authorities in the fourteen months since my return to do something to get these men out of their captivity, and they have said they will do nothing because the Austrians consider them combatants, and I have asked if it is not possible to exchange them on some terms and argue about their status when the War is over or at some other time. There are three Departments to deal with these merchant captains and other officers: the Board of Trade, the Prisoners of War Department, and the Admiralty. I have been to both of the first two, and they both always promise to do their best to get these men exchanged in the manner I have suggested. But they have always told me that I should find my stumbling-block at the Admiralty. That is quite correct. The Admiralty have always refused since my return to do anything for these men until the Central Powers recognise that merchant shipping officers are civilians. So these unfortunate men, because of this dispute, have 1336 been kept in captivity and are there still. A few days ago I received a letter from the Prisoners of War Department informing me that at last the Department has seen fit to telegraph through the Spanish Embassy to Austria saying that they were willing to exchange all the Austrian merchant ships' captains and men we hold prisoners in this country for all men of a similar category in Austria. All I can say is, that it is a very great pity it has only just been done. If it had been done a year ago we should have been able to negotiate a satisfactory settlement for these men. The latest letters I have received from the camp show that these officers are all suffering from considerable privations. That is easily to be imagined, because when I left, fourteen months ago, there was very little to eat in Austria and we were practically dependent on the parcels we received from home, and they arrived in a very badly pilfered condition. But now with the large increase of Army officers there it is very difficult for these merchant ships' captains to help them over there until their parcels begin to arrive from this country. I say, as I have said since my return, the Austrians have done their best for the English and French prisoners of war. They have perpetrated no deliberate cruelty on any of them, and have given what they can in the way of food. I believe they have given prisoners of war as much as their own people had, but the Government has to remember that the Austrians themselves for two years past have been on the verge of starvation.
Now, if the officers at the Salzburg camp have been suffering, the men must have been suffering a great deal more, and I therefore take this opportunity of most earnestly begging the Government that, should any armistice be arranged with Austria, as everything points in the morning papers, in the course of a few days, or possibly a few hours, one of the first conditions of the armistice should be the immediate release and return of all our prisoners of war in that country. Nobody can realise the horrors of captivity, whether one is well treated or not, until he has been a prisoner of war himself. For a very long time the Government refused to take up any exchange of any sort or kind. I mentioned my own case, when the reason given was that they would agree to no individual exchanges. Had they agreed to individual exchanges earlier in the War there would have been 1337 a great many officers at liberty who are still languishing in captivity through this unfortunate attitude of the Government. With the great news we have before us to-day, I am quite confident in a very few weeks we shall be able to welcome a great part of our prisoners back from captivity, not only, I hope, from Austria, but from Germany as well.
§ Sir ELLIS HUME-WILLIAMS
I am sure everybody who has followed this Debate must have been struck first and foremost with the terrible recital we have had at first hand of the cruelty of the Germans, and I think, after what we have heard, we can accept those facts as being true, and sorrowfully let them pass for further consideration. Beyond doubt our men have been tied to stakes standing on stones, the stones have been kicked away, and they have been left hanging at their stakes. They have been kicked, insulted, shot. Officers have been treated with a refinement of cruelty of which only a German is capable. I have seen myself in Switzerland commanding officers who have been put to clean out drains, and every indignity that German ingenuity can devise has been inflicted on our men, and is continuing, alas, to this minute. This is common ground of our discussion, and the question arises, what are we to do now? If the Hague agreement had gone through it would without doubt have been a great advantage to these British prisoners in Germany. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary was called back to his duties here before the agreement was actually signed, and when it came to be signed, I believe what actually happened was that the German representatives chronicled their own opinion—it was not a condition of the agreement, that ought to be said for the credit of those who attended—these German representatives put on record their individual opinion that it should not be adopted by the Germans unless something were done with regard to the Germans in China, I do regret that when the Government published that agreement, as they did in this House and saw the general rejoicing that its terms naturally gave rise to over the country, they did not state that these conditions had been attached by those who signed it, and that there was, if not a probability at least a possibility, that it would not ultimately be adopted by Germany. If that had been done we might have been spared some of the disappointment and sorrow with which the failure of that 1338 agreement has been treated in so many families in England. However, it was not done, and there is an end of it.
It brings us to the question of the bottom of this Debate and constituting its usefulness; what can we do in the present unique opportunity to ameliorate the condition of our prisoners in Germany, and as I shall say in a few moments, also in Turkey, I confess I am wholeheartedly in favour of the armistice which one hopes is now being initiated, being conditional upon the immediate return of English prisoners. I know what will be said. It will be said and has been said, that you cannot introduce in an armistice all the conditions you are ultimately going to make part of your terms of peace. Ton for ton, ship for ship, questions of compensation, these will remain for the peace conference afterwards. But I contend this question of the cruel treatment of prisoners is on a different footing altogether. Here you have active, actual continuing cruelty on the part of the Germans, and it is much more like, if I may press this on the attention of the Home Secretary for a moment, it is much more like the question of the submarine warfare and the burning and devastation of houses which President Wilson's own answer stipulated must cease before an armistice was considered at all, than it is on a par with the ultimate conditions of peace, such as ton for ton, ship for ship, and so on, which we shall discuss when we come to peace terms. Therefore, to my mind, it is no answer to say we cannot as a part of an armistice stipulate for a return of prisoners of war, and that it must be left for the time when the peace conference assembles. It is urgent, it is pressing, and it ought to be just as much a condition of peace as the cessation of submarine warfare. The Government have publicly announced that they are going to entertain the question of reprisals. I should very much like the Home Secretary to explain what he really means by the term. What reprisals does the Government really contemplate? You cannot, if you try, induce British soldiers to shoot German prisoners in the back, to starve them, to crucify them or to whip them. Nothing approaching the German system of cruelty is possible. It is foreign to the English temperament. I have no objection to reprisals being carried into operation if it can be done effectively, but I suggest that we do not have a second fiasco, and that we do not make the same 1339 mistake that we did on a former occasion in the matter of reprisals on those who had been taken prisoner in submarines and adopt a policy and then drop it. If we are going to have a policy of reprisals, for goodness sake let us have a cut and dried plan before we put it into operation, and, if possible, and if it does not prejudice the case, let us know now what is in the mind of the Government.
Then comes a question which I consider of the greatest importance, and that is the punishment of those who are personally responsible for the ill-treatment of our prisoners. It is a practical question. I know it is new, but the cruel treatment of prisoners is new. I do not suppose in any war that history records there has been the deliberate, systematic, devilish cruelty to which our prisoners have been subjected by the Germans during this War. I think the procedure should be this. Immediate steps should be taken to collect, from prisoners and those who have given evidence before Sir Robert Younger's committee, the names of those who are accused of personal cruelty to those in the camps, whether they be commandants, officers, under-officers, or whatever their position may be, and to know the persons whom we are going ultimately to accuse. Let that be done quietly now, let the evidence be collected, and let a committee be appointed ad hoc.
§ Sir E. HUME-WILLIAMS
I am glad to hear it. Then in concert, if possible, with the Allies, because I think it should be an international question, let Germany clearly be made to understand that these men's names are known, and that it will be a condition in the very forefront of the peace terms that they are given up for trial—I care not where it is—by international court-martial at the Hague; I do not care where the court is, as long as it is a properly constituted court of officers and men who understand the question with which they are dealing, and that punishment will follow and will be carried out upon those who have so brutally behaved to Englishmen. A bully is ever a coward, and I think the idea that he can be made personally responsible for his own acts of cruelty will be as startling to the German as it undoubtedly will be new. The effect, I believe, will be immediate. Every man will say to himself, "It is possible that I may come on 1340 this Black List, and at any rate, in the future, my behaviour will be improved towards the prisoners under my care." That is, of course, on the assumption that we are unable to secure the return of prisoners as a condition of armistice.
Two further small points I make really on behalf of the Department with which I am associated. I should like an assurance from the Home Secretary that the Admiralty will be able to provide ships during the coming winter to take our parcels to Holland. There are now 150,000 British prisoners. Each has to have three parcels a fortnight, and that means a good deal of space. The ordinary service will soon cease, and I should like, on behalf of my Department, an undertaking that proper ships will be provided to take this large number of parcels. There is another vital question on which I should like an assurance. I should like, if it could possibly be arranged with the German representatives while negotiations are going on, that every Help Committee in the prisoners' camps should be given quick and free communication with the Central Prisoners of War Committee in London and with the Bread Bureaux in Copenhagen and in Berne. There are a great number of men who, we know, have been taken prisoner and we are unable to discover the camp that they have gone to, or their names. A short time ago there were as many as 25,000 whom we knew to have been taken prisoners and whom we could not trace to any camp, and as parcels had to be individually addressed we could not get parcels to them. At present there are 8,000 prisoners of war to whom we are unable to send the personally addressed parcels which are essential to their existence. A large store is kept at each camp, but if the Help Committee in each camp could be allowed by the Germans to communicate the number of men in the camp and their names as soon as they arrive it would very much facilitate the sending of parcels to them.
The treatment of our prisoners in Turkey is one of the darkest pages in the history of this War. Nearly half the English who surrendered at Kut have died of want, starvation, and neglect. The treatment to which those men were subjected on their march from Kut to the camps in which they were interned and the treatment they received in those camps is, as far as accounts have been allowed to come through to us, horrible and blood-curdling reading. I 1341 hope Mr. Justice Younger's Committee will collect, with the same care that they have devoted to the collection of evidence from Germany, evidence as to the treatment of prisoners in Turkey.
§ Sir E. HUME-WILLIAMS
And that it will be published soon, so that we have an end to this fiction that the Turk is a gallant enemy who is fighting reluctantly against the English. The treatment of prisoners in Turkey is one of the saddest episodes of the whole War. It is very difficult to get parcels to them, as they have to go through Austria, and they have not received food. The Turkish Agreement was turned into a mere farce. Nothing has been done under it to the present day, although I am glad to hear that a ship has ultimately really sailed. It came to be looked on and talked of as the phantom ship to bring back the thousand prisoners of war it was agreed to exchange and now if, as we all hope and believe, Turkey is going out of the fighting arena, I beg of the Home Secretary to see that the very first stipulation is the immediate and unconditional return of every British prisoner in Turkey. Let there be not a moment's delay. Do not let us be told that there are difficulties of transport and that the Admiraly is sympathetic but unable to oblige. Let the ships be made ready now. The information, if it exists, is within the possession of the Cabinet. My right hon. Friend properly knows much more than anyone in the House what are the real chances of the prisoners coming back soon, but if it looms in the immediate future, do not let an hour be wasted in making the necessary preparations, so that when Turkey surrenders the very first thing to happen will be that the British prisoners will be dispatched to our shores.
