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Control of Enemy Alien Civilians in Great Britain, 1914-1918


J.C. Bird


Routledge Revivals

London: Routledge, 2015 (first edition, 1986)

Hardcover. 355 p. ISBN 978-1138857667. £85


Reviewed by Mark Pearsall

The National Archives of the United Kingdom  (London)




J.C. Bird’s thesis was submitted in 1981 and first published in 1986 in Garland's "Outstanding theses from the London School of Economic and Political Science" and a new edition of this work is long overdue. In the introduction Bird refers to the “cursory attention from historians” of this aspect of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Bird was a former civil servant at the Home Office when he began his research into enemy aliens in Great Britain during the First World War and had access to staff and colleagues in the library and departmental records office of the Home Office. His primary source materials were the records held in the then Public Record Office (now The National Archives of the United Kingdom) and the Home Office. Extensive research of, and quotations from the War Office and Home Office record series are made, particularly from the War Office registered files series WO 32, and Home Office registered file series HO 45.

Internment policy is broken down into three distinct phases from August 1914 to May 1915, May 1915 to December 1916 and December 1916 to November 1918. The relationship between the War Office and Home Office is explored, particularly in the early months of the war. The War Office being responsible for housing and looking after enemy alien civilians, who as enemy nationals were treated in the same way as military prisoners of war. The Home Office was responsible for the registration of aliens and the taking into custody of enemy aliens. The tensions and conflicts between the two departments are examined at length, particularly the difficulties of the Home Secretary Reginald McKenna, who not only had to deal with the War Office, and his colleague the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, but also with Parliament, public opinion and the newspapers all of whom were hostile to enemy aliens. McKenna was firm and fair, although logic and legality were up against public opinion, parliamentary criticism and press hostility.

By the late spring of 1915 the government was coming to the conclusion that it would lose credibility and popular support if it did not intern all enemy aliens. With the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May there was a serious threat to public order. The Prime Minister Asquith announced tougher restrictions in the House of Commons on 12 May, which came into effect the following day. As Bird writes, “the Prime Minster bowed to public opinion and unveiled an aliens’ control policy of a severity which a few months earlier he would not have contemplated”. Those of enemy origin were divided into two classes – those who had been naturalised and those who were still enemy nationals. Some 19,000 enemy nationals were interned, leaving 40,000 (24,000 men and 16,000 women) at liberty. Former aliens from the enemy nations who had been naturalised (some 8,000) would not be interned. Throughout the war there was constant criticism and attacks on the government’s policy and apparent complacency in letting many enemy aliens remain at liberty

Asquith formed a coalition government on 25 May and Sir John Simon became Home Secretary. A respected Attorney-General, he was also a man of moderate and humanitarian views whose appointment was widely welcomed, although Bird opines that this was more to do with the relief at the removal of McKenna than a harsher regime being implemented under Simon. Simon stated in the House of Commons “that he would not be pushed by extremist opinion into decisions that were unfair or unjust”. An Aliens Advisory Committee for England and Wales was created under Mr Justice Sankey with two sub-committees, one under Mr Justice Sankey to deal with internment matters, and one under Mr Justice Younger dealing with repatriations. A separate Scottish committee was also set up. Unfortunately the proceeding of the committees were held in private, and not published and the records of the committees and sub-committees do not survive.

By July 1915 the number of internees had reached 26,173 and by November the number of internes had risen to 32,440. Of 15,410 who applied for exemption, 7,343 were successful. The rule was “exemption could only be maintained in cases where it appeared perfectly clear from every point of view that no danger to the country could possibly result”. Men could be exempt on the grounds of “national” or “personal” reasons. National reasons were the value of a man’s occupational skills or experience and his potential value to the war effort. Personal reasons could include length of residence in the United Kingdom (usually over 35 years to gain exemption), marriage to a British-born woman, and one or more sons serving in the British armed forces. A son serving in the British forces did not guarantee exemption and some 6,000 such fathers were still interned.

Simon resigned as Home Secretary in January 1916 over another policy, the introduction of conscription, and was replaced by Herbert Samuel. Samuel insisted that he personally considered new cases of internment and repatriation and in special cases each release from internment. He adopted a strong approach to the aliens issue, but like his predecessors was sympathetic to applications from the friendly races, i.e. Poles of German nationality, and Poles, Czechs and Slavs who were Austrian nationals. Samuel stated that the whole alien population was “under constant supervision”. Lord Newton, whom Asquith had made Paymaster-General in 1915, became Assistant Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in March 1916, with responsibility for prisoners of war and later became Controller of the Prisoners of War Department (when it became independent of the Foreign Office) from October 1916 until August 1919. He was one of the few “and most forceful advocates of the practical arguments for releasing internees”. Newton stated in the House of Lords (on 1 August 1916) that an alien was “better employed in making boots and clothes or baking bread than doing nothing in an internment camp at the expense of the taxpayers of this country”.

With a new coalition government under Lloyd George in December 1916 a harsher line on internment was expected and Sir George Cave became the new Home Secretary, replacing Samuel. He ordered a review of all the cases of exemption from internment or repatriation. Although this was carried out it resulted in few further internments as of those still at liberty (some 20,000), half were women and of the 7,500 men of military age most were subjects of Austria-Hungary, including 3,000 of the friendly ethnic groups. In 1917 a few men were also being released on parole licences in order to undertake work of national importance, usually agricultural. With the military setbacks on the western front in the spring of 1918 and with the nation weary after four years of war, another wave of anti-alien sentiment rose, reaching a peak in July 1918. Lloyd George (who knew better) used it politically to stir up public opinion and strengthen civilian resolve to pursue the war. He appointed a committee to look at the government’s aliens’ policy and make recommendations. Again cases were reviewed, restrictions placed on employment, stricter measures on carrying identification and movement were introduced. A reconstituted alien’s advisory committee met from July 1918. By the end of October it had reviewed 3,000 cases of which only 300 were interned and 220 recommended for repatriation. The majority of previous decisions were upheld.  

There are chapters on aliens in custody and at liberty, repatriation, nationality and citizenship and useful chapters on alien employment and military service, business, trade and property. The book has a comprehensive bibliography, and although archival references to the public records and private papers are lacking in the bibliography most document references are included within the text in footnotes. The published sessional and parliamentary papers are listed in detail with references. Secondary sources are also listed in detail including a very useful list of articles in journals and periodicals, with other general works on immigration to England and the United Kingdom, British nationality law, internment, and the Home Front during the First World War.  

Although other studies have been published since 1986, Bird's analysis is still a valuable overview of government policy on the treatment of enemy alien civilians in Britain during the war and is a useful primer for the student of this neglected aspect of the First World War.




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