MT 9/1307

This page contains additional information on The National Archives File MT 9/1307. This adds to the details given in The National Archives’ Catalogue for MT 9/1307

A small piece which is a single folder covering a discreet set of correspondence. Each folder has a unique (within the year) reference starting with the letter ‘M’.

The folders are presented in the order that they to be found in the piece.

Whilst primarily the information recorded here is the summary as written on the folder, in some cases details of particular documents of interest within the folders have been recorded.


BT Reference File date Description
M7680 1919 28/5/1919 A Division – Prisoners of War – Note on Mercantile Marine Prisoners of WarCirca 9 pages of A4 typed pages containing a Board of Trade departmental history of Prisoners of War. The file cover notes that a copy was sent to Archibald Hurd who was at the time (1919) writing an official history of the Mercantile Marine during the First World War.


At the outbreak of war the Germans seized the crews of all British ships then in German ports and waters, and captured 155 officers of various ranks and 888 other ratings. They were sent to Ruhleben, the only wholly civilian prison camp in Germany.

During the war the number of prisoners from the Mercantile Marine was increased by submarine captures, the submarine commanders making a practice of taking the master and chief engineer and sometimes the gunner from the ships they sunk. The number was further increased by the successes of the German raiders, who took whole crews into captivity, and at the time of the Armistice about 2,500 officers and men of the Mercantile Marine were interned in enemy countries, besides over 100 in Holland and Switzerland.

Ruhleben was originally a race-track with grand-stand and stables. In the stables, the crews taken from merchant vessels, and the British civilians who were taken prisoner in Germany, were herded together in most insanitary conditions. They were subjected to great hardships, having totally inadequate provision for cleanliness, being insufficiently fed, and often brutally treated. The men consistently refused to do any work to assist the enemy, and perhaps received worse treatment on that account. Many became seriously ill, some insane, and some died. Conditions improved as time went on, largely owing to the efforts of the British Government, but during the early days of the war, the men imprisoned at Ruhleben were in a hard case.

As the number of prisoners increased, Ruhleben became over crowded, and later captures were sent to various military prison camps and were at first treated as combatants. The British Government pressed for the right of Merchant Service officers and seamen to be treated as civilians, and not as combatants. This was conceded to a certain extent, and although Merchant seamen were interned in about 55 diffterent military prison camps in Germany, their civilian status was, as a rule, recognised, and they were not compelled to help the enemy.

Men kept in captivity without employment are bound to deteriorate and their morale suffers. In view of this, the Prisoners of War Book Scheme was organised by Sir Alfred Davles of the Board of Education at an early stage of the war, and managed by a committee on which the Board of Trade was represented, together with other Departments concerned. The object of the scheme was to send books, of educational character chiefly, to all British prisoners of war in enemy countries, whether men of the Army, Navy, Mercantile Marine or ordinary civilians. It would be difficult to exaggerate the value to the prisoners of the books sent to them, and of the educational arrangements which it was possible to organise on the assumption that all books needed would be supplied. As an example of What was done at the camp at Ruhleben, Where about 2,500 civilians and 1,000 seamen and fishermen were in internment, there was a Library of about 20,000 volumes, including books on educational and technical subjects, and works of fiction.

An educational organisation was built up at Ruhleben, which enabled courses of study to be followed by students, and education to be received of practically a University character. In the case of members of the Mercantile Marine a comprehensive syllabus of nautical study was arranged, and classes were held for the preparation of students for examination in geometry, trigonometry, nautical astronomy and navigation, algebra and other branches of elementary mathematics. These classes were well attended, and their value to the men in keeping up their mental and moral tone cannot be overestimated. Study during internment was, as a general rule, allowed to count as three months’ sea service.

These educational facilities, however, were only part of the organisation Of camp life at Ruhleben. During the first year of their internment, the prisoners formed themselves into a self-governing self-governing community, with an elected council, and Mr. Powell a civilian who was largely responsible for the organisation, as Camp Captain. The system worked so successfully that ultimately the German Commandant left the management of the camp largely to the interned men themselves, under the Camp Captain and Council. The council dealt with finance, supplies, education, amusements, and life generally. Drawing and painting, book-binding, and other arts and crafts were practised; there was a sports committee for games and pastimes, and dramatic and musical performances were organised, a large number of plays being produced. All these occupations and interests were invaluable in breaking the monotony of life in the camp, and great credit is due to Mr. Powell and his colleagues in this organisation work.