I should like to emphasise the necessity of appointing one man of Cabinet rank to deal exclusively with the question of prisoners of war. If my right hon. Friend could be appointed as the man in sole charge of this question the country would welcome with unrestrained joy the fact that he was the man of all others who was going to take over the job. But, unluckily there is no busier man in or out of the House. It is the penalty of his ability that he has so many occupations that I should think he has scarcely time to remember them all. There is not a man in the Cabinet who is harder worked. He is 1342 always put into the greatest number of jobs that require tact, ability, and perseverance. In this case, of course, he has exceptional knowledge of the subject, because he had assisted at the Conference, but it is unfortunate that the man above all others whom we want for the job is the most occupied member of the Cabinet, and, strive as he may, conscientiously and patriotically, to give his best services to the cause, it is impossible for a man to be doing half a dozen things at the same time, although it is really essential that there should be someone to take sole charge of the question. There is the Central Prisoners of War Committee, there is the Department at 18, Carlton House Terrace, there is Lord Newton, and there is the War Office, to which you always have to turn, the War Office quite reasonably taking the view that that with which they are alone concerned is the successful conduct of the War. Of course, every man who is taken prisoner ceases to be an asset for the conduct of the War. The Admiralty has to deal with constant demands for the provision of ships. I do not say there is friction, but things would run a great deal more smoothly if all these Departments were connected and controlled by one man of Cabinet rank, who could say "Go," and lie would have to go and "Come," and he would have to come to every man, and whose orders would be obeyed if he had power and authority to carry out quickly that which all these hard-working, well-meaning Departments want to do but are often unable to do.
One last word to point out how very serious this question has now become. Undoubtedly the feeling has grown amongst some of our prisoners, more particularly in Germany, that they have been neglected and forgotten The Germans have assiduously propagated that idea. They have neglected no opportunity to instil into British prisoners' minds the idea that their interests have been overlooked and forgotten in England. It is not true. Not only are they not forgotten by those to whom they are dear, but they have never been forgotten by the people of the country. Nothing has moved the people of England to more horrified indignation than the devilish treatment meted out to prisoners. The day of reckoning is at hand. Outraged humanity can only be satisfied by the punishment of those who have broken every law of God and man. Meantime, now that the opportunity 1343 offers, let us see that all that is possible is done, and done now, to obtain the release of these British prisoners from the misery which they are still undergoing.
§ Captain FOXCROFT
I rise to associate myself with the remarks which have just fallen from the hon. and learned Gentleman, and, in the first speech that I have the honour to make here, to suggest that there should be no armistice without the repatriation of our prisoners and no peace without punishment for the criminals. Supposing peace and an armistice are for the moment impossible, might it not be possible for His Majesty's Government definitely to tell the German Government that any fresh acts of criminality will result in an automatic increase of indemnity, besides, of course, the personal punishment of those responsible? As other hon. Members have said, it is apparently impossible, as we all believe, to teach the Hun humanity unless you hammer it into him. I personally fear that unless some drastic and definite action is taken, our British prisoners when they return from the front—those who do return!—will form an unfortunate estimate of the gratitude of the nation and the energy of the Government, which certainly does not err on the side of harshness towards the German prisoners in our midst.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I am afraid I shall have to make a considerable draft upon the patience of the House. This, however, is a matter of grave and immediate importance, and I am sure the House would prefer that I should make a full statement upon it. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath on having made his first speech in this House upon the very important subject of the British prisoners of war. In the first place, let me say that my first-hand knowledge, and my personal responsibility in this matter, as the House knows, extend over only two short periods of about one month each. The first was in June last, when I was sent on a mission to the Hague to negotiate an agreement, from which mission I was recalled before the agreement was made; and the second was during the present month of October, at the beginning of which I was for the first time asked to undertake responsibility in connection with our prisoners of war, and was appointed Chairman of an Interdepartmental Committee on prisoners of war. As the composition of that Committee 1344 is probably not very well known, I may say that it is composed of representatives of all the Departments which are concerned with prisoners of war. The Prisoners of War Department is one. Over that Department my Noble Friend Lord Newton presides. The War Office is another. There is also the Admiralty, the Home Office, the Colonial Office, and the India Office, which are all represented. There is this safeguard about the proceedings of the Committee, that in the ultimate resort, if any of the Departments disagree, I have the power then and there to decide the question. That is a new feature which has tended and will tend to increase rapidity and efficiency in connection with this work. I would just add this in answer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said just now, that when, at the request of the War Cabinet, I undertook this duty—for I could not refuse it—I made up my mind that I would find time enough to deal with the prisoners of war. I decided that if I ever found that my duties at the Home Office made it impossible for me to give proper time to the prisoners of war I would give up either one or other of the posts, but that I certainly would not allow my duty to the prisoners to suffer in any way. I think I am entitled to add that since that time I have worked pretty hard in both offices, and I do not think the interests of the prisoners have suffered for one day, or even for one moment, by reason of my other duties. Though I am new to this work, I have made myself acquainted with the main facts relating to prisoners of war, and I think I can give the House a fairly clear account of what has been going on. I must leave certain details to be dealt with by my hon. Friend who is associated with me, and I will only deal with the broader aspects of the question.
In all times of war the position of the prisoner of war—the gallant man who through no fault of his own has found himself subject to the forcible direction of the enemy—has been one of the greatest hardship, but I think that has never been more true than in the present War. All countries have striven in times gone by to alleviate the condition of the prisoners of war. Their charter—the charter of prisoners of war—is found in the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906, and in three Articles of the Hague Conventions of 1899 1345 and 1907. I will just quote part of these, because they are not long. The fourth Article says:Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not in that of the individuals or corps who captured them. They must be humanely treated. All their personal belongings, except arms, horses, and military papers, remain their property.The sixth Article states:The (enemy) State may utilise the labour of prisoners of war, other than officers, according to their rank and capacity. Their tasks shall not be excessive, and shall have nothing to do with the operations of war.The seventh Article states:The Government into whose hands prisoners of war have fallen is bound to maintain them. Failing a special agreement between the belligerents, prisoners of war shall be treated as regards food, quarters, and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.When the history of this War comes to be written I think it will be said that these rules of international law, which are also rules of humanity, have been observed in this country. I am sure it will be said that they have been over and over again deliberately broken by all our enemies, with the exception, perhaps, of Austria-Hungary. In Germany particularly our British prisoners have been underfed, overworked, robbed, and cruelly handled.
§ Sir G. CAVE
The treatment by Germany of the prisoners of war compares with her other war crimes—the deportation of women and children, the sinking of passenger and hospital ships, and the murder of those who were endeavouring to save their lives in the lifeboats. I have had special opportunity of learning at first hand the truth about some of these outrages. I was at the Hague when some of our exchanged prisoners came from Germany to that country. Indeed, I had the unforgettable pleasure of being present when my hon. and gallant Friend opposite (Captain C. Craig), with some of his fellow officers first came to Holland, and of hearing him hail me by my name. I made it my business, as the hon. and gallant Member knows to see as many as I could of our exchanged prisoners from Germany. I had from the lips of some of them what they had gone through. I think, perhaps, the most poignant story of all which I heard was the story of the treatment of those who had been at the punishment camp, to which my hon. and 1346 gallant Friend referred. No one who has seen the men who suffered can ever in his life forget it or fail to do what can be done to bring the perpetrators to justice.
It is, of course, important to be sure of our facts, to understand them clearly. It is natural when our feelings are engaged that we should tend to emphasise the darker side of things, but for all that it is a mistake, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman himself said, to overstate your case, not only because you may afterwards be confuted by rebutting evidence, but also because to state, for instance, that all prisoners of war have been ill-treated is to give needless distress to the relatives of these men. Therefore let me say shortly how and where these enemy cruelties have been committed. The facts have been very carefully collected. The Prisoners of War Department, presided over by Lord Newton, of whom I will say a few words a little later, has for years past made it one of its duties to ascertain from returned prisoners all the facts bearing on this question. These have been carefully taken down and recorded. They have been examined and tested by the Committee over which Mr. Justice Younger presides, and the facts and evidence and names are available for use the moment they are required. Let me take first the camps—I mean the permanent camps—in Germany. These differ very much. It is a peculiarity of the German system that the Camp Commandant claims to be, and—so far as I can ascertain—really is, subject only to the Army Corps Commander, and he is independent of all Government Departments, even of the War Ministry. He claims to be subject only to the Emperor himself. The result is what you might expect. The camps differ very much, according to the character of the Commandant and of the Army Corps Commander. Some camps are, at all events now, reasonably well organised, letters are reasonably well delivered, and, what is most important of all, the parcels are delivered with reasonable celerity without anything being taken from them. That is so in some camps, and I have seen hundreds of letters from our men in those camps which bear out that statement. There are other camps where the conditions are, to me, unspeakable: the cruelty, inhumanity, and brutality going on almost passes the belief of any human being. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) referred to some 1347 of these cases, and others have been published. I will not repeat what has been said, but I may say that these things are going on to-day, according to the evidence which has come in from lately-returned prisoners. Let me give the House one statement as to the camp at Langensalza:About the end of April last, about 5,000 British prisoners of all ranks, including officers, arrived at this camp in a terrible condition, having travelled there in cattle trucks for three days without anything but water during the whole journey. Quite half of the men were wounded, some very badly, but they had had no dressing whatever. On arrival they were crowded into very dirty barracks, and for six days had no medical attention at all. Then a few of the wounded were picked out and put into hospital, where thirty died, partly from starvation and partly from neglect. As there were no medical stores the medical attention was quite inadequate. Twenty British non-commissioned officers volunteered to act as orderlies, but were not allowed to do so.Then there follow some words almost unreadable, and the statement continues:Many of the British, with open wounds, were compelled to work in pigstyes, among diseased pigs. The sanitary arrangements were perfectly awful.As to another camp—Sprottau—it is impossible to quote to the House what we are told of the torture inflicted there; but our witness estimated the number of deaths which had taken place in this camp, since November, 1916, at more than 2,000. That, of course, includes prisoners of all nations. This statement is based on the fact that a man in the East Yorks Regiment, who died early in January, 1918, bore the registered number 1762.
