rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether any, and if so what, steps are being taken to negotiate for the exchange of combatant and civilian prisoners of war interned in Germany and elsewhere on terms equivalent to those already agreed to between Germany and France and other of our Allies.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, perhaps I may recall to your Lordships' recollection the fact that immediately prior to the holidays we had two debates in this House on following days dealing with the question of interned prisoners. One of these was initiated by my noble friend Lord Burnham, who dealt exclusively with the case of combatant prisoners—many of whom, as your Lordships know, have been interned since the commencement of the war—and who gave us moving instances of the sufferings that have, been endured by these men. I was responsible for the succeeding debate that dealt with the civilian prisoners, practically the whole of whom I may remind your Lordships have now been in internment for nearly four years. The object we had in view was to elicit from the Government what attitude they intend taking up as regards a general exchange in view of the information that has reached us of the far-reaching Agreement that had been arrived at between the French and German Governments affecting both combatant and civilian prisoners, and involving, as regards numbers, as many as 350,000 men. I may here interject the observation that since that debate we have learned through the Press that the Italians and the Germans have been negotiating. I do not know whether I am accurate in saying this—I glean it from the Press alone—that they have concluded, or are concluding, an arrangement on very similar lines to the Franco-German arrangement.
It is a very small one.
My noble friend does not agree with that. Therefore I do not press it. But when he speaks probably he will be able to tell us whether there is such an Agreement, and, if so, what is the nature of it. During the debates to which I have referred we expressed our astonishment that the Government had no knowledge that negotiations were proceeding between the French and the Germans. I think that Lord Newton mentioned that they had received no intimation whatever that any such action was contemplated, and consequently the news of an Agreement having been reached came to the Government as a great surprise. I do not desire to spend time in criticising the Government for not knowing, but it is an extraordinary circumstances that they should have been ignorant of what was going on, because I am told by persons who were in Switzerland at the time that it was a matter of daily and hourly comment in the newspapers there, and that everybody knew of it. As a matter of fact, the Agreement was signed on April 26; and on May 13, when a Question was addressed to him by a Member of Parliament in another place, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was not able to satisfy him at all as to what had happened, or as to what the terms of the Agreement were, beyond the fact that he knew that an Agreement was signed, The only comment I would make upon that is this. It seems to me that our channels of information are sadly lacking when an Agreement of that consequence can be negotiated and signed, indeed come almost into operation, before His Majesty's Government had any knowledge of it.But I am more concerned, as it is a matter of far greater importance, to consider the terms of this Agreement and how it is-likely to affect the future of our men interned in Germany and in other countries. Lord Newton was good enough to give us the heads of the most important provisions in the Agreement, and perhaps I may recite them in a sentence or two. As regards combatants, all non-commissioned officers and men are to be repatriated, head for head and grade for grade, after eighteen months' captivity, with the condition that they shall not serve again. As regards civilians, all civilians, irrespective of age and sex, are to be repatriated, and there is a very useful condition in the Agreement that this shall happen within six months. In view of what has taken place in regard to the carrying out of Agreements that we have entered into, this is a valuable provision, for some of the terms of the Agreement made two years ago took eighteen months before they were entered upon. It must be obvious to all of us that an Agreement of this character will necessitate an entire change of policy on the part of His Majesty's Government in relation to the exchange of prisoners. Indeed, the Government have acknowledged that that is a natural consequence, became Lord Newton was authorised to state on behalf of the Secretary of State for War that the question of the exchange of prisoners would be considered de novo. Since then statements have appeared in the Press—I assume that they are accurate—that the Government have opened negotiations with Germany for a conference to reconsider the question afresh. I would ask Lord Newton whether he can tell us what are the exact steps that the Government have taken to bring about this conference; whether they have had a favourable response from Germany, or whether they are in touch at this moment with Germany; and if so, and if the response is favourable, when is the conference to take place, and where is it to be held? It is very important that we should know when the conference will take place, because delay in these circumstances would not only be most injurious to the men themselves, who have probably been watching keenly what is happening between France and Germany, but it would have a bad impression in this country. Because the public mind is firm and fixed upon this point, that there is no room or reason for delay, and that, provided Germany is prepared to negotiate, the negotiations ought to be entered upon forthwith. The matter presses, the country is showing day by day by the correspondence in the Press and in other ways that it most earnestly desires that there shall be a general exchange of prisoners at the earliest moment. On the question of expedition, the negotiations between the French and the Germans began, I am told, in the second week in April. On April 26 the whole thing was concluded, and—what is really rather remarkable—the ratification took place practically simultaneously with the signing of the Agreement. Ae showing the disposition on both sides to arrive at an agreement, how was that effected? I am told that the conference was suspended for a couple of days when it had arrived at a general understanding as to what each side was prepared to recommend to its Government, and one of the delegates from each side went back to his principal—one of the French delegates to his principal, and one of the German delegates to his principal—to ascertain whether the Government at home was prepared to give its assent. Finding that it was, they came back to the