In most prison camps, cruelty, bad feeding and harsh treatment were general, and the complaints that gradually leaked through to England resulted in the formation of various voluntary organisations, which arranged for the sending of parcels of food and comforts to the prisoners of war. It was found, however, that there was much overlapping, and in December, 1916, the Central Prisoners of War Committee assumed the control of the despatch of supplies. The arrangement adopted was that on the news of the arrival in Germany or other enemy country of a British prisoner of war, the Central Prisoners of War Committee saw that he was added to the list of one of the Associations or Care Committees, and that food and clothing were sent regularly. Owing to the close relations existing between the British Red Cross Society, the Central Prisoners of War Committee, and Red Cross Societies in Switzerland and Denmark, it was possible to arrange that food was sent to each prisoner who arrived at an internment camp. Each officer and man of the Mercantile Marine received 60lbs of food and 16 lbs. of bread or biscuits every 4 weeks, the same quantity as was supplied to Military and Naval prisoners. Officers of the Mercantile Marine had the same privileges as the officers of the Array and Navy, and their relatives could, in addition to the above scale, send 40 lbs of food every 4 weeks, either direct from their home or from an authorised shop. Men of the Mercantile Marine, being classed as civilians, could receive, under a permit system 22 lbs of additional food-stuff, every 4 weeks, from their relatives. Many shipowners availed themselves of this permission, and sent extra parcels to interned crews, Cash allowances were given by the British Government, and issued by the British Help Committee to men (not officers) in Ruhleben who had no means. This allowance was to be repaid after their return to England. Thorough inspections of the prison camps were made by Dr. Taylor of the United States Embassy and by Dr. Romer of the Dutch Legation, and any action possible was taken on their reports.

The condition of officers of the Merchant Service was further improved by “officer” treatment being secured for them. The Board of Trade communicated with the shipowners concerned, many of whom promised to bear the expense, and with the sanctions of the Treasury, the German Government was informed that In order to ensure the same treatment for officers of the Mercantile Marine as was accorded to Naval and Military Officers, a payment of 60 marks a month for junior, and 100 marks a month for senior, officers, would be made. The fact that the money, was being found by the shipowners was emphasized, in order to preserve the civilian status of the Mercantile Marine. Eventually, however, this “subsistence charge” was borne by the Government (after 1st September, 1917) as it was felt to be unfair that some owners should pay, while others did not. These arrangements resulted in improving the conditions of Merchant Service officers in Germany considerably.

Soon after this was concluded, the Germans began to question the right of some Mercantile Marine officers to officer-treatment. As they took away an officer’s papers on capture capture, he was unable to produce proof of his rank, and without this proof he was liable to removal to a men’s camp. To obviate this, the Board of Trade drew up lists of certificated and other officers, which were sent to Germany, and the inclusion of a man’s name in these lists was evidence of his rank. Wireless operators, surgeons and pursers were included in these lists for the purpose of securing officer treatment for them. As skippers in the Royal Naval Trawler Section rank as warrant officers only, they were not considered to be entitled to officer treatment, and at the request of the Admiralty, skippers and officers of trawlers in the Merchant Service were placed in the same category.

Under the Hague Agreement cadets and apprentices should have had the privileges of “youthful prisoners”, but the Germans disregarded this, and forced some of the boys to work with the men in Lubeck Docks.

A record of all captured Merchant Seamen and Fishermen was kept by the Board of Trade, and lists showing the latest reported camp of internment were published in October 1916, March, July and December 1917, and May 1918. Shipowners and relatives were kept advised of the whereabouts and condition of the men, as Information was received. The Government did all that was possible to ameliorate the lot of prisoners, and established machinery to do this in the most efficient manner. In February, 1916, the Inter-Departmental Committee on Prisoners of War was appointed, with Lord Newton as the first chairman. In September, 1916, it was decided by the War Cabinet that a Cabinet Minister should be responsible for all questions affecting British prisoners of war in enemy countries, and Lord Cave was appointed chairman. The Prisoners of War Department was constituted in October, 1916, and the Central Prisoners of War Committee, which came into existence in August or September of the same year, assumed control of the food supplies for interned men in December. The Board of Trade has been active in all matters concerning merchant seamen prisoners of war.

It was decided by the House of Lords, sitting as a. Court of Law, in the case of Horlock v Beal Case, that owners of ships captured or sunk by the enemy could not be held legally responsible for the wages of the officers and men serving on the ships, who were taken prisoner. This operated harshly, for the wage-earning power of the men was non-existent during internment. It has been suggested that either legislation should be introduced to force shipowners to pay wages, or that the Government should undertake to meet this claim out of Public Funds. It would, however, have been unreasonable to pass legislation to require owners to pay wages while their men were interned and rendering no service, perhaps for four years or more. On the other hand, there was no case for the Government paying wages to merchant seamen or to other civilians, especially in view of what was done for prisoners of war, by supplies of food, payment of “officer status” allowances, payments to dependents, extra wages, compensation for loss of effects, and arrangements for repatriation. The Board of Trade in a circular letter to shipowners, recommended that wages, either whole or in part, should be paid to interned crews. Many shipowners were doing this of their own free will, and most of the others responded to the suggestion. This freed the men from anxiety regarding their ultimate financial position, and also lightened the burden of their imprisonment.

