File No. 763.72114/3240a

The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Spain ( Willard)


850. You will at the earliest opportunity seek an interview with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and present to him the following note, reading it to him and requesting him to telegraph its contents to the Spanish Ambassador in Berlin together with such definite [Page 20] instructions as will ensure the presentation of the contents of the note to the German Government with the earnestness and emphasis which the subject deserves.

I have the honor to inform Your Excellency that my Government has become deeply stirred by the reports which have reached it regarding the ill-treatment of American prisoners of war in Germany. Sporadic reports of this kind might be regarded as possibly unreliable, but when they continue to be received with ever increasing frequency and from a variety of sources, some of which are definitely known to be trustworthy, as is now the case, no doubt can remain in the mind of my Government as to the authenticity of the reports and the certainty that American prisoners in Germany are being treated in a manner utterly opposed to the practice of civilized nations.

My Government has recently learned of an American soldier who had been sent to Hameln weakened by excess of work in the salt mines. He had lost over 30 pounds from ill-treatment and lack of food and was incredibly thin. He had been punished inhumanly several times and was in a pitiable condition. At Charleville American prisoners have been made to perform work of a repulsive character not connected with the upkeep of a prison camp. The Americans there were furthermore insufficiently fed and clothed. From other sources my Government has learned of an American prisoner at Gütersloh being found in a starving and freezing condition.

At the camp at Holzminden it is reported that diseases are abundant and diverse in consequence of the crowded numbers and conditions which prevail in the camp; that the prisoners find the food insufficiently nutritive, scarce in quantity, and often very bad owing to the ingredients; that there is no recreation; that their food packages have arrived plundered and almost empty; that the sentinels inspired by the harshness and cruelty which prevail in that camp frequently and without any cause beat the prisoners, often without considering their weakened state of health; that complaints are not only useless but cause those who make them to be punished without consideration as to whether merited or not; that the commandant and physician administer harsh treatment to the prisoners with a real desire to make their condition more painful, and oblige them to work without taking into consideration that many of them are old or ill; that one German officer takes special delight in cruelty and inconsideration which are absolutely unjustified; and that under the present commandant the situation has become worse from day to day.

It is not the desire or intention of my Government to divulge its sources of information except as regards the complaints from the camp at Holzminden which were made by the prisoners to the representative of the Royal Spanish Embassy at Berlin on his visit of inspection on September 19, 1917. The Spanish inspector himself characterizes the treatment and condition of prisoners in that camp as deplorable. (In Spanish “bastante lamentable.”)

My Government is furthermore exercised over the unexplained and interminable delays in obtaining lists of American prisoners, which have prevented the shipment of food parcels and have unquestionably caused serious suffering. American prisoners have been recognized [Page 21] in group photographs published in the German periodicals and subsequently reproduced in the American press, long after their capture, whose names have never been communicated through the channels recognized by international custom.

In view of these intolerable conditions I am directed by my Government to ask Your Excellency to be good enough to telegraph immediate instructions to the Royal Spanish Ambassador in Berlin, in charge of American interests in Germany, authorizing and directing him to address a note to the German Government stating that the Government of the United States is unable to view this serious situation in any but the gravest light; that it now most solemnly requires and demands that the German Government immediately take such steps as will effectively guarantee to American prisoners in its hands, both in letter and in spirit, that humane treatment which by all the principles of international law and usage is to be expected from the Government of a civilized state and its officials; that the Government of the United States will with the utmost certainty hold the German Government responsible for any and every evasion of this requirement which it may have permitted in the past or which it may tolerate in the future; and finally that the Government of the United States cannot but regard with alarm the possible effect which these reports of the inhumane treatment of American prisoners in Germany, if continued, may exert upon public opinion in the United States, resulting in an almost certain demand from the people that retaliatory measures be visited upon the large number of German prisoners now held in my country.

You will ascertain and report by cable the date on which these representations are made to the German Government by the Spanish Ambassador in Berlin.