conference, and I should think it was the most remarkable case on record—simul- taneously with the signing of the Agreement it was ratified. I only mention that as, evidence, good evidence, that if our Government enter into this negotiation in the right spirit they can get an agreement settled at the earliest possible moment. I see my noble friend (Lord Newton) smile at that; he has been imbued and steeped in the tradition of Agreements taking months to carry through. He has had experience; all the Agreements that we have negotiated in the past have taken a long time. I hope that he will be encouraged by the experience of the French on this occasion, and that he will believe that it is possible to bring negotiations to a completion in a very few weeks—days, I would almost suggest. I think that hitherto the Government have entirely failed to realise the intense feeling of sympathy that has sunk deeply into the minds of the people at home for the sufferings of these much tormented men. We have not beard very much of it until lately; indeed I might say that it has almost been inarticulate. This was not because the people were not feeling for those who were suffering, but because they had been told in this House and in the House of Commons more than once that the Allies were at one as to the common policy of entering into no arrangement for a general exchange. And although the people did not like it, and I think mentally resented it, they submitted to it became it was a united policy between the Allies, and there they left it. But I am quite sure that they will not submit any longer in view of what has happened with this Franco German Agreement. They are already becoming impatient at the bare suggestion—and it was nothing more than a suggestion that was thrown out here the other day by Lord Newton himself—that our men should receive different treatment from that of the men belonging to France and Germany. I am referring to what Lord Newton said as his own personal view, that it would be a good bargain if we could make an arrangement with Germany or the lines that those who had been interned or in captivity for three years, both civilians and combatants, should be released. I am perfectly certain the country will never agree to that, in view of the fact that German and French soldiers in captivity are being released under this Agreement after eighteen months' internment. I hope that no such view will be taken to the conference—that we should be satisfied if the men are released after three years. I do not hesitate for a moment to say that no terms inferior to those that France has secured will he acceptable either to this House, or to the House of Commons, or to the country outside. Now, I am going to ask a question, and I do so with some delicacy. I am going to ask the Government if they can tell us whether they have made up their minds as to who are to be the delegates to represent us at the conference? It is all-important that these delegates shall possess confidence, and I hope that the Government will not send to the conference men who are notoriously and avowedly hostile to the policy of a general exchange. There are such men. I do not like to give names, because it is always considered unfair to mention the names of persons holding official positions who are not here to defend themselves or to reply; but it would be futile to hide from your Lordships the fact that there are military men of high rank who have been violently hostile to a general exchange of prisoners, and we think, and the public think, that their views have prevailed. It is thought that it is owing to them that the Government has taken up such a stiff attitude in relation to this question; and it would be unfortunate if any men with these predilections were to go to the conference as negotiators. There would be no objection to their going as advisers, able to supply any information that might be wanted at a moment's notice, but for them to go as negotiators would be most unfortunate, and I am sure would not meet with approval. It is probably not to be expected that the Government will be in a position at this moment to give us the names, but there ought not to be much delay about it, because it is urgent that this conference should get to work at the earliest poissible moment. I suggest that in selecting the negotiators it is desirable that there should be chosen somebody who has, and who has had all tine time, sympathy with these suffering men; and I should think that from amongst those who have been associated with, and famous in relation to, Red Cross work there might at least be found one negotiator who would appeal to everybody. The Red Cross have followed the fate of the prisoners from August, 1914, unwearyingly and unceasingly, and they have done more to administer comfort to them in their imprisonment than anybody else. I think it would be well worth considering whether they are not entitled to furnish a man of standing and of experience as one of the negotiators. The policy which the Government have adopted all the way through with such firmness—namely, the policy of no exchange—we know, from what Lord Newton has told us in debate, has been a deliberate policy to refuse to exchange at all able-bodied combatants; and he has also told us that the reason for that was plain, that, in the view which the Government have held hitherto, the more prisoners you exchange the longer you prolong the war. I do not know whether the Government have thought in the last few days that there was some inconsistency about that, but they issued last week an official communication on the policy of repatriation which, I think, is altogether inconsistent with the previous statements they have made. I have the communication here, and I will refer to it. They say this—
I would remind Lord Newton that when we were discussing, and pressing for, the release of civilian prisoners we asked why it was that at The Hague Conference he was not able to bring about some decision—either repatriation, or, failing that, to release them for interment in a neutral country. We said that surely one or the other course was practicable and possible. What was his reply? First of all, as regards exchange, he said that the plain and simple fact was that we wanted to exchange prisoners and the Germans did not. That looks a little strange to-day."There appears to be considerable misapprehension of the policy of His Majesty's Government in regard to repatriation of fit combatant prisoners of war. The facts are briefly as follows. His Majesty's Government have for a considerable period advocated their release from captivity for internment in a neutral country, but not for repatriation. It has only been possible to apply this policy to officers and non-commissioned officers because the German Government have refused the proposals of His Majesty's Government to apply it equally to privates."
I was speaking of civilians.