Early action was taken to make provision for the dependents of interned men. It was arranged between the Board of Trade and the War Risks Associations that a monetary allowance of either half wages or £1 a week, whichever was less, should be paid to an officer’s or seaman’s wife or dependents. In 1917 it was decided that the scheme of compensation allowance, then in operation, to wives and dependents of officers and men who had lost their lives, should be made applicable to the wives and dependents of interned officers and men. They were allowed to have the better of the two scales; either this compensation scheme allowance or the former allowance of half wages or £1 a week. The compensation scale benefited the officers, especially those with families, in view of the allowance made for each child. Some shipowners continued to pay (ex gratia) either the whole or part of the allotments they were previously paying to the dependents of interned men.

The general question of an exchange of the civilian prisoners of war held by the British and German Governments was considered from time to time, but it was decided by the British Government that the German Government would gain so much by an exchange of “all for all” that such an exchange could not be effected. The German Government would not agree to an exchange of man for man, and apart from that, the German Government regarded British Merchant Service officers and seamen who were taken prisoner after the submarine warfare began, as combatant prisoners of war, and would not include them among civilians. Under the Agreement of were 1915, British and German seamen over 55 years of age/to be repatriated, but officers of the Mercantile Marine were excluded, as it was considered undesirable at that time on military grounds that German ships’ officers should be repatriated.

The Board of Trade therefore confined their efforts mainly to improving the conditions of officers and men in Germany, and to securing the repatriation of those Merchant Service officers and men who were entitled to release as civilians over 45 years of age, or as invalids. The German Government was always willing to consider Merchant Service officers and seamen and fishermen captured at the outbreak of war as civilians, and about 300 of these were repatriated. With regard to invalid officers, a proposal was made by the British Government in 1916 that they should be repatriated if unfit for military service, but the German Government raised a number of side-issues, and no agreement resulted”

Some Merchant Service officers and men were released from Germany, generally on the ground of ill-health, for internment for the remainder of the war in Holland or Switzerland. In these eases the British Government arranged for suitable board and lodging to be provided for them, and for the payment of small monetary allowances, in order that the officers and men might buy extra comforts. Officers were allowed 60 florins (£5) a month, and men received 20 florins, as a free allowance. If the officer wished, he could have a further allowance of 60 florins a month under guarantee of repayment ultimately.

A number of officers and men captured by the enemy during the war were not interned, as the German raiders were sometimes unable to take their captures to port. Before release, the officers were required to give an assurance that they would not undertake any duty which would in any way help to prosecute the war. with a view to finding suitable employment for officers on parole, the Board of Trade arranged with the Ministry of Labour that applications from such officers should be registered on the “Professional and Business Register” of the Employment Exchanges, and they also came to an agreement with the Admiralty respecting the sea employment open to them without breaking their parole.

Comparatively few Merchant Service officers and men were interned in Austria-Hungary – under 50 in all. The British Government pressed for the repatriation, or at least the removal to Switzerland of those over 5O years of age, or invalids over 45, but the Armistice was signed before any settlement was reached.

The number interned in Turkey was larger, and conditions there were very bad. The majority of the letters and food parcels sent to Turkey did not reach the prisoners, whose sufferings were considerable. Attempts were made to get most of them repatriated under the Repatriation Agreement, but they were not released until the Armistice.

As soon as the Armistice was signed, prompt and vigorous action was taken by the Inter-Departmental Committee on Prisoners of War, who appointed a sub-committee to work out the details connected with getting British Prisoners of War out of enemy countries. In spite of all the difficulties caused by disorganisation in Germany, the prisoners were brought home within a very short time. Arrangements were made for the men to have a free passage from Copenhagen, Rotterdam, or other port to a port in the United Kingdom. On arrival, they were conveyed to Reception Camps at Ripon and Dover, where they were looked after by a representative of the Board of Trade. At the camp they were medically examined, and were given clothing and meals as necessary. Officers also received a sum of £3 and a first-class railway warrant to their homes, and seamen received £2 and a third-class railway warrant. Any who were suffering from illness were sent to a military hospital.

After his return any master, officer or seaman whose ship was damaged or sunk by enemy action, and who was in consequence taken prisoner, could receive, on application, one month’s wages from the Board of Trade, without prejudice to any payment made by shipowners. This month’s wages did not apply to men serving on vessels which were in German ports at the outbreak of war, and which were detained, and the men interned by the enemy. Further, the Board of Trade paid compensation to officers and men of the Mercantile Marine who lost their effects when the ship on which they were serving was sunk or damaged, and they were captured and interned.

Those seamen who, after internment in an enemy country, were unable to obtain employment by reason of injury or illness due to internment or other war risks were eligible for compensation under the Government War Risks Compensation Scheme. Others, not suffering from any disability, who failed to find work, were in most cases entitled to “out-of-work donation” under the scheme in force to meet unemployment resulting from demobilisation or the cessation of war work. Every possible assistance was given to released Merchant Service officers and men in the way of finding suitable employment for them, in order that their future career should not be handicapped by their misfortune in having been Prisoners of War.

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