§ Sir G. CAVE
From September, 1916, to April, 1918—about eighteen months. Now I come to the working parties sent out from the camps to factories, mines, and elsewhere. The men in the working parties are exposed not only to the caprice of a Commandant but to the brutality of uneducated and perhaps vicious foremen and others working with them, and the record of some of these working parties is very black indeed. The men are beaten, they are bruised, they are tortured, they are made to work when injured, they are underfed, they are overworked, and everything is done to break their spirit. Thank Clod, in most cases, it is not broken! Let me quote only a few cases, because I want the House and the country to understand 1348 what it is that we have to deal with. Here is one account relating to Westerholt, a coal mine:A number of British prisoners, who escaped from there in January last, after having been interned for at least a year, have given evidence as to their treatment. They were knocked about by the sentries, both on the surface and in the mine and also in the camp, with rifles and rubber tubes kept for the purpose. They were put inside a dungeon full of vermin and rats, and on one occasion a private in the Gordons was set upon by six foremen, his head was split open, he lost a lot of blood, and they made him stand for eight hours as a punishment. There were several cells under the bath attached to the mine, extremely hot by reason of the hot pipes near them; the prisoners were kept there four or five days at a time, and suffered terribly from the heat. Several prisoners complained of being bitten by dogs. The medical treatment was bad. There is one other coal mine—Grube Bismarck-Poley. Each man here was expectd to pick, load, and run thirty waggons of 15 cwt. each in a daily shift of twelve hours. If this task was not completed, which often occurred owing to the men's weakness, they were forced to do an extra six hours. The under-officer in charge, who stood at the gate as the prisoners returned from work, was in the habit of striking them in the face or setting his dog at them. The compound was greatly overcrowded and swarmed with rats, and the bedding was filthy. Sick men were never allowed to see a doctor. So bad was the treatment that nine men purposely drove picks into their feet in order to get away from this working camp. A private was given three days cells for complaining to the German inspecting officer.I want to give next the case of a salt mine, a case of the greatest cruelty—A lance-corporal in the Gordons, who was at Ehmen Einigkeit from September, 1917, to February, 1918, states that his daily task, Sundays included, was to break up the salt and fill and run away thirty-six trucks in eight hours, and if the task was not completed the man had to remain another eight hours. As the salt is hard, it was usually impossible to complete the task in the time required, so that taking into account the time consumed in going to and from the mine the prisoners only got about four hours' sleep. The sentries and civilian foremen continually beat them with big sticks. The food was uneatable. The accommodation consisted of one hut, 40 yards to 20 yards, to hold 300 men. The straw was never changed. There was no water to wash with or drink, and the men were always covered with boils caused by the salt. The only treatment was the application of caustic and the prisoners were sent back to the mine before their wounds were healed. There were ten men who were kept working at the mine for three years.I will now take one other case of a salt mine, Grasleben—A prisoner in a Middlesex Regiment who was at this place fell sick and asked to see the doctor. He was beaten with rifles and a bayonet by an under-officer and four German soldiers until he was unconscious. When he regained consciousness he was sent to work again. He asked the German sentries to shoot him, 1349 but a German who produced a revolver was prevented firing at him by other German civilians on the spot. He was placed in solitary confinement and was subsequently court-martialled at Hanover for striking a German sentry and sentenced to eighteen months' hard labour. When he was brought back to the place he was made to work from 3.45 in the morning and did not get back till 4.30 p.m., and from eight on Saturday night until eight on Sunday night he was kept in solitary confinement. Three of the prisoners in this mine who had broken limbs were forced to work by the German under-officer although excused work by the German civilian doctor.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I cannot give the date, but I think the statement was taken some time this year. Mr. Justice Younger's Committee has made its investigation and settled its Report on the work in mines, and we hope it will be published in a very few days. Now I have a few words to say about the factories. Here, again, it is almost impossible to read some of the things which have occurred. As to Honingen,A repatriated prisoner who was there for six weeks up to March, 1918, says the place was filthy and swarmed with lice. The prisoners were compelled to work ten hours a day, including Sundays, and the punishment consisted of forcing men to walk up and down carrying sacks filled with sand and very heavy stones, making them drop down every two or three yards and then raise themselves with these heavy weights. The prisoners were knocked about, the chemicals used were very dangerous, and if a prisoner's hands got wet and touched them the flesh immediately swelled and the flesh became rotten.There are other details of the kind which I will not read to the House.
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
Will Mr. Justice Younger's Report contain the names of the managers and superintendents guilty of these outrages?
§ Sir G. CAVE
Yes, the names are known. There is a camp at Doberitz where similar events occurred. I believe no words can be too strong to characterise or describe the treatment of our men in the working parties, in mines, and in factories.
Now I come to the treatment of British prisoners behind the fighting line—that is, before they are taken to the camps 1350 in Germany itself. In the spring of 1917 it was agreed between the two Governments, the German Government and our own, that all prisoners should be withdrawn thirty kilometres at least behind the firing line. This agreement has been steadily kept by ourselves, but has been steadily broken by Germany. The House will find evidence of that in Mr. Justice Younger's first Report, where the matter is very carefully gone into. I remember that we raised it at the Hague as the first item, because I insisted before we went into negotiations on bringing before the Conference the question of the treatment of our prisoners. I remember I put in a formal protest on this point. What happened? The German delegates communicated with headquarters, and they produced next day a telegram signed by General Ludendorff, stating that the prisoners should at once be withdrawn from the thirty-kilometre radius. That promise has not been carried out. The second Report of Mr. Justice Younger shows that up to the present time men are being kept in and indeed marched into the thirty-kilometre radius, and are put to work there, sometimes within range of our shell-fire, and are set to carry munitions of war and do other work which no prisoner of war ought to be put to.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I will come to reprisals in a moment. Apart from the question of thirty kilometres, there is the unpardonable treatment of our men behind the fighting line. The prisoners of war are collected in working parties. They are abominably housed, or are not housed at all but made to lie out in the open; they are robbed, they are starved, they are forced by stick and bayonet to do more work than any man ought to be asked to do; their capture is sometimes not notified for weeks and indeed for months. One can imagine the agony of suspense that causes to the relatives in this country. Their letters are sometimes not sent, sometimes they bear fictitious addresses—the address of the camp to which the man was perhaps destined, but which he will not reach for months afterwards, and the parcels on which their lives may depend accumulate and sometimes rot far away behind the lines in Germany itself. There is evidence of these facts in the Report of the Committee to which I have referred, and very much has been added since. I 1351 am going to read two passages. A sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps says:The prisoners who have been working behind the German lines are concentrated prior to transfer to internment camps in Germany. The prisoners arrived from behind the lines generally in rags, half starved, and verminous. They were often covered with sores and thoroughly exhausted.On 18th June, that is this year, this witness, with a party of 900 prisoners, started their journey to Stendal, which occupied four days. They were shut into goods wagons, many of which had no light or ventilation. There were no sanitary conveniences. One man died on the journey, and, in many instances, had to be lifted from the train on arrival at Stendal. The food on the four days' journey was 200 grammes of bread before starting, 200 grammes at Minden, and soup every fifteen hours. The party arrived at Stendal at midnight, 21st and 22nd June. They were pat straight, without food, into barracks. Many of the prisoners had no blankets, and remained without covering for four or five nights. On sick parade the following morning, 200 out of the 900 were passed sick by the German medical officer. The sickness was due to pure exhaustion and dysentery in various forms. Some of the prisoners were still suffering from the effects of dysentery, contracted in working-camps behind the German lines in the previous May. By the end of July, out of the original party of 900, 134 had died, sixty of pneumonia and the remainder of dysentery and exhaustion.I will give another passage from a competent witness who had seen some of these men last week. This witness says:The treatment behind the lines has, if anything, deteriorated lately. Indeed, the treatment there and in the mines are the two black spots in our prisoners records. Could you have seen, as I did, the waxen faces and shrivelled bodies of men captured in the spring offensive and frequently kept at work for several months behind the lines, and repatriated to this country last Thursday, you would realise how terribly hard the lot of our prisoners is made by the fact that they do not receive their parcels in the occupied districts?I hesitate to give further details, but I think it is useful and necessary that these facts should be publicly stated, because Germany has a debt to pay and Germany ought to be made to pay. [An HON. MEMBER: "She will be made!"] These cases are not the only ones. There are others, even in the hospitals, where, surely, humanity ought to reign. No doubt there are many humane doctors in Germany, but there are others who make a cruel distinction between British prisoners and other prisoners of war, and even among nurses many are found who, far from helping suffering prisoners, have stooped to inflict insult and injury upon 1352 them. The hospitals, as is shown by the condition of our men who are arriving in Holland and Switzerland, are in a very bad state and our wounded do not get proper treatment. The House knows that some of the civilians have been transferred from Ruhleben to what is called a punishment camp at Havelberg; and among the civilians the merchant seamen have suffered no less than other prisoners. Some of the older seamen, obviously past work—men of nearly seventy, and in some cases over seventy years of age and who are entitled under our agreement to return to our shores—have been refused to us and are still living—or perhaps dying—in Germany.
§ Sir G. CAVE
As regards Turkey, I agree with what my hon. and learned Friend has said. Turkey has shown herself in this matter a fit ally of Germany. It may be true—I am anticipating in this matter something which will be published in a few days—it may be true that the lack of proper treatment in Turkey is largely due not to deliberate cruelty but to neglect and incompetence, but the result is the same. The effect is that our men have died and that we shall only get back from Turkey a proportion of those who went to that country as prisoners.
§ Sir G. CAVE
More than that, I hoper but I should not like to give the percentage without very careful consideration. As to Bulgaria, we have also considerable cause for complaint: indeed, there is one case where we have already asked for the punishment of the man chiefly concerned. I will not go at length into the sufferings of our prisoners there. They are over, and the prisoners are being rapidly brought out of the country.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I need not go into that. We are doing all we can to bring that man to justice. We have required and insisted upon it, following in that respect the 1353 example which Germany set us in the case of a Roumanian who was said to have maltreated German prisoners.
I have dwelt long enough on the facts. They should be known and insisted upon. I think it is our duty not to hide these things at the present moment, but to let them be known to everyone, so that they will become not only an element in the-proceedings which are to follow immediately, but part of the history of this War, and a story which will be remembered for generations to come. The important matter is what remedies are we to take? We have had no lack of suggestions. The problem is, as we all know, a difficult one. I have sometimes felt like a man outside a fortress whose friends he knows are being maltreated inside and who is anxious to relieve them. Of course the best way to reach them is to take the fortress. That is in the hands of Field-Marshal Haig and Marshal Foch. But at all events we have endeavoured to make sure that when hostilities cease, whether by peace or by armistice, it shall be an essential and primary condition that our prisoners of war in the enemy countries shall be immediately released. It happens that when I was first entrusted with this matter Bulgaria was on the point of surrendering. On the day after my appointment I asked that a telegram should be sent both to General Milne and through Paris to General Franchet d'Esperey to make sure that it should be a condition of any armistice that our prisoners should be at once unconditionally released. That telegram was sent without a moment's hesitation. A telegram also went to General Allenby instructing him, if there should be an armistice with Turkey, to make the same condition. As regards the Central Powers, of course it is impossible for me to discuss the terms of peace or of armistice, but I have the best reason for believing that in any armistice either with Austria or with Germany the same condition will apply, and that this object will be secured.
§ Sir J. SIMON
The right hon. Gentleman used the word "released." Does he wish us to understand by that that they will be repatriated and come home here, or does he only mean that they will be interned in some neutral country?
§ Sir G. CAVE
I am being asked to go into the terms of peace, and I would rather not. I have gone as far as I can. I am speaking as to what will happen to the British prisoners. That, I think, is the first matter on which the House wishes to be reassured.
§ Sir G. CAVE
Certainly, combatant and civilian prisoners; and among the civilian prisoners we reckon merchant seamen, notwithstanding the contention of our enemies, who treat them as combatants. That, I think, is the first way out of the difficulty. There is, of course, another way, and that is by agreement. It is a mistake to suppose that agreements are of no value. The agreement of 1917 has proved of real value; and the agreement of 1918, if it had been ratified, would have been of still greater value. It provided for the exchange of all combatant prisoners of war who had been eighteen months in captivity the eighteen months being either then completed or to be completed before the summer of next year. It provided also for the humane treatment of those who remained, and gave power to the prisoner to complain either himself or through the Help Committees to the delegate of a neutral Power in the enemy country, and it gave the representative of a neutral Power authority to inspect the camp. I think that such an agreement, if carried out, would have been valuable to our prisoners. An attempt has been made to throw blame upon Lord Newton and General Belfield because the agreement has not been ratified. I think it is unfair to blame them for that. They concluded a reasonable and valuable agreement. There was no reservation in the agreement itself. 1355 I understand, though I was not there, that the Germans at the last moment declined to sign the agreement unless they were allowed to express their personal opinion that the agreement should not be ratified unless Germany had obtained a trade advantage in China. They had raised the point before, and had been told it could not be discussed, and it was only at the end that they were allowed to add a reference to it after their signatures. I might have been better not to concede this, but I feel sure that even if the note had not been added the point would have been raised by the German Government.