Very well; then I will not press the first point, but come to the second one. When we asked the noble Lord why it was that he could not arrange to release the civilian prisoners and re-intern them in a neutral country, he said that there was no room for these people in any neutral country; they were already full up, and no neutral country would take them in. We were then talking about a mere handful. The whole of the German civilians and the British civilians interned in the two countries who would have been eligible for sending into a neutral country would not have amounted to more than 20,000. We were told that this was an impossible policy because there was no room; but now we are informed by the official statement of the Government issued last week that they have been negotiating all the time, not for repatriation, but for re-internment in neutral countries. What was the good of negotiating on those lines? If you had succeeded you would have been placing 100,000 or 200,000 people in neutral countries, where, according to previous statements, there was not room for 20,000. Therefore I say that the two statements are inconsistent, and I do not know why this should be so.We are anxious to know what is to be the policy of the Government when they got to the conference. Surely they can tell us that. If it is anything short of working for a general exchange we might as well stay away. What we want and what we hope from this conference is to get our men out. If the Old policy is continued I am certain that it will lead to the creation of a strong opinion in this country—I will not put it in that way. I will say this. Whereas there is not, and has not been from the commencement of the war, a very hostile feeling against the continuance of the war—of course, there has always been a section hostile to the war, and a section, increasing in numbers, hostile to its continuance, but not a numerous body—there is nothing more calculated to weaken the national determination to carry on the war until we have achieved what are declared to be our objects than for the people to have perpetually in their minds, and constantly before their eyes, evidence that thousands of our fellow-countrymen, our kith and kin, are enduring this misery, torment, starvation, many of them being treated as slaves and driven to work under disgraceful conditions at the will of their oppressors; and if we continue the old policy, or if we do not bring about a general exchange of prisoners—if these men are left where they are to wither with despair—there will grow up irresistibly an opinion in the country that, if that is the price to be paid, it cannot be endured and we had better end things. I hope that the Government will be able to give us some assurance, or tell us definitely what their policy is to be. I would like to say, in conclusion, that I have noticed with considerable regret that there is a disposition to blame Lord Newton for allowing the interests of British prisoners to be neglected. We do not take that view here. Lord Newton, when he was a private member, was the first man in this House to raise the question of the internment of prisoners at Ruhleben. He persistently laboured in their interests. The reason why he has not succeeded is that he never possessed the power. He has told us repeatedly that he is not responsible for policy. The policy is the policy of the Government. I do not think he is even Director of the Prisoners of War Department. I think a distinguished General holds that position. The real responsibility rests with those who possess and wield the power, and they are the War Cabinet, and I suggest most respectfully that no member of the War Cabinet has taken any special interest in this question beyond accepting as final and conclusive the views of the military and other official advisers. Probably from the nature of their responsibilities that must have been so, although I think—and it has been urged in this House, notably by the Archbishop of Canterbury, from time to time—that the larger question of humanity ought to appeal to them, and that professional prejudice against any exchange ought not to be decisive. Now the Government have the opportunity of taking such steps as will bring this tragedy to an end. I do not suppose that if they proceed on the lines of the Agreement made between France and Germany it will be satisfactory to or will accord with strict military ideas held in this country; but thee may be certain of one thing—namely, that they will be safe and secure in gaining the support of the nation because it is in that direction that the hopes of the people lie, and it will be a bitter disappointment to them if something is not done quickly to realise those hopes. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.
My Lords, I feel that the interest of to-night's discussion must obviously centre in the statement that is to be made by my noble friend Lord Newton. I hope he may be in a position to say much that will reassure us as regards the future, although I cannot fail to recognise that the time which has elapsed since the situation was so largely changed by the communication of the Agreement entered into between France and Germany has not given much opportunity for such detailed arrangements as those which my noble friend Lord Devonport asked should be communicated to us to-day. I trust, however, that it may be possible for Lord Newton to tell us what is the ultimate policy which the Government have in view, and that, whatever that policy be, they are determined to press it as far as it can be pressed and carry it out as quickly as it can be carried out.On this occasion, when our minds are directed to the future—a future which, I think, is more hopeful—rather than to the past, I do not think that I should serve any useful purpose if I were to discuss at any length what has been done or recall the sufferings of our men, whether combatants or civilians, in Germany and other countries, which have weighed upon us so heavily among the many other anxieties of this war, and which still weigh upon us. Nor do I feel that much purpose is served by any detailed criticism of whether the Government have in the past done all that could be done or that might have been done, and whether, having regard to the extraordinary difficulties that every one must recognise surrounded this question from the beginning, they adopted the wisest or the best course. There will no doubt be some difference of opinion on that point, but I think we shall all agree that the whole situation, whether or not any one was to blame, has been at any rate up till recently profoundly unsatisfactory. The Dutch Legation since America came into the war has been strenuously engaged in improving the lot of our men, with some measure of success, though not a large one; and from time to time in their reports we have read of their efforts, and realised with disappointment the small results attained. I believe that our Government were as unsparing in their efforts in this direction as any other Government, but they represented no coherent policy, no ultimate relief or release to these men who were suffering in German camps and prisons. Ultimately there emerged attempts, which to some extent were successful, to obtain the assent of the German Government to the comparative relief of internment in neutral countries of officers and non-commissioned officers. The exchange of men was, I understand—my noble friend Lord Newton will correct me if I am wrong—not accepted as a judicious policy, I suppose for military reasons, by any one of the Allies. It was the common policy of all the Allies not to exchange the rank and file. I also understand that whether as to internment or as to repatriation by exchange the Germans were not themselves willing to part with the rank and file, for this obvious reason—that whereas they knew that whether we did or did not employ our prisoners here on labour, we certainly did not employ them and use them up for the purposes of the war as they were in the habit of doing. All those obstacles stood in the way of either the internment or repatriation of the men My noble friend Lord Devonport expressed great astonishment at the fact that the Government were unaware of the recent negotiations carried to a happy ending by the French and German Governments mutually. I confess that it is a subject on which we max well share that astonishment; on the other hand, I accept unequivocally the statement that it was so. On that point I fail to see any case for reproach against the Government. I accept the statement. It is a puzzling and surprising one, but if the matter was concealed, and if they had no opportunity of knowing it, I cannot see where blame rests upon His Majesty's Government. We have understood from the debates in this House that there was at one time, at any rate—probably at a recent time—a strong military feeling that we should suffer in a military sense, and that it would be to our disadvantage to effect general exchanges of prisoners. I do not know how far that idea went, but when to-night we are urging on my noble friend Lord Newton, who is the spokesman of the Government for this purpose in this House, that he should so far as in him lies further the exchange and repatriation of our men in Germany, I think we are flogging a very willing horse