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How Britain’s Best Soccer Players Survived a First World War Prison Camp

The extraordinary true story of the Ruhleben Football Association

Steve Bloomer’s Farewell Match, Ruhleben, 1918, postcard / Paul Brown
Steve Bloomer’s Farewell Match, Ruhleben, 1918, postcard / Paul Brown
Steve Bloomer’s Farewell Match, Ruhleben, 1918, postcard / Paul Brown

This is an edited excerpt from The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp by Paul Brown.

“Myself and many others would not have survived without football” — Steve Bloomer

1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, several of Britain’s most famous soccer players were imprisoned in a brutal internment camp at Ruhleben, near Berlin. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, living in squalor and on meager rations, and with their families and freedom far out of reach, the prisoners found purpose and salvation through the Ruhleben Football Association, which organized soccer matches that were played and watched by thousands of prisoners.

“An epic story of the triumph of the British spirit of sportsmanship in a German prison camp!” proclaimed the Sunday Chronicle newspaper when it published an account of the Ruhleben footballers. The importance of soccer to the prisoners could hardly be overstated. One of the footballers, Everton FC’s Wattie Campbell, said the game helped break the monotony of camp life and “carried away thoughts of home for a while.” It was essential for maintaining the prisoners’ physical well-being and mental health. Soccer, Campbell said, “kept us alive.”

The most famous of the prisoners was Steve Bloomer, the prolific England national team goal scorer widely regarded as the best soccer player of his generation. Bloomer was working in Germany when the war began. The 40-year-old, who made his name at Derby County and also played for Middlesbrough, was just a few weeks into his first coaching role at Berlin’s Britannia club (now Berliner SV 92). After Britain entered the war, in August 1914, Germany ordered all British males of “fighting age” to be rounded up and arrested. Bloomer attempted to flee the country, but the borders were closed before he could get out. He was arrested and transported to Ruhleben, six miles west of Berlin.

Ruhleben was a former harness racing track, and its horse stables — still littered with straw and manure — became barracks. Bloomer was one of the first few hundred prisoners to arrive at the camp. Soon there were around 4,500 men crammed into 11 filthy barracks. Conditions were appalling. Prisoners were housed in horseboxes and haylofts and packed together so tightly that they couldn’t raise their arms above their heads. They lay in the dirty clothes they’d arrived in, on cold concrete floors, barely insulated by a thin scattering of straw and pieces of sackcloth. Rain and snow fell through gaps in the roofs onto their heads.

Each barrack shared a standpipe of cold water, and food was scarce. The prisoners received weak coffee in the morning, and watery soup or “skilly” for lunch. Occasionally they were provided with a piece of black “war bread” and a lump of blood sausage. Food poisoning was common, and flu, measles, and other illnesses swept through the barracks. The camp’s 200 guards spat and swore at the prisoners and told them, when faced with complaints about the rations, that their wives and children at home “will soon be glad to have such to eat.”

Bloomer realized there were several other professional soccer players at Ruhleben. Most of them, like Bloomer, had been coaching in Germany when they were arrested. Among them was Fred Pentland, the England and Blackburn Rovers star who played alongside Bloomer at Middlesbrough. There was also former Scotland international John “Jack” Cameron, a famous forward who had played for Everton and player-managed Tottenham Hotspur to FA Cup glory. All three men recognized that soccer could help to raise morale amid desperate circumstances.

“I was firmly convinced that if something were not done to break the monotony of the life, and take the minds of the men off the hardships they were undergoing, serious trouble would ensue,” wrote Bloomer, in the Sunday Post newspaper. “My experience of football told me if that did not provide sufficient interest, nothing else would.”

The prisoners initially played with a ball made from tied-together rags on a small tree-littered pitch between the barracks. When a real leather football arrived in the camp, courtesy of a “kindly sympathizer,” the camp went “wild with delight.” “That ball revived our drooping spirits as speedily and completely as the sight of gold affects a prospector,” wrote prisoner Henry Mahoney, “and the fun we extracted from the football would pass all comprehension.”

The men swiftly organized a “Ruhleben Cup” contest, with teams named after popular English clubs. Bloomer played for “Tottenham Hotspur,” alongside English-born German international Edwin Dutton. The Ruhleben Spurs defeated “Oldham Athletic” 9–2 in the cup final. A large crowd watched the game, but spectators were urged, via handwritten posters, “Please (in your own interests) keep fairly quiet.”