Some very hard things have been said about Lord Newton. May I say this about him, that he has worked for years past as head of the Prisoners of War Department, and that Department, under his control and direction, has done a great work in collecting information, in discovering and protesting against the ill-treatment of prisoners, many times with effect, and in other ways; and although this agreement has not been ratified, still our prisoners of war owe him a great debt of gratitude for what he has done. [An HON. MEMBER: "There is no proof of the benefits!"] No one who has not gone through it could realise the mass of work which that Department has had to perform. It has been very heavy indeed. Lord Newton and General Belfield have given their time month after month and year after year to this purpose, and I do not think it is fair because this particular agreement has not been ratified to use the language which has been used in this House about them. Some of my hon. Friends have said that Lord Newton in some of his speeches has been sarcastic. [An HON. MEMBER: "Deliberately!"]
§ Sir G. CAVE
He may have spoken sarcastically about some of his critics, but he never said a word that could be said to be cynical or flippant when dealing with the prisoners of war themselves. I think that ought to be remembered.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
Has the right hon. Gentleman read or heard of the speech Lord Newton made about the released prisoners at the Hague? Ask anyone of them what they think about it!
§ Sir I. PHILIPPS
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will read that speech, and if he does, I do not think it will justify what he stated just now.
§ Sir G. CAVE
Let me add one other fact about the agreement of 1917. That was an agreement under which thousands of men have been got out of Germany. It was made by Lord Newton and General Belfield, and many of our prisoners have cause to thank them for it. Let me conclude this part of the subject by saying that our last message to Germany is as yet unanswered, although, if their answer is such as has been foreshadowed in recent Press announcements, there is little chance of the agreement being now ratified. I come to my last point. Setting aside a German surrender and setting aside agreements, have we not some other steps which we could take? Is there not some way by which we can bring Germany to reason—can compel her to bring about some improvement in their treatment of our prisoners? If there is any way we ought to take it and take it at once. I think something can be done by publishing the facts, and that is one reason why I have spoken so plainly to-day. Germany is rather sensitive to world opinion.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I was rather amused when at the Hague to find that one of the first requests which the Germans made was that we should ask the English papers not to go on criticising the German treatment of the prisoners. That showed that the opinions even of Englishmen had some effect on their minds. I believe, especially now when they are trying to make their peace with the world and are looking to the future, that they will pay some attention to what is said of them not only in neutral but in enemy countries. At any rate it is worth while to make the facts public, verified and tested as they have been by Mr. Justice Younger's Committee. Secondly, I agree strongly with what has been said that the guilty individuals ought to be punished. It is no good talking about people who do things of this kind. You have got to get them by the throat if you can, and let the punishment you give to 1357 them be an example for generations to come. I hope with all my heart that we shall got these men. We may even get some of them in the course of the War, but in one way or the other we mean to do all in our power to get hold of these men and get them punished. We know their names. I have a list of them which I could publish to-morrow, but I am not going to do so because the result would probably be that they would keep out of our hands. But we are keeping a record and we are taking steps, with skilled legal help, to get the evidence into shape so that it may be available when the time comes. That is the second step, and possibly as important as any. We have already declared to Germany—I am quoting the exact words—That the British Government will hold Germany responsible for the unlawful and cruel treatment of British prisoners in their hands, and will take all steps in their power to ensure that the persons responsible for these outrages shall be punished.There is one other resource which we have, as to which there is plainly some difference of opinion in the House, as I have no doubt there is in the country—I mean the resource of reprisals, Reprisals are an expedient recognised by all civilised countries. For myself, I have always believed in them, not of course as a method of punishment, but as a means of compelling the enemy to keep to the rules and to cease from the crimes which he is committing. It is prevention and not punishment. If reprisals are limited to that, my conscience, at any rate, makes no protest against them. We must not, of course, use reprisals so as to injure our own men. That is the first thing to remember. It is no use saying "the Germans are starving or overworking our prisoners and therefore we will shoot a few Germans." Those who say that are men who have no son in Germany. The first, thing that would happen if we took such reprisals would be that revenge would be taken on our own defenceless men in German hands. When I say that, I do not say it of cases like the threat of the other day to shoot our airmen simply for dropping leaflets. There, I think, we were right to say "If you snoot a British airman for that we will shoot two Austrian airmen." That is another matter, and I believe, our threat had its effect; but to say that we will take a step like that because there is improper treatment of our prisoners in German camps would be only to harm our prisoners themselves.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I believe no responsible person has suggested it, but I have heard it suggested by irresponsible persons. Apart from that, there are still reprisals which we can take. I ain not sure that I should be wise to detail them, but we are entitled to say that the Germans have great regard for the position, the dignity, and the comfort of their officers and of their more wealthy civilians. If they do not treat our men, our privates, properly, we are entitled to bear in mind the fact to which I have just referred. We have treated German officers very well, and I do not deny that they have treated many of our officers just as well. We have treated German officers very well, even better than we were bound to do by the laws of war, and I think that if we get no response to the demand which we have addressed to Germany, we shall be entitled to take reprisals within the limits which I have described, and this House may be sure that if it depends on me, that step will be taken. One word in conclusion. Complaint has been made that under the Agreement of 1917 we have felt bound to give notice before reprisals begin. I am not sure that it may not turn out that the delay so caused is useful after all. If reprisals had been taken at the beginning of October or the middle of October without notice, then, human nature being what it is, I think counter reprisals would have ensued at once. I may be wrong, but I think so, with some knowledge now of the German disposition and of what I am told.
§ Sir G. CAVE
Yes; as far as I know, and the Government felt bound to observe it. I was saying that if we had taken reprisals without notice I think that counter-reprisals would certainly have followed, but I think it possible that during the period of notice our enemies have become either more ashamed of what they have done, or perhaps more prudent, and may think it wise to concede our demands. Our demands are clear and are reasonable. 1359 We have asked for nothing which a civilised Government would not give without the asking. If they are agreed to, well and good; if they are rejected, we will do our best to give our gallant men in Germany all the protection that we can, and so far as our power goes, to avenge their sufferings.
§ General CROFT
The speech we have just listened to from the right hon. Gentleman in many ways, I think, must be satisfactory to everyone who is interested in this question. We all recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has only for the last few weeks been concerned in this work; but I must confess, after his speech, that had it not been so, it would have been a very grave indictment of the Department to which he now jointly belongs, and it would have caused us all to wonder really how anyone could defend such a policy. That we have heard this evening this terrible tale of four long years of suffering, that we have heard these words that have moved everyone in this House, first from my hon. and gallant Friend, who speaks for so many gallant comrades, and then from the right hon. Gentleman himself, that these facts should be, seems to me the greatest reason why we have a right to criticise the work of this Government Department during the last few years. When this question was first raised, and it was decided that this Debate should take place, I understand that two War Committees of the Unionist and Liberal parties met together to discuss what form their Amendment, if any, should take in this House; and I noticed the Resolutions in the newspapers to-day, all of which appeared to be wholly admirable. I determined to put down a slight Amendment adding a fourth point, which would suggest that there should be instant reprisals in the event of any further cruelty or brutality towards our prisoners of war. But this Debate has been taken on the Motion for the Adjournment, and one must therefore limit oneself to what one feels in regard to this subject. One thing which pleased me above everything else in what the right hon. Gentleman said was that he thought it was desirable that the whole truth should be told. What many of us want to know is why it is that the whole truth has not been told to our countrymen during the last three or four years when these facts were 1360 known. I cannot imagine that any tactical or political reasons should have deprived our fellow-countrymen of the whole truth regarding the terrible wrongs which have been inflicted upon our prisoners.
The Government, as the right hon. Gentleman has told us, has had a great mass of evidence before it. We have heard a few eases this evening, but they are only a few cases out of thousands, and the Government has had this evidence all the time. Not only have they kept the truth from the people, but I believe I am right in saying that the War Office, or some other authority, has compelled "escapers" and exchanged prisoners to promise that they will not tell the truth about this question on the platform or in the newspapers. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I have been told that by at least a score.
§ General CROFT
I fully admit that there have been official Government Reports; and I know that two special escaped officers were selected who might tell the story on the public platform; and am I not right in saying that escaped officers and men were definitely told that they must not tell these facts on the platform or in the newspapers? (Mr. MACPHERSON indicated dissent.) Well, I shall be very glad to give the right hon. Gentleman several cases of officers and private soldiers which have been brought to my notice. The fact remains that until recently the full story had not been told to the people of this country; and we have also the instances of where influence has been brought to bear. Does the right bon. Gentleman suggest that in regard to Mr. Pite's book an effort was not made by Lord Newton to see that that book was not published?
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ General CROFT
I do, and I think it bears out that the general principle had been adopted that the people must not know these facts. I have tried hard to find a single good reason for that, and I have been told by officials that they adopted this policy advisedly. I have 1361 been unable to find a single good reason why these endless crimes of our enemies should not be told to our people, and should be covered up and hidden. The only argument that I could gather from those who were in the know apparently, and whose motives, I am sure, were kindly and good and right from their own point of view, was that of the fear that the Germans might inflict worse cruelties upon our men. In fact, that has been told, to my certain knowledge, to returned prisoners, military and civilian. This has been the view of Lord Newton.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Told by whom? The hon. and gallant Gentleman states that officers, returned prisoners, have been told that at they must not do so-and-so, because it might be worse for our men who remained behind as prisoners. Who said that?
§ General CROFT
I cannot tell my right hon. Friend who was the actual official but I can say that I think altogether I have had seventeen different cases in which the officer who had been a prisoner certainly had that impression given to him by the War Office.
§ General CROFT
I will be very glad to find out, but I thought that the fact was such common knowledge that it would never be disputed.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Could the hon. and gallant Gentleman give us some indication of the name of the officers or the position of the officers, or something of that kind, because these things are very harmful unless they are substantiated, and, if they are substantiated, the War Office ought to be brought to book about it.
§ General CROFT
I shall be quite prepared to inquire from these officers whether I can put the facts before the right hon. Gentleman, and I will go further than that. I will give a list of definite cases which I can put before him, with the conversations as they were told to me. But I will certainly ask the officers. I think that most of them are so angry about this that they are quite willing to let the right hon. Gentleman know.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I am only sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend did not make these inquiries before making this statement in the House. I should be very glad if he makes these inquiries now.
§ General CROFT
In several cases officers, men on whose integrity I can rely, have told me that that is so. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman is it not a fact that Major Fox and Captain Gilliland were the only two officers to whom sanction was given to go about and speak in this country?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I do not know. These facts are new to me. I am astonished at my hon. Friend making these definite statements without instituting proper inquiries and investigations beforehand. I know that Major Fox has not got any instructions.
§ General CROFT
I do not make any suggestion about instructions, but I know that he has never been hauled up. Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend will say?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
Major Fox has lectured on the present position in Germany, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend has just said, so far he has not been stopped.
§ General CROFT
I am not referring to the instructions given him, but it was commonly known to all officers interested in this question that these two officers were permitted to speak on certain branches of the subject. The right hon. Gentleman will find no difficulty in finding many officers—I certainly could find him officers—who admit that they have been under the impression that they were not permitted to speak anywhere in this country on this subject. It may be under the military regulations, but the fact remains. The only argument that one could possibly find as to why these facts were not permitted to get to the public is the fear that Germany would inflict worse cruelties on our men who are still there. I can give the right hon. Gentleman two names of men closely associated with him—I do not think that I should give them in the House—men associated with the question, who certainly have held that view, and I think the objection in the right hon. Gentleman's speech was that the Germans might be more harsh in their treatment if the whole of these facts were made known. I rather gathered that impression. The drift of the right hon. Gentleman's speech is that the policy is 1363 altered, that publicity is now the thing, that the people of this country are to be told the truth about these facts. This is also a fact: Lord Newton, in the House of Lords, made out that it was in the interest of our prisoners that not too much should be done in the way of making things public or of reprisals. I can tell him—and I am very glad that my hon. and gallant Friend bears it out—that at least 80 per cent. of the escaped prisoners and exchanged prisoners, according to the evidence which I have received, not only desire, but desire passionately that the whole truth with regard to prisoners' cases should be made known in this country and given the widest publicity. Assuming say that the German treatment will be worse, they would prefer to run that risk rather than that their countrymen should not know what they are suffering at Germany's hands, and many of them say that they feel their treatment could not be worse, and their one wish therefore is that the whole of the facts should be placed before the whole of the people.