indeed. I believe that so far as in him lies, whether it be on the policy, or the manner of carrying out the policy, or the speed at which the policy is carried out, we shall be zealously served by my noble friend. When it is suggested that at no time has there been any indication of a desire for repatriation on the part of our Government, I cannot help saying that it is not so long ago when my noble friend himself, as the agent of the Government, was able to arrange a Convention in that sense with the Turkish Government; and though there may be delay. I hope it will come to fruition in due course. There may have been special reasons which made it more easy to carry out this arrangement with the Turks than with the Germans. In that case combatants who are invalids will be repatriated practically as soon as may be, and all civilians will be repatriated, including—and this is a rather important point as regards Germany the merchant seamen who are there described as civilians. I hope they may not be overlooked when we come to deal with Germany. I do not think any useful purpose would be served by my dwelling on these points. The three Questions put down respectively by my noble friend Lord Devonport, my noble friend Lord Oranmore, and myself, all tend in the same direction. What the public and all of us so earnestly desire to know is whether the German temper continues such as to render negotiations of this kind hopeful, and whether, if so, it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to effect an arrangement and carry it out as soon as may be. In this connection I would mention that I suppose it would include prisoners in Bulgaria. I do not know whether there are any British subjects in German hands in Russia where the conditions may be quite different. Any information on that subject now would be a relief. I want to say one or two things about the Turkish Agreement. If Lord Newton would rather that I postponed my remarks to another occasion I will not proceed, because the subject does not appear in my Question. There are, however, one or two points in which I feel considerable interest, and possibly Lord Newton may be able to give us some information about them. The effect of one provision is that there shall be one English doctor retained—it is put in the form of the Turks retaining them—for every thousand prisoners. It has been suggested to me that that provision is wholly insufficient, partly as to numbers and partly because of the distribution of prisoners in various camps great distances apart. Turkish doctors, I am afraid, are absolutely of no service for the purposes of our men. I know that this is a matter to which some importance is attached by the friends of those who are prisoners in Asia Minor. There has been serious difficulty about bread there. Bread i Asia Minor is something like 4s. per lb.
If my noble friend does not object, I should prefer to answer that question on another occasion.
By all means. Before I conclude my remarks, I should like to say a word about the extraordinary attack that is being made by a section of the Press on my noble friend Lord Newton at the present moment. I feel this very strongly indeed. Many of us, perhaps, know more than has appeared from what is said in this House, but I think every one who has taken an interest in the question and has watched the debates in this House has some idea of the absolute devotion of my noble friend to this cause. I think it is no exaggeration to say that for three years he has devoted his whole time and thought to this cause without remuneration and with little thanks.
I do not ask him to accept the proposition, but it may be that sometimes he has not been altogether in sympathy with the sentiments he has had to express in the House and the information he has had to give to your Lordships. Sometimes there has leaked out, through an expression or two, the suggestion that if he had had his own way his answer might have been—shall I say?—of a somewhat more generous character from the point of view of those who interrogated him. I do not know what his sentiments may have been, but it is quite obvious that, whether or not he desired to advocate an exchange at an earlier date, it was impossible for him to do so. He was a subordinate officer of the Cabinet and could only act as he was instructed to act.After all, when Lord Newton went to try to arrange a German Agreement for the interned there is little doubt that a great number of people—perhaps some of those who now attack him—derided the idea that it could possibly be successful, and questioned altogether the propriety of having any truck with the Germans on any account. I think possibly the interned men in Holland and in Switzerland might not take that view, and I believe that so far as any one man can have the credit of so large an operation, nearly all these men thank Lord Newton mainly for the fact that they are no longer in Germany. I cannot help remembering that this is not the first time sections of the Press have made determined attacks on particular public servants, and what occurs to one sometimes is whether they have in their eye somebody who would be a good substitute for the person attacked, and what exactly the object may be. For myself I desire to say—and I think your Lordships will largely agree with me—that if these negotiations are to be carried out, and carried out well, it would be a positive calamity if Lord Newton was not amongst those who took part in them. The judgment and temper he has shown, the labour he has given, and the knowledge he has of the subject make him almost unrivalled for this purpose. If what I have suggested is the objective of this very remarkable attack which has appeared in the papers, I can only say that in your Lordships' House and elsewhere we should do all we can to resist it. I wanted to say this because I feel it very strongly, and I am glad my position as a member of your Lordships' House has given me the opportunity of doing so in public.
My Lords, if evidence were required of the interest which is taken in this subject I think it may be found in the fact that no fewer than three members of your Lordships' House have, independently, put down Questions on the subject on the first day of the meeting of Parliament after the Whitsuntide recess. In view of the very interesting and exhaustive speeches which have been made by my noble friends Viscount Devon-port and the noble Earl, Lord Desart, it is not necessary for me to trouble your Lordships at any length, as they have already dealt with nearly all the points to which I should have addressed myself. I have never in the past asked questions on this subject, nor have I taken part in the debates upon it, because I always held the view that it was a matter which must be finally decided by the naval and military authorities. Lord Burnham the other day made a very pathetic appeal on behalf of those gallant men who, he said, had bared their breasts to the spears of the barbarians, and, acting as a rearguard to our retreating Army, had sacrificed themselves and saved France and Europe in 1914. I feel as deeply as my noble friend does the valour of these men, but I am sure they would be the first to beg us not to render their sacrifice of no avail by insisting on their repatriation before the objects of the war were attained.When I thought this a matter which must be left to the naval and military authorities, I naturally supposed that there was some co-ordination between these authorities in this country and the naval and military authorities of our Allies. It came upon me, as it did on the whole country, with a sense of astonishment, almost of bewilderment, to find that arrangements had been made between the French and the German Governments, involving the exchange of such a large number of men—and subsequently, as we have heard, between the Italian and German Governments—which were absolutely unknown to His Majesty's Government. It is a fact which seems very difficult to explain, and it is impossible to offer any criticism in view of the fact that it concerns our Allies. I think the best criticism made was that of my noble friend the Marquess of Crewe, when he said that it belonged to the class of cases which are not necessarily settled in concert, but which might be advantageously so decided. Now that we find this question has been decided separately by our Allies there is a universal feeling of regret that our country should be the last to enter into negotiations. I recognise, and every one must recognise, that the circumstances in each country are different, and that arrangements suitable for France may be impossible to carry out for England. But we earnestly hope that the negotiations which are about to be entered into will be carried to a speedy and successful conclusion. Before sitting down I should like to associate myself with what has been said by the two noble Lords who have spoken as to the attacks upon my noble friend Lord Newton. Everybody in this House knows that the British prisoners have had no better friend. We recognise that he is not omnipotent. He has to confer with, and quite possibly defer to, his colleagues, and I think it is certain that in all the conferences he has put forward as strongly as he can the claims of humanity as against the exigencies of military requirements.
