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

The extraordinary true story of the Ruhleben Football Association

Paul Brown
Mar 10 · 14 min read
A Football Match at Ruhleben, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1917 / Paul Brown
A Football Match at Ruhleben, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1917 / Paul Brown
A Football Match at Ruhleben, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1917 / Paul Brown

In 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

Meanwhile, 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.

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.

There was other positive news, too. Britain had agreed to grant the prisoners a relief fund of four German marks per week. And a visit from an appalled US ambassador shamed Count Schwerin and Baron von Taube into making improvements to the camp. Food provision was improved in terms of quantity, if not quality. The prisoners were provided with materials to build beds, tables, and chairs, and to renovate and extend their barracks. And they were allowed to use their relief money to buy and import all manner of necessities — and a few luxuries.

Gradually, the prisoners began to build a better life inside the Ruhleben fences. They set up a library, a post office, and a hospital, and opened stores — a greengrocer, a tailor, a tobacconist, and more. They built a theater and staged productions that included a soccer comedy called “Stiffy the Goalkeeper.” They produced a camp magazine, an illustrated publication that found humor in their situation. They also set up a soccer league.

The two-division league contained 28 teams, each with distinct colors and jerseys paid for by member subscriptions. Each barrack was represented by a first and second team, and there were also teams representing the Tea House canteen and overflow barracks. Several other former soccer players came forward, including Percy Hartley of Huddersfield Town, and former Glasgow Rangers reserve Alex Bodin. However, the majority of the league’s players were amateurs, and some had never played soccer before. Steve Bloomer’s team, Barrack 1, included several jockeys, three music hall artists, two marine engineers, a language teacher, and a student.

Bloomer and the other ex-professionals set about coaching their teammates, although it wasn’t as easy as they might have remembered. “The giants recalled their football days and triumphs at home, and determined to show their compatriots what they could do,” wrote Henry Mahoney. “But they had forgotten to make due allowance for the period of idleness during which they had grown rusty, and they failed to recognize that our official food was not conducive to staying power.” Nevertheless, training sessions and parcels of more nourishing food received from home soon licked the teams into shape.

“Football fever gripped everyone,” recalled Mahoney, in his memoir Interned in Germany. “When the season was at its height, the matches which were played between the barrack teams were worth going miles to witness. The supporters of each side rolled up in overwhelming strength, and they vied with one another in cheering and spurring their representatives quite as keenly as the teams battled between themselves. One would have thought, from the deafening final cheer which went up from 4,000-odd throats, that the British Army was crossing the Rhine, instead of its being a paean of praise to the crack barrack football team of an internment camp.”

Captain Powell recalled how the German guards watched the games with a curiosity that developed into excitement. Even Baron von Taube became caught up in the spectacle. “It amazed him to hear two football teams cheer each other, after their match was over, on the playing fields,” wrote Powell in his book, The History of Ruhleben. Another camp official, Baron von Mutzenbecher, who was in charge of censoring prisoners’ correspondence, was also impressed. After one exciting game, he told Powell, “When I see how you play football, I quite understand how it was that we failed to beat your contemptible little army.”

Barrack 1 topped the first division, winning every game and conceding only two goals all season, largely thanks to the brilliance of Bloomer. “Steve scores two or three goals every match and does not over-exert himself,” wrote one prisoner in a letter home. Another wrote, “Bloomer does not run about much nowadays, but he scores some pretty headed goals and has been a very good coach for his team.” There was also a cup competition, won by Jack Brearley’s Barrack 4, and an international match, “England versus The Rest”, which spectators said was “reminiscent of first-class football at home.”

At the end of the first soccer season, Jack Cameron wrote to English Football Association secretary Frederick Wall to request “a dozen or so footballs.” “I am glad to say that things here are better now than in the early days of our captivity,” Cameron wrote. “We had a hurricane of a season of six weeks, and with friendlies we played over 300 matches in that short time. I fancy that is a record. The short season did the camp an incalculable amount of good, both morally and physically. We were absolutely sick of everything, and of each other. No other game in the world could have accomplished what that short season did.” The prisoners had found a purpose, but they were still denied their freedom.

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

Geoffrey Pyke, a war correspondent for the Daily Chronicle newspaper, suffered terribly in the camp, and almost died from double pneumonia. He longed to get home and “play football without an armed sentry on the touchline.” Although there had been a handful of attempts, no one had successfully escaped from Ruhleben and made it back to Britain. Noting the distraction caused by “football fever,” and armed with maps smuggled into the camp by his friend Teddy Falk, Pyke decided to break out. “I knew that I was risking prison and solitary for the rest of the war,” he wrote in his memoir, To Ruhleben and Back, “but I was driven forward, in spite of myself, by a lust for the fresh clean air of freedom.”