Lord Newton, in a speech in the House of Lords, also suggested that so long as we have not got a clear majority of prisoners—I think that that was gathered from his speech—we could do nothing. Is is not a fact that we had a majority of prisoners in 1917? And look at the question from this point of view: When he realised that the resources of the British Empire were available, and that the United States had come into the field, what really heartless ineptitude to say "We will do nothing because the Germans might be able to retaliate on a greater number of prisoners than we have here." There are some remedies which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned this evening. If we are told the Germans quite clearly, apart altogether from whether the policy would be right or wrong, in 1914, 1915, 1916 or 1917, that if they were going to continue this treatment all enemy aliens would be immediately interned, that was undoubtedly a weapon which could have been used at once. Lord Newton went further in his speech. He made reference to the time when the Germans were winning, and asked what could we do then. What a comment this is on the champions of our prisoners of war that Lord Newton had that frame of mind, that the Germans were winning! It seems to me that little men of little faith on this question were not the type of men 1364 who ought to have had in this country the sacred trust of the care of our prisoners in Germany. If Lord Newton considered that we were going to lose I could understand his policy, but if he had been a German or a hyphenated Briton in this country the mind that he displayed in that speech could not really have been more fatal to our policy in dealing with this question.
I may give a few more facts in reference to our prisoners in German prisons which are personally vouched for by many officers. I expect that the right hon. Gentleman has also many such facts in his possession. When the prisoners arrive in Holland from Germany rarely have their wounds been dressed for two days. Frequently their wounds have not been dressed for a week, and in very many eases when they arrive in Holland the stumps of their wounds are simply black. In this connection I should like to say, though it is not relevant to this discussion, that when they are handed over to the Dutch authorities their impression is clearly that the Dutch have done everything in their power, and it has been a very wonderful change to come under the Dutch medical authorities. We have all seen these various facts, and the most terrible tales are being told at present to me of the evidence against this race of German people which Lord Milner seems to think differs in character from its rulers. We have heard this evening from the right hon. Gentleman, and the evidence is overwhelming, that these feelings, which are attributed by some only to the military caste at the top, or to officers, are shared by camp commandants, camp adjutants, feldwebels, unteroffiziers, doctors, and by private soldiers, and even civilians who are working as foremen over our prisoners in salt mines and other places. All through these different ranks there are many Germans who have the same joy of torture and the same lust of hate wherever a British soldier was concerned. We have heard this evening of the calculated policy of the enemy in employing very large numbers of British soldiers behind the lines actually in the shell zone. These men are suffering in many cases from wounds and even death from their own shells.
There is an almost greater agony than that. That is the fact that day by day and month by month these compatriots of ours have been forced to load up the munitions which are going to kill our men. 1365 That has been going on consecutively in the case of a very large number of men even in 1918. There are many of us who are ready to testify to what the right hon. Gentleman said on that subject this evening. I also believe that he will find—and I am sure he has got evidence of men who are ready to swear to it—that while men were on this work they were starved deliberately, and not allowed sometimes to have anything to drink all day, even though a krug of water was near where they were working, and they were allowed to work on until they were ready to drop. What was public opinion doing in Germany all that time? This was going on in 1918, and it will strengthen the hands of the Government, in all conversations which they have with our Allies as to what the peace terms are going to be, to realise that in this year, 1918, the year of the change in the spirit of the German people, when democratic ideals were making such progress, they tolerated this kind of thing? Here is a case in May, 1918: There were 250 men in Stendahl Camp, and their condition was horrible. They were in rags, filthy, verminous, and starving, like wolves. These men were seen snatching at preserved meat tins in order to scrape out the remnants from them. In three days, I am informed, there were ten deaths from dysentery. No German medical comforts were provided. The only things were chance supplies which came from the British Red Cross Society, and there were cases, evidence of which the right hon. Gentleman has in his possession, where these men were so verminous that the seams of the coffins in which they had been for a very short time became white with lice.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has told us some of these stories to-night, because we must realise these facts. It is monstrous that the people of this country have not had the whole facts long ere this. In one camp I have heard from two different men that the deaths daily are from twelve to seventeen. I believe in that camp they were not all British soldiers; in fact, they were mostly Russians and Serbs, but British soldiers were there. In that camp was what was called a sanatorium, and men supposed to be recovering from other illnesses were kept in a building within a very few yards from tuberculous patients. In February, 1918, at Sennelager Camp, two British soldiers were killed because they would not stop talking. At another camp conditions 1366 were even worse. Here, so far as we can gather, the treatment was simply awful, and the neglect to the wounded was even worse than anything that could be imagined. There were scores and scores of cases of men who died through sheer neglect, who might have been saved if they had had any possible chance whatever. But the great danger is that we may imagine that because we hear in certain of the big camps open to neutral inspection that the treatment is improving, that is general in cases where men are sent to work in mines and quarries. I believe I am right in saying that there is no neutral inspection there, and it does seem that we ought to do something more than merely talk in order to see that their treatment is bettered. After the battle of Arras there were 300 wounded prisoners taken to this camp. They were made to sit in the sun for three hours on their arrival, and fifty men of this party died, nearly all out of sheer neglect. In the same camp, in 1917, all the non-commissioned officers were given fourteen days' punishment because they had refused, thank God! to do work which might help the German military caste. They had to stand in a snowstorm with no overcoats from nine to twelve in the morning and from two to five in the afternoon, solely because they refused to do work to help Germany in the War, and one of these non-commissioned officers was bayoneted in three places at this time. This was reported to the commandant, and the reply was brought back to the British soldiers who made the report by the company officer, who said it was the sentry's duty to use force, and that all English swine needed strict discipline.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned that it is undesirable to name any of these commandants in these prisoner camps. I am rather at a loss to understand that myself, because it seems that, having given the warning that those camp commandants who have been brutal are going to be punished, they all know now, so that I do not think there is very much to be feared from that. At any rate, I assume there is no harm in mentioning again this afternoon a name which has, I believe, been already mentioned, but I shall not name others, in view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. But one of the worst offenders was Hoffmann Alexander, who comes from Nottingham, and, I believe, is a German Jew, a lace manufacturer in 1367 peace-time. I have no doubt he will make every effort to return to Nottingham after the War—[An HON. MEMBER: "No!"]—unless you bring in legislation very quickly to put a stop to that, and there is no evidence of that yet. This man has behaved always as a brute. When talking to British prisoners about his friends, who happen to be high dignitaries of the Church, he has permitted this brutal treatment to go on.
§ Sir J. D. REES
May I ask the hon. and gallant Member what is his authority for ascribing this ruffian to Nottingham?
§ General CROFT
I apologise to the hon. Member. Three non-commissioned officers have all said that he comes from Nottingham.
§ General CROFT
This man also mentioned to his various prisoners that he had two daughters, who are evidently amongst those friendly aliens who are permitted still to inhabit seaside resorts in this country. I think we have heard enough to-day from all sources to emphasise the fact that every man, woman and child in the country ought to know these full facts, and, knowing them, ought never to forget them. I want to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman what, I believe, is the remedy, and the only remedy. First of all, I agree with him that it is advisable to announce the fact that all the commandants against whom you have got evidence will be punished. That is very good, and some hon. Gentlemen seem to consider it is sufficiently adequate. I understand the Unionist War Committee and the Liberal War Committee met yesterday, and are very much in favour of this question of punishment. Unfortunately, I do not belong to either of those bodies, and was therefore unable to attend. But I can only suggest that those two committees are very peaceful in their decision. It seems to me we want a little more than threats to Germans that they may be punished at the end of the War. There seems to me only one way of dealing with these German crimes, and that is by what some people call reprisals, but which I call deterrent punishment. It is really a deterrent you want to introduce. We have been lectured recently by Lord Milner that nobody must talk of vengeance. 1368 There is a very great deal of difference between vengeance and justice. There even may be some Christians who may say that you should not punish as a deterrent, but I reply that if you know your fellow-countrymen are being slowly murdered by your enemies, is it not criminal, is it not unchristian to neglect to use any weapon you possibly can, which is not an evil weapon in order to save them from death at the end of this treatment? The German, it will be generally admitted now, is a bully, and some of our authorities all through the War have been too slow to realise the fact that the German does respond to the treatment which the bully deserves. We have, in consequence, seen all this pampering of the German prisoners here, and we see them treated with every comfort, while our men are suffering, as I think will be admitted, no men have suffered since the early Christian martyrs.
What I want to make clear—and I believe I speak for most of those who believe in reprisals—is that we have no wish whatever to imitate the vile crimes of our enemies on this question. But there are ways and there are methods by which we can very quickly bring the Germans to reason. Conditions amongst prisoners here are very superior in every respect to what they are for prisoners in Germany. I believe if you had interned Baron Schroeder, who, in 1914, was sending a telegram to his "august Sovereign," the Kaiser, shortly before being made a British subject, it would have an instant effect, and precisely the same with other big German barons and people at large in this country. If it failed you could have interned every German in this country, and I believe the mere fact would have brought the Germans to reason. As has been indicated to-day, the people who the Germans care far more about than anyone else are their officers, and had you reduced the officers' rations when you found this treatment was going on you would have moved the enemy very quickly. If we reduced the rations of the German prisoners to the standard they are giving our men in Germany at the present time could anyone say that is unchristian? There is nothing that could be called vengeance there. It would be simply descending to equality of treatment. I want to quote something from what Lord Newton said in the House of Lords the other day. Speaking of our prisoners, he said:They had been half-starved, half-clothed, and exposed to the inclemencies of the weather. They 1369 had been made to work actually within range of our guns, and systematically prevented from communicating with their relatives. They had been allotted nominally to camps, the inside of which, in all probability, they would never see at all.He goes on to speak in much the same terms as the right hon. Gentleman did to-day, and he concluded on this particular point by saying:It was ony right that he should state that the Cabinet had always been anxious to avoid reprisals so long as it was possible.My case is—and I believe a great many people agree—that the Government has delayed far too long, and that if we could have saved life we ought to have made the effort long ago to see that the treatment was different. There has been some doubt, perhaps, as to the view of officers. I should like to read a letter I received to-day from an officer I have never met. I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman would demand his name. He says:As you have interested yourself in the prisoners of war, and have already achieved so much by publicity as to their shocking treatment, I venture to write a letter to you on the subject. Lord Newton's recent speech, in the 'Times' of 17th October, is the reason for my addressing you. He stated therein that British officers and men, prisoners of war, were against reprisals. I was taker prisoner in August, 1914, and was in Germany until February, 1918, being repatriated later from Holland. I was in eight different camps in Germany, and being a Regular officer of many years' standing, may perhaps be considered to have some small knowledge of the trend of opinion amongst prisoners of war on the reprisal question. I unhesitatingly say that for every officer against reprisals, 100 expressed themselves in most emphatic language in their favour. The general opinion amongst officers and men was that the Germans could not possibly treat us worse than they did, short of starving us to death. A German officer said to me, 'We know the British treat their prisoners infinitely better than other nations do. Personally, I cannot understand why your Government do not institute reprisals to get your treatment improved to a respectable level. You are in an unassailable position to carry them out.' On the subject of pay and allowances, British prisoners of war were, and are, generously treated. On every other subject we feel that the Government has let us down and neglected us in every possible way. The British prisoners of war, rightly or wrongly, blame Lord Newton and General Belfield for this. In my opinion, they have been extraordinarily unsympathetic and unfortunate in their handling of this problem. Their removal would be welcomed by all of us with great satisfaction.I believe that is the common view taken on many sides. The hour is late. The hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke with such effect to this House as an exchanged prisoner asked us to accept a word of warning. He pointed out that we might think we need not do anything 1370 now because the War might be over. We must not take that line. We must place ourselves in the position that if there is a single case of brutality we will insist on the Government taking immediate reprisals in this country as the only possible means of ending this torture which our friends have had to endure so long.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I intervene in this Debate only for a few moments. I think the House will agree that it has been an appalling story of outrage, cruelty, and cowardice that we have heard to-day. Some of the independent Members of this House were aware and have been aware for three years of some of the things we heard to-night, and we tried to do our duty and to get them remedied. Three years ago we pressed upon the Government, and the records will prove it, that there should be a Minister of Cabinet rank to deal with this important question. The Government have been too slack in regard to this matter; they have never really, in my opinion, recognised the importance of it. It has been one Department's duty to do one thing and another Department's duty to do another thing, and it was almost impossible to make any headway in order to carry out a certain policy. Here let me say while I am criticising others that I should like to pay a compliment to the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. J. Hope) who has shown throughout great sympathy in regard to this matter and readiness to carry out any request that was made to him, coupled with the desire to do everything in his power in the interests of the prisoners. I think the House and the country are indebted to him for that. But this is a question of higher policy even than the Department of my hon. Friend. The whole question has been mishandled since the beginning of the War, grossly mishandled, and the proof we have to-night that after four years a Minister of Cabinet rank has been appointed, and that he is able to do so much and is going to do so much in the future proves, I think, the necessity for the action which we have been urging for a very long time.