My Lords, I am glad to be able to state that His Majesty's Government has already entered into negotiations with the German Government with a view to arranging a wide scheme of exchange, following, broadly speaking, the lines of the Agreement recently concluded between France and Germany. The House may be quite certain of the fact that no time will be lost. As a matter of fact, the German Government had already suggested a meeting at The Hague in order to discuss matters of acute difficulty which have arisen, and we have taken advantage of that, as I have explained, to intimate that we are prepared to discuss these questions with them on condition that the wide scheme of exchange to which I refer is amongst the subjects to be discussed. I do not think it would be reasonable for any one to press me as to what particular line we are going to take. I think it will be recognised that it would be thoroughly impracticable to lay down exactly the line you are going to take, and it would inevitably hamper the hands of the negotiators. I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Devonport, who asked me who the British delegates were to be. I am afraid I am unable to gratify his curiosity. I think the only safe thing for me to say is that these delegates will be appointed by the War Cabinet, and not by the Press or any section of the Press. I do not feel justified in going beyond that statement at the present time. I wish to repeat that no time will be lost, but that, obviously, there are various very important questions to be discussed (in addition to very elaborate agreements) and that it will be absolutely necessary to draw up a programme and get definite instructions from the War Cabinet before negotiations are undertaken. That refers to the future, and it really represents the most important portion of what I have to say this afternoon.I think it desirable to say something with regard to the past. Two of the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate this afternoon have been good enough to express high appreciation, perhaps too high appreciation, of the services which I have rendered, and to deprecate the attacks which have been made upon me and upon the Government in the Press. Attacks by the Northcliffe Press upon an individual who enjoys anything in the nature of a public position are really nothing but a minor kind of infliction to which everybody is subjected at one time or another; they resemble those mild epidemics, such as influenza or measles, or whatever it may be from which nobody is immune, and I should think very poorly of any politician who allowed himself to be greatly overcome or distressed by attacks of this nature. In fact, a sensible person might possibly derive some consolation from the obvious fact that very often these attacks result in making an unpopular personage a comparatively popular personage with the public. What I deprecate strongly about attacks of this kind is not their personal nature. Whether you believe me or not, I am quite indifferent to personal attacks. What I resent is the mischievous intention underlying the attempts to make the public believe that British prisoners, both officers and men, have been placed in a worse position than other prisoners on account of the imbecility, incompetence, and callousness of His Majesty's Government, and more especially of the War Office. I have frequently expressed myself upon this subject, and I have no hesitation in saying that there is not a vestige of foundation for it. If you could obtain impartial opinion—I do not ask you to believe me; I do not ask you to believe my noble friend behind me, or anybody else—if you could get information from neutrals, and, if such a thing were possible, information from the Germans themselves, I am absolutely convinced that they would agree that no Government has taken so much trouble for its prisoners and has been so solicitous for their welfare as the British Government. I will go so far as to assert, though I dare say it will be contradicted in some quarters, that whereas undoubtedly the British prisoner was discriminated against in the most brutal manner by the Germans at the beginning of the war, at the present moment I firmly believe, although it may not be worth much, that on the whole he is less badly treated than the prisoner of any other nationality who has the misfortune to be a prisoner of the Germans at the present moment. What do these attacks upon His Majesty's Government rest upon? Those who make them appear to me to be, to use a very familiar phrase, considerably wanting in clear thinking. The charge against His Majesty's Government and against the War Office really amounts to this—that they are guilty of these crimes because, whereas they have pursued a settled policy in relation to prisoners, the French Government, has suddenly altered the policy which previously had been the common policy of the Allies. I do not myself see the connection between the two; neither do in the least see why His Majesty's Government should be blamed because they did not know what were the intentions of the French Government. How are you to know if you are not told? We have no special means of discovering what is going on. As to the delay in obtaining information, I have made inquiries and find that we did not receive the text of the Agreement until May 15. Even supposing that we had known that the French Government were going to make an Agreement of this character what guarantee is there, what ground is there for the supposition, that any remonstrances on our part would have had the slightest effect? I repeat that this action came as a complete surprise to His Majesty's Government, as I have no doubt it did to the other Allies. I feel bound, however, to make this somewhat guilty confession. It did not come as a surprise to me. I have long held the opinion—I have frequently expressed it, and not infrequently put it upon paper—that any one of the Allies might be compelled by the force of opinion, or for some uncontrollable reason, to make an exchange of this character, and that it would be quite beyond the power of His Majesty's Government or any other Government to upset it. My trouble was the same as that of Cassandra. I could not find any one who would believe me. Without casting any doubt upon the sincerity of the Press agitation which is so conspicuous at the present time, it is quite evident that there is also great anxiety to work what, in the elegant phraseology of the day, is called a Press "stunt." It is one of the most common of journalistic practices to ascertain beforehand what is a practical certainty, and then to announce that the thing is going to be done, and afterwards take the whole credit for having done it.