Pyke’s plan centered around the wooden shed used to store soccer equipment. He noticed that, in the late afternoon, the sun’s glare made it impossible to see in through the shed’s window. So, on June 9, 1915, while the rest of the camp was occupied with sports, Pyke and Falk sneaked into the shed and hid under a pile of goal nets. After dark, the men slipped out of the shed and — with some difficulty — climbed over the barbed wire fences. They then crawled on their bellies for two hours, before following a canal to a tram stop, from where they rode to Berlin.

In the city, the pair had breakfast and bought supplies, and then walked across Potsdamer Platz, where they spotted a familiar figure coming out of a cafe. It was Baron von Taube. Miraculously, he walked right past them. “What a colossal joke!” Pyke told Falk. “He doesn’t know either of us from Adam.” Von Taube turned into a side street, and they never saw him again. Pyke and Falk took a train towards the neutral Netherlands and crossed the Dutch border on foot. From there, they traveled by boat back to England. They were free.

Back at the camp, von Taube learned of the escape and reacted with fury. His first instinct was to take away soccer. Captain Powell recalled: “Baron von Taube, with that uncertain temper of his, held over our heads the threat that, if any more men escaped, or if this, that or the other thing which he did not like ever happened again, the recreation ground would be closed.”

As the war dragged interminably on, the prisoners continued to play soccer in the face of whatever Ruhleben could throw at them. A biblical bout of rain created a large pond in the middle of the field, and a plague of locusts infested the ground. Then a massive explosion at the nearby Spandau munitions factory showered the camp in shrapnel, broken glass and other debris. Against the odds, soccer thrived at the heart of a remarkable and ever-improving prison community.

Conditions at Ruhleben improved to such an extent that there was resentment from commentators back in Britain at the apparent idyll in which the prisoners were living. The Daily Mail called the prisoners “featherbed heroes” who were enjoying a comfortable life while their countrymen suffered at home and on the battlefronts. But when an American visitor remarked on the high standard of the camp, Count Schwerin responded with honesty. “You mustn’t suppose that the camp was always like this,” said the Count. “When the men were first brought here, the place wasn’t fit to keep pigs in. All that you have admired in the camp they have themselves created.”

The reality was that life in Ruhleben remained incredibly difficult, and many of the prisoners longed for release so they could head to the fronts and “show the Hun a thing or two.” With no end to the war in sight, the strain of separation from loved ones increased. Several prisoners attempted suicide, and scores of them tried to escape. After Pyke and Falk’s success, subsequent escape attempts failed, and the escapees were sent to a punishment camp that was even worse than Ruhleben.

Steve Bloomer sunk into a deep depression after receiving a letter from home advising that one of his daughters had died. “I got rather low-spirited, and a sort of hopeless feeling that I should never survive the ordeal of captivity began to get a grip on me,” he recalled. His friends rallied around and “simply forced” him to resume playing soccer as a distraction from his troubles. Even the seemingly-indefatigable Captain Powell succumbed to “barbed-wire disease” and was confined to a local sanatorium.

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

In May 1918, three and a half years after he had arrived, Steve Bloomer got to leave Ruhleben. The Dutch FA obtained permission for Bloomer to be transferred to the Netherlands, where he was employed as player-coach of the Blauw-Wit Amsterdam club. He was not allowed to leave the Netherlands — it would be another six months before he would get home to Derby and his wife and family — but he was finally out of Ruhleben.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, four years after the Ruhleben prison camp had opened. Camp guards gave up their weapons and threw in their lot with the prisoners, and the recuperated Captain Powell made arrangements for the men to get home. As the former prisoners left, they were handed a slip of paper. It read: “Peace and conciliation, forgive and forget.” By late November, Ruhleben was empty.

“In Ruhleben, we were all brothers, and we made a life for ourselves out of nothing,” wrote Steve Bloomer. “There were some terrible times. Make no mistake that boys became men in Ruhleben. But it is far more pleasant to recall the good times when we went out to play football. Those were the days when men became boys again.” Soccer had saved their lives, he said: “Myself and many others would not have survived without it.”

Paul Brown

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Writes about sports, history, true adventure.

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