Mistakes have been made. The first was in not having a Minister of high Cabinet rank whose duty it would have been to look after the comfort and welfare of our prisoners. If that had been the case, does anyone with human instincts think that those records would have been left in a safe and that the Home Secretary would only have got them this morning? They 1371 are years old, and have only reached the Minister responsible this morning, because he has not been long in office. How could the officials who knew that these documents were in their offices go out day after day without doing something in order that these grievances might be remedied by a Minister responsible? The next mistake was when we refused the German offer to exchange man for man. I raised that matter in the House at the time because I thought it was a wrong action. I thought of the cruelty these men would have to suffer and the terrible privations they would have to go through owing to the domestic state of Germany as the War went on. That offer was made by Germany and we turned it down. I have never been able even up to this moment to discover who was responsible for that decision. The War Office, we are told to-day, deny responsibility. It was stated in the House that military reasons made it impossible. Was it the Foreign Office? Was it the Prisoners of War Committee? There was no real War Cabinet at that time.
§ Mr. J. HOPE
Is the right hon. Gentleman referring to the episode that occurred four years ago, in October, 1914?
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am referring to the episode when Germany intimated she would be willing to exchange man for man with this country, and we stated in this House that we could not accept the offer.
Sir H. DALZIEL
Yes, I think it was. That makes it much worse. That was near the beginning of the War. That is an offer which I think ought to have been accepted. It may have been that the numbers would have told against us in the exchange, but what was that compared with the sufferings and the torture that has been going on in Germany all these years? I submit, therefore, that it was a fatal mistake when we did not accept that offer. The third mistake was the official approval of the conspiracy of silence that has been going on in regard to the sufferings of our men in Germany. As my hon. and gallant Friend (General Croft) has said, we cannot confirm this personally. Certainly all my information has been to the effect that it was useless to try to induce any prisoners to tell any of their experiences, because they were under the belief that it was not possible 1372 for them to make any statement. That has been my impression, and it has been the impression of a very great number of friends of mine who ought to know whether this was well-founded or not.
§ Mr. R. MCNEILL
The hon. and gallant Member for Southampton (General Sir Ivor Philipps) definitely confirms that. He received that instruction.
Sir H. DALZIEL
If it had not been so you would have seen more interviews in the Press, and the fact that you have seen very few is a sufficient answer. I think we have had to-night a very satisfactory statement from the Home Secretary considering the short time he has been in office. As I understand it, we are not going to agree to any armistice with the Central Powers until all our prisoners have been released, and allowed to return home. That is a very important point. I hope my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for War will, when he sees the Home Secretary, impress upon him that he ought to-night to communicate with the Prime Minister in Paris, and tell him that the opinion of this House is unanimous that that condition must be insisted upon. I do not think the House of Commons and the country will ever entertain any armistice of any sort or kind unless that condition is carried into effect.
The only other point is the question of the punishment of the guilty for the crimes committed. I welcome the statement of the Home Secretary, and I hope that he will not weaken in regard to the declaration he has made. I think we owe it not only to the men who are alive to-day, but to the men who have died in the enemy's hands, that the guilty men should, if possible, be brought to justice. I interrupted the Home Secretary when he was speaking in regard to Turkey. My information is that of the original prisoners in Turkish hands only 25 per cent. are alive to-night.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON was understood to dissent.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am glad if that is not so. My information, however, comes from a tolerably good source. My right hon. Friend will not deny that thousands and thousands of our men have been allowed deliberately to die in Turkish hands, and while they have been dying they have been looked upon without any attempt to give them assistance. These 1373 things must be brought home to the officials in Turkey, as well as to the officials in Germany. I hope that now, after four years' agitation, a Cabinet Minister has been appointed with responsibility for prisoners of war, there will be a little more brightness for our unfortunate men in the hands of the enemy.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
Perhaps the House would allow me to intervene at this point to deal with one or two questions which have been raised. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir H. Dalziel) complained that there was no Cabinet Minister actually responsible for over four years for prisoners of war. I always had great sympathy with that view, and since I have occupied this position and have had to be responsible for a great many questions dealing with the War I have felt that it was unfortunate that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. Hope), and perhaps two or three other Ministers of the Crown, have never known until the very last moment who was responsible for a certain question. I am glad to say now that what I pressed upon the War Cabinet is a realised fact, and that my right hon. Friend and colleague, the Home Secretary, is now before the House of Commons and the whole world primarily responsible for any questions about prisoners of war that may be put to him. While I am speaking on this point may I add to the general congratulations which have been offered to my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. Hope) because of the able way in which he has answered in this House all the questions put to him, and the very courteous and assiduous manner in which he has performed has tasks. In regard to the second point, the exchange of prisoners, I may say that when my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel) spoke to me about it I had forgotten the incident, which I think occurred in October, 1914. A debate took place then, and my right hon. Friend did point out the desirability of an exchange of prisoners. At that time, I believe, there were very definite military reasons for not doing so, because the German prisoners we had at our disposal were very highly trained reservists, and we thought it well in the national interest not to make any exchange at that particular moment. As things have turned out, it was unfortunate that we did not effect that exchange, but at the time 1374 we had all sorts of ideas as to the length of the War. We did not realise that the War would last four years, or that the dreadful conditions about which we have heard to-night would be enforced upon our prisoners in Germany.
I am going to deal with one or two points which were raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Antrim (Captain Craig). I should like to say how glad we all are to see him present, and on behalf of myself and the Department which I represent I should like to congratulate him upon his gallantry in the field. He had, I think, two complaints against the War Office. First of all, he said we did not allow prisoners of war to wear the 1914 Star. My hon. and gallant Friend will remember that there are certain strict rules in the Army Act in regard to prisoners of war. Every prisoner of war is assumed, as it were, to be guilty, and in theory if not in practice he must appear before a Court of inquiry before he is entitled to any of the rewards to which he may be entitled. That is the law as it stands, and has it has been passed year after year by this House. A short time ago I had the opportunity of showing that we were quite prepared so far as we could to relax that very grievous law. I was asked a question by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Durham as to chevrons for wounded soldiers, and I was enabled to say almost immediately that I would have the matter looked into, and I am now in a position to state that prisoners of war who were wounded, or have been wounded, are now entitled to chevrons. There is one other point which was raised in the earlier part of the Debate by the hon. and gallant Member for Southampton (Sir Ivor Philipps). He was very indignant, and properly so, if the facts were as stated, that German wounded prisoners of war are ousting our gallant and wounded soldiers from Netley Hospital. It is well that I should state the facts. We have more wounded German prisoners at the present time in this country than at any other time. Heretofore the Germans we captured were very slightly wounded but on this last occasion we have had to provide accommodation almost immediately for 15,000 German wounded prisoners of war. Naturally enough the War Office had to find out where this accommodation could come from temporarily, because our intention was to erect hospitals in the internment camps. Therefore a telegram 1375 was sent out to the various hospitals in the Southern Command, and amongst them to Netley, and they replied, "We are prepared to take 100 men." The matter was very urgent and the Commandant of the hospital, quite properly in my judgment, made up his mind that he would provide such accommodation at once. It happened that the accommodation was got ready whenever he got the telegram to remove those patients into the marquee. These men were discharged three days afterwards, and then he removed the others into a neighbouring ward under the care of nurses and doctors. He might very well have put Germans in that ward along with the others, but the British wounded would not associate with them in the same ward. So that ward with this slight manipulation was utilised with no desire to injure our own wounded at the expense of the German wounded, simply and solely to have them put in a ward alone and apart from our own men. I had a deputation sent down to look into the facts, and I understand that the local people were satisfied with the explanation given by the Commandant. I do not think any other point has been raised, and I will try to get what particulars I can about the statement which has been made by my hon. and gallant Friend, and if I am wrong I shall confess that I am wrong.
§ Sir J. BUTCHER
Of all the calculated cruelties and develish barbarities perpetrated by the Germans in this War there are few which have stirred the public mind as their treatment of our prisoners. It is quite clear to anyone who has been in this House this afternoon that this is a matter upon which Members of this House feel very deeply with one remarkable exception. The Members of these pacifist bencher, have been conspicuously absent the whole day. They are quite ready to come here to utter pro-German speeches and make pro-German suggestions, but when it is a question of endeavouring to alleviate the sufferings and save the lives of our prisoners in Germany there is not one of them who raises his little finger to help or who ventures to come into this House to help us. I trust that is a point of which the outside public will take note. We have heard this afternoon the most deplorable and lamentable accounts of the condition of our prisoners, not only in Germany but also in Turkey. The Home Secretary has most properly in the most public 1376 manner called attention to some of those cases, and I feel he has only given a very slight example of the cases which come under his notice. I am glad he did so, and he was right in so doing. The public have a right to know these things, and when they do know them I do not believe that they will ever forget the nation which perpetrated these infamous crimes.
The question that immediately interests us to-day is, What are the remedies to be applied? We all know it is no use trying the ordinary means of redress which you would try with civilised nations, because the Germans do not respond to such a feeling, and they have answered our appeals in the past either with silence or with lying charges as to the treatment of their prisoners in our hands or they have put us off with promises. The time for German promises is past. What we want of the Germans is some action that proves that they are really willing to alleviate the sufferings of our men. I was exceedingly glad to hear the Home Secretary to-day, who practically accepted the principles which have been formulated by the Joint Committee of the Unionist War Committee and the Liberal War Committee yesterday, namely, of reprisals, punishment of the criminals, and the repatriation of our men. As regards reprisals, I congratulate him upon the fact that I think that he is going to touch upon a weak point in Germany, namely, their pride or the regard they have for their officers, and if we are going to take any reprisals I am glad to know that they will be taken upon the German officers who are responsible for many of the crimes that have been perpetrated in Germany on our men.
