The Story of British Prisoners

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Story of British Prisoners (1915)

The Story of British Prisoners is a book published by The Foreign Office (The Central Committee For National Patriotic Organizations) in may 1915 and including a preface by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Preface by Arthur Conan Doyle

It has always been a characteristic of the British people that they have been ready and even eager to make friends with their enemy after a war. After the Napoleonic wars we were soon on excellent terms with the French, and Soult, the famous Marshal, was heartily greeted in London. The Crimean war left no rancour behind it. The Boer war in recent years inspired us with an abiding respect for our foemen which we have reason to hope is reciprocal. But it cannot be so, and it should not be so, in the case of the Germans. Never again in our time will a German visitor be welcome in our country. Never again should our students of music flock to Dresden, of art to Leipsig and Munich, or our invalids to the over-rated spas of the Fatherland. A deep fissure will divide the two races, and this fissure will be kept open by our abiding remembrance of the foul methods by which the Germans have conducted the war — methods which have come from the rulers, but which have been adopted without any audible protest from the public or the Press.

These methods can only be characterised as methods of systematic murder. It was murder when a warship bombarded open ports with no means of defence, such as Whitby and Scarborough. There was a battery at West Hartlepool, so the operations at that port came within the limits of warfare. It was murder when a German Zeppelin dropped bombs upon tiny country villages in Norfolk and Northumberland. It was murder when submarines destroyed fishing smacks and passenger or merchant steamers, drowning their helpless crews. It was murder when poison was used to gain an ignoble victory in Flanders. All these things are manifest murder, and a British officer who did such deeds would earn the execration of his fellow countrymen. But there is at least this to be said for some of these various forms of murder, that the cruiser, the Zeppelin, or the submarine does run some risk before it can get back to its base. Hence, however vile these deeds may be they are on a higher plane than the systematic ill-usage of our prisoners. That is the outrage which will linger longest in our memories and harden our hearts should they ever incline to soften. It is the most cowardly method of revenge winch has ever been heard of in the intercourse of civilised people.

What makes it so odious is that it is a method to which we can make no possible reply. It is true that we have very many Germans, officers, men and civilians in our power. The total number of Germans on whom we could lay our hands is far higher than the total number of British in Germany. Among them is the son of the chief sea-murderer, at present leading a life of ease at Donnington Hall. These men might be our hostages. But how can we kick, beat, freeze or starve innocent men who are in our power because our own men have been kicked, beaten, frozen and starved! It is not possible. Luxuries indeed could and should be sternly cut down, but personal ill-usage is out of tile question. There lies the cowardice of the German method. It is not only directed against helpless men, but it is directed against a helpless nation, for honour and self-respect forbid us to reply.

What then can we do? We can circulate the facts among neutrals as one more proof of the absolute degeneration of the German character. We can also make the truth known to soldiers, so that the torture of their comrades may warm their hearts in the day of battle, and teach them that it is better to die on the field than fall into the cruel hands of German gaolers. Finally, we can let the sense of wrong sink into our own minds that we may be steeled in our determination to have no compromise with such enemies. We need no childish rubber stamps or brooches with blasphemous inscriptions, but deep in our silent souls we vow that we shall not close the book until this people shall have paid the debt, collectively and individually, for their crimes. Any paltering or weakness would palliate the offence and so establish new precedents of warfare which would mark a retrogression of the human race.

The following documents,* a few out of hundreds, speak for themselves.

CROWBOROUGH, May 9th, 1915.

(*) Taken principally from the White Paper No. 5 (1915) issued by the Foreign Office.