It is a practice which is within the performance of persons of the meanest capacity. For instance, you might take an almanac and look out in it the particular hour at which the sun is going to rise on a particular day, and continue to state that on such and such a day and at such and such an hour the sun will rise, and become more vociferous upon the matter as the day approaches. When the day comes you then take all the credit to yourself, and bellow through megaphones and everything else at your disposal that you always prophesied it, that nobody contradicted you, that it had taken place, and that nobody else had ever said anything of the kind. You will not find anybody to contradict you, and a great number of fools will probably believe that you have made a really original statement. That is precisely the position with regard to what has taken place in this agitation.It did not require much intelligence to realise that the moment the French Government entered into an Agreement of this kind we, of course, should have to follow suit. In a country like Germany, where I will not say there is a real Government, but where there is a Government which is much stronger than that which prevails in any Allied country, it is possible to disregard a popular impulse of this nature, but in a democratically governed country a wave of sentiment of this kind is strong enough to overwhelm occasionally whatever military objections may exist. That has been the case here. I do not for a moment believe that French military opinion is any more in favour of these exchanges than is military opinion in this country. After all, it is the business of the War Offices of the respective countries to win the war if they can do so, and they are not philanthropic institutions. I do not think that you would find a military authority in any country who would be in favour of a wide exchange of able-bodied combatants. You might just as well expect butchers to be in favour of meatless days. There is another aspect upon which I desire to touch, and this, I am sorry to say again, is with regard to my personal position. It seems to me that there is a good deal of misconception as to the position which I occupy. It has been quite erroneously suggested that I was introduced into this Administration as a sort of Hercules for the purpose of cleansing the Augean stable. As a matter of fact, there was never any question of anything of the kind. More than two years ago I was asked by Viscount (then Sir Edward) Grey to take charge of the Prisoners of War Department of the Foreign Office, and although that Department has changed its name my position remains exactly as it was. I am only the head of one of the very numerous Departments which have to deal with prisoners—I need not enumerate them, because the House knows quite well what they are—and I suppose my position might be defined by the conventional primes inter pares. It has been my task to work in conjunction with a number of different Departments, and upon the whole our relations have been quite harmonious. When differences of opinion arose between us it was necessary to go, in the time of Mr. Asquith's Government to the Cabinet, and under the present Government to the War Cabinet, on appeal in order to get their decision. I have on various occasions appealed to both those bodies, and, I freely admit, sometimes without success; on several occasions they decided against me. The critic might say, If that is so, why did you not resign? I have a double answer to a question of that kind. I did not do so for what I considered two excellent reasons. In the first place, I think that nothing is so futile as to be constantly threatening to resign over small points; in the second place, I felt quite convinced, although it was no good my saying so at the time, that what I recommended would eventually be done. These anticipations have been realised; and now that they have been realised, considering that nearly all our differences arose over this particular question of exchange, I take it that we shall live a completely harmonious life in future. There has been a great deal of criticism not only as to what is called "the scandal of the prisoners" but as to the "muddle" of the prisoners. I quite admit that if any one had had the foresight to realise that this war was going to last for over three years and that the numbers of prisoners were going to run to well over 100,000, it might have been good policy to constitute a separate Ministry of Prisoners. It is conceivable that in some ways it might have worked well. But I should like to point out to the critics that this course has not been resorted to in any other country so far. The administration of prisoners in other countries is carried on in just the same way as it is in this country. I admit that it may sometimes cause delay. But let us assume that you have the strong man as Minister of Prisoners. By "strong man" I assume a gentleman appointed by a committee of editors and sub-editors of the Northcliffe and other Press in the country. Even if you had this ideal being at the head of your prisoners' administration, he would not be able to do exactly as he pleased. It would be absolutely necessary, of course, for him to go to the Departments principally concerned—the Admiralty and the War Office—and if he disagreed with than he would have, as I have had to do, to have recourse to the War Cabinet. Therefore it seems to me that in the long run, things would not have been much changed. There are various other points upon which I might touch, but I do not know that it is absolutely necessary to do so at the present moment. I think all that it is necessary for me to point out—I do not, know that it is necessary, because it must be obvious to everybody by this time—is that the position which I occupy is not a particularly enviable one. I cannot imagine anybody being silly enough to want, to step into my shoes. It is a position in which you meet with a great deal of abuse and very rarely with any gratitude at all; and one of the peculiar features in my experience—it is almost comic in its way—is that the people who have evinced the least gratitude are officers who are at the present moment in a neutral country, and who most certainly would still be languishing in German camps had it not been for my personal exertions. This I can assert most emphatically as a fact, and I believe that those gentlemen, oddly enough, have a great deal to do with the promotion of the present agitation. As I have already said, toy position is not a particularly agreeable one. I suppose that I make a fresh enemy almost every day, either male or female, by refusing to do some particular job. I must have accumulated hundreds of them by this time. But if the administration of prisoners is really considered to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, and if I myself am regarded as quite unfit for my position, there is a very simple method of satisfying the public if there is any doubt felt upon it. As far as I am concerned, I am quite prepared to be inquired into by any qualified body. I believe that Parliamentary inquiries are deeply resented as showing a mark of want of confidence. I do not profess to have any extreme delicacy of feeling. I repeat that I have not the smallest objection to being inquired into by any qualified body, Parliamentary or otherwise; but I am not going to be inquired into by the Press. I have now been at this work for two years. I have devoted the whole of my time to it, and such ability as I possess. I am prepared to go on, but I am not prepared to own any responsibility to the Press, or to take orders from them. I can only repeat once more that, although my duties are not of the most agreeable description, and although I honestly believe and am convinced that nobody could make a success of the place, I am quite prepared to go on and do the best I can as long as I command the confidence of my chiefs in the Government.