As regards punishment, I welcome the announcement of the Home Secretary that he will notify Germany at once that these men should be tried, convicted, and adequately punished for their crimes. I think that would be a double advantage. It will to a certain extent come home even to the dense mind of the German, if he knows that punishment is going to follow upon his crime. There is a further advantage. It will serve to emphasise the sanctity of that international law which the Germans have up to now sought to degrade and to treat as non-existent. If the Germans find, as a result of their crimes and violation of international law, that they are liable to be punished, it will serve to some extent to re-establish the rule and the sanctity of those laws of 1377 international conduct in time of war by which up to now all civilised nations have been governed.
I want to say a word upon the question of the repatriation of our prisoners. I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary say that it would be made one of the absolute binding conditions of an armistice that all our prisoners should be repatriated as soon as possible, and that guarantees would be taken that this was done. I would like to suggest to Ministers that there are steps which can be taken at once,—at least two vitally important steps can be taken before this armistice is granted in connection with this question of repatriation. The first step is this: Let Germany be told that she must immediately, without delay, send back to the parent camps all prisoners of war now in Germany. See the effect of that. It will at once bring all these men from the coal mines, the salt mines, and from the positions behind the enemy's lines and remove them from their miserable quarters in occupied territory to parent camps. That would relieve them of a large amount of misery and torture from which they now suffer.
I know that some of the parent camps are not models of comfort, but it would be an immense improvement upon the conditions under which they now live behind the firing lines. It will enable these men to be fed, because, speaking generally, parcels of food do reach the parent camps, and they do not reach these places in the occupied territories and the places behind the lines, or the mines where these men are employed. Therefore, if you send them back to the parent camps, you will, to some extent, relieve them from their sufferings and enable them to get their parcels of food. I put it to the Government that that should be insisted upon as a condition preceding the Armistice. It could be done within a reasonable time and before the armistice is granted, and it would have this enormous advantage, that you would be able to get immediately this improvement in the prisoners' lot, which would not depend in any way upon German promises.
There is one other step which I think the Government might take at once. They might insist as a condition of the armistice that the agreement which was arrived at last year for the repatriation of our prisoners should be immediately ratified and carried out by Germany. We could then begin immediately to get those unfortunate 1378 soldiers who were captured in the early period of the War back again, and I think that should be done before we discuss the question of the armistice at all, and it should be carried out before the armistice is granted. It is obvious that the Germans want this armistice and they are prepared to concede almost anything in order to get it. If we insist that this agreement should be carried out before the armistice we should be doing a great deal for our prisoners. I urge those two points upon the Government, and while thanking my right hon. Friend for the deep interest he has shown in this matter, and for the important announcement he has made this afternoon, I would suggest to him that in these two respects he should insist upon the Government taking immediate action, which I am sure will be of real benefit to our prisoners.
§ Sir J. D. REES
This Debate has hitherto naturally and properly dealt with our own prisoners who are our dearest care, and so far as they are concerned I will content myself with expressing my sincere sympathy with their sufferings and my fervent hope that their brutal oppressors will shortly fully expiate their crimes. As an old Civil servant it behoves me to express my sympathy with our gallant Indian soldiers who have suffered so severely in captivity in the cold climate of the uplands of Mesopotamia, and whom the hon. Member for Sheffield is now endeavouring to supply with that warm clothing which they require to bring them through the winter. I sincerely hope with my hon. and learned Friend who has just spoken that the release of these prisoners, British and Indian, will be one of the first articles in any armistice made with the enemy.
During the Debate, as is natural, reference has many times been made to the treatment of German prisoners in this War. I think it becomes a Member of this House who, although he is in no way responsible for the administration or discipline of the camps in which enemy prisoners are confined, has visited some eighty of them, and is thoroughly well posted as to the procedure and as to what goes on, to refer briefly to the charges of pampering which have been made against the authorities. No such charge can be sustained. The discipline of those camps is quite satisfactory, and the fare given is sufficient without being luxurious. The guards which are supplied are sufficient for all practical purposes, escapes are rare, and 1379 the fugitives are invariably recovered, and if, acting upon complaints made from time to time in the House of Commons the War Office were to put on the extra guard demanded, the result would be that an army of some 50,000 men would be required to guard about 100,000 prisoners in the United Kingdom. Either that or these prisoners could no longer be allowed to work in agriculture and forestry and in quarries and in other ways in which they are made use of, which I think we all agree should be the policy to pursue. I sympathise with our prisoners in Germany as deeply as any Member of this House, and, while indigation, Heaven knows, is excusable at the brutal treatment to which they have been exposed, I wish to dissociate, myself entirely from the statement of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who opened this Debate that the Government sent two men who were bound to fail to negotiate an agreement with the Germans at the Hague. In the course of my duties under the Hague Convention I have frequently been brought into contact with both General Belfield and Lord Newton. They are both humane and honourable men, and I believe they feel the fact that they were not able to bring their agreement to a satisfactory ratification more acutely than they do any criticism to which, under some misapprehension, they have been exposed in this House to-day. No doubt Lord Newton is a man who sometimes speaks freely, but we must look at his labours on behalf of the prisoners of war and at his successes rather than at his failures, which, like all men, he has also made. The balance will show that he has deserved well of our prisoners. If the attitude taken up with respect to these gentlemen were at all justifiable, it would not only be accusing them of a want of humanity and sympathy, but it would be accusing the Foreign Office which employs the one and the War Office which employs the other; more than that, it would also be accusing the Colonial Office, the India Office, and the other offices. If this charge were sustainable, the whole of the Government would really stand convicted of inhumanity, and that is a position which I think upon reflection neither the hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Front Bench nor those who supported him in the same spirit from the benches behind would be prepared to sustain.
1380 Of course the way in which the enemy prisoners of war are treated here reacts upon the treatment of British prisoners in Germany. My own Department, in carrying out its duties—the care of the records and the property, and so on, of all these prisoners of war—has never yet made a single arrangement in favour of any prisoners of Germany imprisoned here without insisting upon similar facilities being given to our own prisoners in Germany. That principle of reciprocity has guided my Department all through, and, although we modestly keep in the background, and being connected with enemy prisoners, are naturally not a popular proposition, we claim that we have not only endeavoured to serve, but that we have been successful in serving the British prisoners of war in many ways. We have succeeded in getting earlier information, and we have succeeded in many ways, I hope and believe, in serving the interests of British prisoners of war. The charges do not affect me, because I am not responsible for discipline or administration, but, knowing how these camps are managed and hearing these charges brought against the War Office, which is responsible for administration, it would be somewhat mean of me if I sat here throughout the Debate and did not answer from the point of view of a perfectly independent person, in no way subordinate to the War Office, the charges made against it. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Christchurch (General Croft), who, I think, depended very much upon hearsay and rumour, spoke about the Hun prisoners drinking champagne behind wire. All this is sheer nonsense. In point of fact, if enemy prisoners of war may get a pint of wine a day here, it is also the case that our officers in Germany may not only do that, but may also have as much beer as they like—not only half a pint a day.
§ Sir J. D. REES
No; it is light wine and very poor stuff indeed. Then accusations are brought that the prisoners of war here are overfed. On the other hand, the farmers who desire to get these prisoners to help them with their harvest complain that they do not get enough to eat. The odds are that a pretty satisfactory mean is struck between too much and too little, and I think the War Office may very fairly claim that, without pampering the prisoners of war, they succeed in giving them sufficient food to do their work and no 1381 more than they require for that purpose. Other hon. Members have criticised the fact that these prisoners are very often driven to their work. It occurred to me, when I saw them going in lorries from Mill Hill to Hendon, that it looked very luxurious, but if these men have to walk three or four miles to their work and back again at night you cannot get so much work out of them as if they are landed where their work has to be done. Consequently, the perfectly rational system is followed of letting them walk where their work is sufficiently near and letting them be taken by the farmer in his cart when their work is not sufficiently near. The procedure is so elastic that it enables the person who employs them to get the most out of them. I submit that is not pampering. There is no pampering of these men. They get sufficient, but not an excessive ration. Many people, in fact, have told me that they are not allowed enough to enable them to work properly. I deny that. The fact is they very often take out very little with them for their midday meal. They are allowed to distribute their rations over the day in whatever proportions they please, so much for breakfast, so much for lunch, and so much for dinner. The consequence is that they very often take out very little for their lunch in order to be able to work upon the feelings of the kind-hearted farmer, who says, "I do not like a man working for me on an empty stomach," and who gives them a dinner, so that when they get back they have their own dinner as well. That is what happens, and it is at the bottom of this charge of pampering the enemy prisoners of war while our own prisoners of war are treated, God knows, with the utmost cruelty and brutality in Germany.
I see no harm in reprisals. You can only argue with the Germans with the big stick. I have no sympathy with the bishops and clergy who like to point out that it is an un-christian proceeding. They had much better leave the matter to soldiers. There is this in it. It has been extremely difficult to arrange for anything like satisfactory changes, and this, to a large extent, goes to the root of the failure of the efforts that have been made. It is very difficult to negotiate an exchange when one tide does not care. Turkey does not want sent back any prisoners that we have got. They say, "Let them stay where they are, well fed at someone else's expense." That is very much the case with the Germans. I do not think they want their 1382 men back, and therefore they do not take any particular interest in returning our men to us. I am thoroughly well aware that to say any word at all on this subject other than denunciation of the Prussian oppressor, which I am sure is their due, and in which I would indulge if it had not been sufficiently indulged in today, is not a popular proposition; but, being concerned with these camps and knowing a great deal about them, though in no way responsible for what goes on there, I think it my duty to make these few remarks. I know that the management, the discipline, and the administration by the War Office of these camps are good. I believe that is the information of all those who have personal knowledge of them, and, from what I know of the officers who are concerned, while they are humane and while they would do everything they could to get our prisoners of war out of captivity, they are not more than humane to the enemy prisoners in this country, but treat them with proper firmness and endeavour in our common interest to get all the work that they possibly can out of them.
§ General McCALMONT
I feel that some of the remarks that have fallen from the hon. Member for Nottingham (Sir J. D. Rees) should not pass unchallenged. I believe, from what I have seen on the roads, that the German prisoners are not treated with that strict discipline to which they are accustomed in their own army, let alone the discipline to which our people are accustomed in their camps. I believe, certainly without doing anything against humanity, that a great deal remains which could be done well within the four corners of the Hague Convention, and that it is very largely due to the difference in the methods of the various officers in various parts of the country that there are these complaints. I am told when one asks, "Do you know the local commandant?" that you get the reply, "No, he is an old woman, and that is why the prisoners are allowed to do exactly as they like." A great deal more supervision is necessary, and in many cases the right men are not in the right place. I would like to quote one instance. Within the last few days there has appeared in the daily papers a report about a serious loss of potatoes in a certain district. The local farmers got together and laid in wait to see if they could catch the people, and they turned out to be a party of German prisoners 1383 from the nearest internment camp, or gang of workmen. They were challenged and they all tried to run away. I was glad to read that one farmer brought one down with his gun. Another surrendered, and those two men were brought before the local magistrates. That has been published freely in the Press. I cannot believe that men who can go about at dead of night with sacks and dig potatoes can be properly looked after in their camps, or gangs, or wherever they are expected to live.