The camp commandant was Count Schwerin, an elderly aristocrat who, although not particularly cruel, was regarded by the prisoners as entirely incompetent. His deputy, responsible for the day-to-day running of the camp, was Baron von Taube, a bad-tempered cigar-chewer who could explode with rage at the slightest provocation. On one occasion, after overhearing a prisoner refer to “the bloody Germans,” von Taube confined the entire camp to barracks, yelling, “I throw the insult back in your teeth and call you the bloody English!” A week after the cup final, claiming that the players had broken several windows, von Taube ordered a ban on soccer.

Barrack 5 Football Team, Ruhleben, c. 1914–18, postcard / Paul Brown
Barrack 5 Football Team, Ruhleben, c. 1914–18, postcard / Paul Brown
Barrack 5 Football Team, Ruhleben, c. 1914–18, postcard / Paul Brown

eanwhile, the prisoners began to organize themselves in an attempt to improve their situation. Among their vast number were experts in fields of all kinds, from shoemakers to doctors, from carpenters to teachers. Within the confines of the camp, they began to create a mini-society, providing for their needs as best as they could. They also learned to negotiate with von Taube, chiefly via their democratically-appointed camp captain Joseph Powell. “Captain Powell,” as he became known, was a German-speaker from Leeds who had been working as a film distributor in Berlin before the war.

In the absence of soccer, the prisoners began to play baseball using a chair-leg bat and a tennis ball. Steve Bloomer was an excellent baseball player — “among the best on this side of the Atlantic,” according to Pearson’s Weekly — and had won the British baseball championship three times during the 1890s with the Derby County Baseball Club. But baseball never quite took off in Britain, and the Derby baseball team folded after the 1899 championship. (The Derby County soccer team continued to play at the Baseball Ground until 1997.) In Ruhleben, the British prisoners seemed indifferent to baseball and instead longed for their national game of soccer to occupy their bodies and minds.

A growing number of prisoners were suffering from what they called “barbed wire disease” — a nervous breakdown caused by their incarceration. “Sport was the antidote to that danger,” wrote Captain Powell, “or one of the antidotes, and one of the most widely helpful.” He pushed von Taube to remove the soccer ban, for the good of the camp, and eventually succeeded.

Still, though, the prisoners were confined to the makeshift soccer pitch between the barracks. Often, they would gaze over the barbed wire fence at the camp’s racetrack, with its three grandstands and large field big enough for several full-sized pitches. Yet von Taube refused to allow them access.

Ruhleben Camp admin: on left: Powell; Schwerin; von Mutzenbecher; von Taube, postcard / Paul Brown
Ruhleben Camp admin: on left: Powell; Schwerin; von Mutzenbecher; von Taube, postcard / Paul Brown
Ruhleben Camp admin: on left: Powell; Schwerin; von Mutzenbecher; von Taube, postcard / Paul Brown

In March 1915, after a brutal winter, the camp was visited by General von Kessel, who was known to be German leader Kaiser Willem II’s right-hand man. Captain Powell met von Kessel, who asked if he had any requests. Powell immediately pointed across to the race track. “Our crying need is for the use of that space as a playing field,” he said.

“Very well, you shall have it,” replied von Kessel, to the obvious annoyance of von Taube.

Powell announced the good news at a concert organized by the prisoners, and it generated a “magnificent cheer.” But there were still obstacles to overcome. The racetrack was in derelict condition, the grandstands dilapidated, and the grass on the field “a yard high.” Fred Pentland, who had been coaching the German Olympic team before the war, led the task of renovating the ground, cutting the grass, and using a tape measure and whitewash to mark out two soccer fields. Prison handymen made goalposts from planks of wood, and Edwin Dutton, whose parents owned a sports shop in Berlin, negotiated the delivery of balls, boots, and uniforms.

On March 22, 1915, the prisoners formed the Ruhleben Football Association. Captain Powell was appointed as president, Fred Pentland as chairman, and Jack Cameron as secretary. The first match was played on the field on March 26. It was a “grand exhibition match,” Steve Bloomer’s XI versus The Rest. Bloomer, Pentland, Cameron, and Dutton comprised a formidable attack for the professionals’ team. England international Sam Wolstenholme and his former Everton teammate Jack Brearley played in midfield, and Captain Powell kept goal.

Baron von Taube, in the spirit of reconciliation, was asked to kick the game off. He did so in full uniform, with his ever-present cigar hanging from his mouth. Then almost every inmate of the camp watched, cheering and whooping with joy, as Bloomer’s team won 4–2. The match was an incredibly uplifting experience for the camp — Jack Cameron called it “a rare and refreshing fruit.” Spirits had been raised, and the prisoners had found new purpose. It was decided that there must be more soccer…

Excerpted from The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp by Paul Brown.

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Writes about sports, history, true adventure. The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Longreads, etc. www.stuffbypaulbrown.com

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