My Lords, may I join in offering my praises to the noble Lord for his conduct of the affairs of our prisoners of war? I am entirely at one with those noble Lords in this House who have given tributes of appreciation of his management of their interests. The noble Lord said just now that he was not a Hercules, but he is undoubtedly of a very stalwart nature. Where I should find fault with him would be because he has given way—not this afternoon but on other occasions—about the "all for all" exchange of interned civilians. He was originally a very strong advocate of an "all for all" exchange of interned civilians, but he regarded it as a hopeless task, though he trusted that all our interned civilians would come home from Germany. But he was always up against the War Office and the Admiralty upon this particular point. It seems a very ungracious role to play when it is suggested that one has no sympathy with these sufferers who for three years or more have been languishing in German prisoners' camps. But we are out to win the war, and if those who are responsible for the conduct of the war say that such-and-such an exchange would be gravely disadvantageous to our military interests, then I maintain that such an exchange should not take place.The noble Lord has very wisely declined to say what will be the main lines of negotiation between ourselves and Germany in respect to the exchange of prisoners. This has all come about owing to the Franco-German Agreement; and I should like to know whether the noble Lord can give any figures as to the relative numbers of German and French interned civilians. I imagine that of combatant prisoners Germany holds more of ours than we hold of theirs, but that we hold more German civilians than they hold English civilians, and if the exchange which has been pressed for by Lord Devonport and others who have followed his example is effected we should, receive 3,000 to 4,000 English and send back 15,000 Germans. In my opinion that would be a most inequitable arrangement. Whereas, by taking the Franco-German Agreement, that would be presumably a head for head exchange of combatants, we ourselves would get no benefit in the case of military prisoners, and in the case of civilians it would I suppose, an "all for all" exchange. If this were done, it would be to the distinct advantage of Germany. I know that it seems at first sight an unsympathetic attitude to take up, but I think that the War Office and the Admiralty are entitled to say that such an exchange of civilians would be bad in our interests; therefore I consider that Lord Devonport and others who have been pressing month by month for this exchange have been playing into the hands of Germany. Germany's object has been to get an "all for all" exchange, and by brutal methods towards our prisoners in that country she has created a sympathetic feeling in this country for the interned civilians whereby she hopes she will attain her objects. Consequently I protest against those Departments of the Government responsible for the conduct of the war being pressed to make a departure which would be disadvantageous to our military interests. Such an exchange would be a distinct score for Germany. She would be able to parade the fact that her brutal habits had gained her a great advantage. Therefore I hope that the Government will not put pressure on the War Office and the Admiralty to take a different line from that which they have hitherto adopted—namely, that there should be no tactical gain to Germany. As the ex-Secretary of State for War, Lord Derby, said on the last occasion when this point was raised in the House, it would be a distinct military gain to the Germans to receive 15,000 able-bodied reservists, who had been well cared for in this country, in exchange for 3,000 civilians who had been abominably treated and consequently not in a fit military condition.
My Lords, I rise only because I think it is due that a word or two should be said from this Bench in respect of the very satisfactory speech which has been delivered by Lord Newton this evening. I desire to congratulate the noble Lord on his speech and on his good spirits. It is a matter of great satisfaction, I believe, in all quarters of your Lordships' House to find a Minister like Lord Newton who is prepared to stand up against the organised attack of a section of the Press upon individual Ministers or individual officials. We congratulate him most heartily on his courage, and we can assure him that he has earned by his attitude universal applause in all quarters of your Lordships' House.As regards the question before us, I think it is true that the British Government has done more on behalf of its prisoners than any other Government. I believe it to be the case that the admirable Committee which sits upstairs and which has its local habitation in your Lordships' House, presided over by Sir Robert Younger, has taken an immense amount of trouble in investigating all the cases which have come under its notice, and that there is no case of oppression, or of cruelty, or of ill-treatment, by the German Government which has not been the subject of most careful, inquiry and of every effort that could be made in order to put it right. The only thing, I think, by way of criticism is that the noble Lord has not always, perhaps, been cordially supported by every Department in the Government. I am not going into the question of the proper rules which ought to guide the Government in this matter of prisoners; but I am of opinion that once a policy is determined upon it ought to be carried out vigorously and consistently. I believe that it is a mistake to have a policy with regard to the exchange of prisoners—be they civilian or military—and then to have all sorts of small obstructions on behalf of the Departments in the Government whose business it is to carry out the policy. I was very glad to hear from my noble friend to-night that in regard to the policy which the Government are going to undertake there will be no delay; that it will be vigorously carried through. I was pleased to hear this, because I think your Lordships must be aware that sometimes in the past, even after a policy has been decided upon, there has been a good deal of delay and of friction from various quarters, and the matter has not been pushed through with cordiality. That is really what has made public opinion a little suspicious. The public do not suspect the noble Lord, or his colleagues in the Department over which he presides, of any remissness; what they think is that when the Government have come to a decision then those whose business it is to carry it out—be it the Admiralty or the War Office—are not as anxious to carry it through as is the noble Lord himself. I believe that your Lordships have gathered as much from the tone of my noble friend's speeches both to-night and on other occasions. Let us then lay it down in the broadest terms. There is something to be said for one policy, and something to be said for another policy; but there is nothing to be said for having a policy which you do not vigorously carry out. Therefore I hope that this new policy upon which the Government has determined will be carried through with the vigour which characterises my noble friend's speeches. I cannot put it higher than that. The form of the arrangement which is going to be made has not been detailed by Lord Newton, and he is perfectly entitled to a certain amount of reserve in that direction. But, broadly, I take it to be this—namely, that the new Agreement which it is sought to negotiate is an Agreement practically on the same lines as that which has been made between the French and the German Governments. I do not think that we can ask for more; and I desire to conclude, as I began, by congratulating the noble Lord.