§ General McCALMONT
The place, I think, was Portmadoc, and the case has been freely reported in the Press within the last few days. I would like to give one other story. I am assured by an eyewitness that so bad was the behaviour of certain German prisoners in a railway station—I think it was at Wellington, in Shropshire—not very long ago, that a wounded soldier, who was jeered at out of a train by a German prisoner, took the question of discipline into his own hands. He got into the carriage and gave the man a jolly good hiding, there and then. Then, again, I maintain that there is a very serious lack of proper supervision if prisoners are allowed at any time to jeer at anyone in this country, and least of all at our own wounded soldiers. I did not quite gather from the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary whether he has any control over the War Office with regard to the question of the control of prisoners in this country. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that he was the chairman of a Committee representing very many Departments. It is a very important matter, and we should know whether or not he has any power in regard to the treatment of enemy prisoners in this country or whether the matter of their discipline is entirely one for the War Office.
§ Mr. J. HOPE
I can answer that at once. Primarily it is a matter for the War Office, except as regards civilians, which is a matter primarily for the Home Office. If any question arises, and if either the Home Secretary himself or any Department takes a different view from the War Office, the Home Secretary has an overruling power given by the Cabinet, subject, of course, to an appeal to the Cabinet itself.
§ General McCALMONT
I am very grateful for that explanation, because that enables us to know the right channel through which we may put the numerous complaints which reach us from time to time on this subject. If something could be done simply to make the life of the prisoners a little bit more like what they are accustomed to at home, where they are accustomed to drastic discipline from the officers, and if more officers were employed in looking after them, their behaviour would be a little bit better. You would not see them slouching along and laughing and smoking at times when even the British soldier is not allowed to smoke. I have heard of plenty of instances of this kind. I have actually seen one in which a large party of prisoners was walking along a road and smoking and behaving very badly. An officer came up, and the whole party put out their cigarettes and stood at attention. They did that because they were accustomed to do so in their own country and it was a matter of discipline. If the officers can cause that, then the sooner we employ more of our officers, of whom there are many in this country only too anxious for the work, the better it would be for the discipline of the prisoners in this country, and the more the enemy would recognise that he cannot take liberties with our prisoners without the risk, not of reprisals, but of strict treatment under the Hague Convention.
§ Colonel Sir H. GREENWOOD
I have remained in the House, and I now rise to speak because of certain remarks which have been made about General Belfield, who has had charge of the matter of the prisoners of war. It is a tradition of this House, which has not been observed in this Debate, that no public servant should be attacked, on the ground that he cannot defend himself, but that those who are responsible to the House, and whose removal can be brought about, are the ones, if any, to attack. That tradition has not been carried out. I speak of General Belfield as an old colleague of mine at the War Office, who has had, and has shown all his life, and especially during this War, the greatest sympathy for our prisoners of war. He has done his best, and if various delegations that have gone to the Hague, of all of which this distinguished officer has been a member, have failed, it has not been his fault, as he has acted up to the full to the instructions which have been given him. It is no fault of his, or of 1385 any military member of the delegations, if the agreements come to have not been drastic enough in terms or carried into effect when signed by ourselves. I would remind the House that one of the most distinguished Members whom we have in the Army to-day—Colonel John Ward—who has done as much as any hon. Member of either House to bring the House of Commons into close and intimate contact with the War, owes his commission to General Belfield. More than that—I speak now from personal knowledge—when a certain military cabal endeavoured to get rid of John Ward, General Belfield supported him and maintained him in his position, and made it possible for the hon. Member to remain to do the splendid service which he has done for his country and for the credit of the House of Commons. So I think that this soldier should have ben left alone, and the heads attacked, if the heads must be attacked, in accordance with the tradition of the House which might well have been maintained. I think that the Government—all Governments—have failed in not handing the prisoners of war question over to a man of great position and personality. The hon. Members who have been responsible for the prisoners of war business have, of course, every sympathy, being humane English gentlemen, but they have no power; they are subordinate; they are junior. They have not a commanding position from which to enforce their views, however humane they are; and the long, sad tale of the treatment of the prisoners of war in Germany is due to the apathy or the indifference of successive Governments, and not to those gentlemen who have worked hard and done the best they could—and more than one could fairly expect from them—and who are responsible for carrying out the instructions or the lack of instructions from the heads of the respective Governments. I would like to ask the hon. Member for Central Sheffield for rather more details about the commission of skilled lawyers which was referred to by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary. The hon. Member will remember that yesterday a large meeting of the Unionist and Liberal War Committees passed a resolution asking that a Commission should be appointed to get the evidence on which could be founded charges and, as we hope ultimately, convictions and punishments against these particular camp commandants and other 1386 officers, high and low, who were particularly responsible for the mal-treatment of our prisoners.
§ Mr. HOPE
I do not understand the word "Commission," but a Committee exists already, which takes all the evidence, I think, from escaped or recaptured prisoners. They have gone on with their work for years; they have a full record, all the evidence is there, and has been sifted. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said, the names of the guilty German commandants and other officers are already recorded and evidence against them is there.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
I am fully aware of that Commission, but I think the Home Secretary referred to another committee or commission, and I wanted to find out if it had been appointed, as I think it might well be appointed, by the Attorney-General or some head of the law to inquire particularly into the evidence. We all know that every returned prisoner is carefully examined, and there are thousands of thousands of dossiers of returned prisoners of our own filed. I hope these will be inquired into and the evidence prepared. All I wanted was further information on the point. I hope that these returned prisoners of war, who have suffered, as many of them have irreparably in health, owing to their bad treatment, will receive special compensation, and that this compensation will be one of the first charges made upon what I trust will be a drastic and justifiable indemnity from the German people or from other enemy people responsible for this bad treatment. Leaving aside Mr. Justice Younger's Commission, did I understand the Home Secretary to say that another Committee or Commission had been appointed by him, or by the Attorney-General or the Lord Chancellor or anyone else, to secure evidence in order that we may try, convict, and punish, if found guilty, those responsible for the bad treatment of our prisoners of war in enemy countries?
§ Sir G. CAVE was understood to indicate assent.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
I understood my right hon. Friend to say so, and I am very glad indeed to hear it We should consider the Government remiss in its duty 1387 if it had not prepared these matters so that immediately the time arrives we can secure the person of those German or other enemy brutes, the trial may at once commence, and punishment may be meted out to them before the world forgets, if it ever forgets, the horrors suffered by our prisoners of war. Compensation should especially be granted to these people, and should be one of the first charges on an enemy indemnity. I profoundly regret the neglect of successive Governments in dealing with prisoners of war, for the bad treatment of prisoners has built up a feeling of resentment among our prisoners which will be felt in a most pronounced manner when they return to this country. I hope I am wrong here, but I have met many returned prisoners, and I am convinced they feel they have been neglected. Personally I think more might have been done. I hope now, at any rate, every step will be taken to reassure these men who are still in captivity and those who are in internment camps that they can look forward not only to just but to generous treatment on the part of the Government of the day, and that they will not be treated according to the old miserable tradition of the Army, as set out in the Army Act, as if they were cowards and had no business to surrender, which is the old tradition of the Army, but will be treated as men who have done their best for their country and have suffered because, after having done their best, nothing remained for them but captivity.
§ Sir N. HELME
I am sure the House and the country will have heard with the deepest satisfaction the statement which has been made by the Home Secretary in respect of the determination of the Government to demand the immediate return of prisoners of war as a condition of armistice. After the recital of the awful treatment to which they were subjected it is satisfactory to know there is a reasonable hope that the perpetrators of these enormities will be brought to justice. I would suggest that simultaneously with the obtaining of an armistice there should at once be a commission appointed to visit the camps abroad so that evidence up-to-date and on the spot may be taken from the unfortunate prisoners who are there before they come home, and there may thus be an opportunity of securing direct evidence which would lead to the trial and the bringing to justice and ultimate punishment of these men who have been exercising 1388 an authority of which they were unworthy. It is satisfactory to know that whereas in the past our men have felt that they have not been treated as well as they had a right to expect, they will no longer send home such messages as those we have received, "For God's sake let the Government do something to get us out of this Hell." That is the spirit in which many prisoners have recorded the conditions in which they have been confined, and when we contrast the surroundings in which they have been compelled to live with the conditions in which the German prisoners have found themselves in this country, it is certainly a matter on which we can challenge comparison in every detail, for the manner in which we have treated the German prisoners will stand out in marked contrast to anything which has been done abroad. I have had evidence myself of ill-treatment which has been meted out in Ruhleben, and only this week I have had a letter stating that parcels which are sent regularly to an officer there he has been unable to obtain, and sometimes when the parcels have been received they have been pilfered en route, and he has only received two or three articles when perhaps ten or a dozen were included. I feel sure the statements which have been made by the Horne Secretary will give the deepest satisfaction and now that there is a prospect of an armistice, which we trust may lead to an honourable peace, and one in which our interests will be thoroughly protected at every point and the objects for which we have fought would be established, I trust we shall soon see an end to this terrible fight and then the events which we are discussing will pass away and be merely an unhappy memory of the conditions of which we have to complain.
§ Mr. C. PRICE
I am sure the statement made by the Home Secretary will give very great satisfaction. In Edinburgh there are, unfortunately, a very large number of people who have relatives who are prisoners in camps in Germany. Many of them have told heartrending stories of the treatment to which they have been subjected. When they read the speech to-morrow it will give them very great satisfaction. It is a great pity that the action which is now being taken was not taken earlier, because there is no doubt there is a feeling amongst the great mass of people that we have not done all we might have done. I wish very specially to call attention to a matter which I was 1389 asked to raise by a deputation which waited on the Members for Edinburgh on Friday. There are a number of sailors from Edinburgh and Leith who have been interned in Germany for a considerable time, and there is a feeling that these men have not had the consideration given to them which might have been given. I do not want to balance the sailor against the soldier or the soldier against the civilian, but a number of these men have been interned for over four years. That is a very long period, and I am quite sure if something could be done to obtain their release it would give intense relief. I am informed, for instance, that there are many civilians who are between sixty and seventy years of age, and their confinement for a period of four years must have a very serious effect upon their health, and those who have had such a long internment should have a preference over those who have been there a less time. I have been asked by this deputation, representing the Edinburgh and District Association of Civilian Prisoners of War, to bring their case before the House. I sincerely trust these two points will have the first consideration of the Government.
§ Mr. HOPE
In reply to my hon. Friend who has just spoken I may say that the case of the seamen has been only too painfully before the authorities dealing with it. The special difficulty arises from the fact that we regard these men as civilians whilst the Germans insist upon regarding them as combatants. We cannot admit that the captain of a merchant ship, which is armed for its own protection, thereby becomes a combatant, and the Admiralty are quite unable to allow that contention. Various ways of surmounting the difficulty have been suggested, and only the other day a proposal was made to the Germans. Unfortunately that proposal has not succeeded. The seamen's case will have to be borne in mind in the general steps contemplated by my right hon. and learned Friend. Then, as to the elderly civilians, I should have thought on medical grounds that they ought to have come out under existing agreements. I fully sympathise with the position of the seamen, and anything more that can be done shall be done. My right hon. and learned Friend is seised of the whole case and certainly he will not let their unhappy lot be forgotten. I think there is not any other Member who wishes to speak, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion for Adjournment.
§ Question, "That the House do now adjourn," put, and negatived.