My Lords, perhaps I should not let the debate close without saying a word both in reference to what the noble Lord said and also with regard to something that fell from my noble friend. The noble Marquess who has just spoken observed that the policy which has been adopted should be carried out with vigour and promptitude. With that expression of hope we are all in sympathy. But nobody knows better than the noble Lord—and, indeed, my noble friend is anxious that I should put this point before your Lordships—that there are very grave, difficult, and complex questions connected with this case arising from the different classes of prisoners, the different countries in which they are interned, and the conditions which will have to be applied; and if your Lordships expect that, with the best will in the world, an immediate large exchange of prisoners can take place I must warn you that you will be in all probability disappointed.I was glad that my noble friend Lord Newton had an opportunity of making a defence of himself this evening. I own that in so far as attack has been made upon him it has not been made in any quarter of this House. I do not, think that at any stage has my noble friend failed to make an impression of absolute confidence upon your Lordships' House; and when he spoke, in one of the humorous passages of his speech, of sometimes being turned down by the War Cabinet, I cannot recall that that has ever been done except in a manner most flattering to the susceptibilities and most complimentary to the abilities of my noble friend. Everybody knows that this case, at any rate in the earlier stages, has been decided by the War Cabinet on military considerations. I suppose that people in War Cabinets are just as susceptible to the claims of humanity as anybody else, and I myself have had opportunities of supporting the views of my noble friend. But this is a war matter, and in the last resort, if our military advisers, all being of one opinion, recommend a particular course of action, and if that course of action is similarly and equally strongly recommended to the Governments of the Allies by their military advisers, and the Allies act in unison, can anybody blame the Government for acting upon that advice? What happened in the long run, as we all know, is that the French Government entered into an arrangement on their own behalf, and they were clever enough to say nothing about it because they knew how strongly military opinion in France would be against it. They deferred to sentiment, a perfectly honourable and legitimate sentiment, but one which in France as in this country ran counter to military interests. The French having taken that course, we are only too glad to follow the pathway of humanity along which our sentiments lead us; but do not imagine that the military danger is thereby avoided and that military people are all converted. I have no doubt that if you took the advice of the military authorities here or in any of the Allied countries their opinion would be just as strong against exchange as at any time in the past. A question was asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Devonport, as to our representation at the conference when it takes place. That matter has not been decided because it has not been discussed. We are still in the early days. But I noted with interest the general agreement and the strong expressions of opinion that any conference at which our interests were not at least in part represented by Lord Newton would be in itself a great disappointment. The services of that noble Lord have been so fully acknowledged this evening that I need not repeat what your Lordships have said. It must have been some consolation to my noble friend to hear so many tributes paid to his conduct. He may rest indifferent to the attacks that have been made upon him, the foundation for which I am at a loss to imagine. He may treat those attacks with the contempt that they deserve; and when we carry these proceedings to a further stage and meet the representatives of Germany in negotiation, I entertain very little doubt myself that we shall once again have recourse to his services.
I rise only to answer a question put by Lord Lamington. I understand that the number of French civilians and German civilians who are to be exchanged are 7,000 French and 2,000 Germans.
My Lords, I think it is up to me to answer one statement made by Lord Newton, who said that the one lot of people from whom he has had no thanks are the officers concerned in these exchanges. If there is any truth in that statement, which I rather doubt, he has only himself to thank for it, because I think this evening is the first time that he has admitted having ever effected anything. When asked to do anything he has always said he was quite incapable of doing it, and thus he has got the credit of having done nothing. I am perfectly sure that all of us who have derived material benefit are deeply grateful to whoever brought it off, and, as I have said, this is the first time that I have ever heard anybody admit responsibility for having carried it out.With regard to what Lord Lamington said, I cannot help thinking that the actual military disadvantages of exchange have been greatly exaggerated by everybody who has touched upon them. Even supposing that we were to exchange unconditionally say 100,000 of our prisoners for 100,000 Germans. At the present moment we are feeding both lots, but while the Germans are getting such full work as they can get out of our men, we are getting virtually no work out of either. Supposing our 100,000, men do come back to this country. Whether they are fit for use as fighting weapons or not—pretty obviously not—what little work they are doing now for the Germans must obviously be done by somebody, and the Germans will have to use the prisoners we send back or replace them with others. Then, again, the returned German prisoners however fit and hearty they may be when they go back from here, certainly will not work for nothing and without food. They will have to be fed by Germany, and I do not think Germany will get better work out of them than she was getting out of our men. Moreover, we shall flood Germany with a very large number of men who do know something about the state we are in here, and who will carry back to Germany a totally different opinion of the actual state of things from that held by ninety-nine out of every hundred of the less intelligent of the German population. For those two reasons, if for no other, I think the sooner some exchange is carried out the better. One other point. Everybody I should think by now, save only a few people whose spiritual homes are elsewhere, knows that it is of no earthly use making any conditions with Germany with any confidence that they will be carried out. Why, then, set out to make any Agreement with them to which there are any conditions attached? Surely the best way is to have an unconditional exchange, as far as conditions which we cannot control once the people have changed hands are concerned. I think we should be certainly safe to take the risk of allowing any German prisoners to go back and fight. They will not go hack to fight with any fear of being again taken prisoner by us, and I can guarantee that any of our men will not allow themselves to be taken prisoners again while in a conscious state.