How Britain’s Best Soccer Players Survived a First World War Prison Camp
The extraordinary true story of the Ruhleben Football Association
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 competitions that were played and watched by thousands of men. Together, the prisoners used the game of football to survive — and some of them used it to escape. This is an extract 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
The old forward paused for breath with his hands on his hips. He wore an untucked blue and white striped jersey with the cuffs of its long sleeves riding up on his forearms. Knickerbocker shorts billowed around his knees and dark socks were pulled up over his calves. Straggling bootlaces were wrapped multiple times around his ankles. His thinning hair was swept back from a widow’s peak and his pale face was reddened by the cold. Puffs of his breath clouded in the air. As the game resumed, he broke into a jog.
It had been two decades since he made his debut for England, scoring two goals in his hometown of Derby. Then he had played in front of swaying terraces and heaving grandstands packed with an excited crowd drawn from the terraced streets and chimneyed factories that spiraled around the town’s football ground. Now he was surrounded by ragged fellow prisoners who had left their ramshackle barracks to huddle along the touchlines on a field that was surrounded by armed guards and ringed by barbed-wire fences.
The blue-and-whites pursued the sodden brown football up the muddy field in a gallop of leather boots. Their opponents, the all-whites, were stretched across the middle of the pitch like a washing line pegged with laundry. Unable to get through, the blue-and-whites went around. A pass out wide found an advancing winger. His twisting run sent a defender stumbling onto his backside in the dirt. Then came the cross, looped high into the box, drawing out the goalkeeper and falling perfectly for the old forward. He met the ball with his head and, with a subtle flick, guided the leather caser between the posts. “Goal!”
A cheer of delight rippled through the crowd. There were several thousand spectators bunched together four and five deep around the touchlines. Almost everyone, it seemed, had come out to watch the game. Many of them had a great interest in football, others less so. But for every one of them, their hardships plain to see, this was a welcome spectacle and distraction. And, by any measure, this was a top-drawer match featuring some of Britain’s most famous players. It was, as billed, “A Great International Match”. What price would those back home pay to watch such a game? And what price to see such a goal?
The blue-and-whites shook hands and patted each other on the backs while the all-whites returned to their positions. The game resumed. The players were older than might have been remembered, but they were recognizable to any football fan who had clicked through the turnstiles to watch them back in Britain or had read about them and seen their portraits in the sporting pages of the newspapers. These were some of the game’s most famous names.
There was Fred Pentland of Middlesbrough and England, the clever and pacy winger with a knack for a killer cross. There was Jack Cameron, the Scotland international and Tottenham Hotspur player-manager, and the astute, goalscoring pivot of his team. There was Sam Wolstenholme, another England international, of Blackburn Rovers, plus Jack Brearley of Everton and Tottenham, and Edwin Dutton of Newcastle United. And, standing clear above all of them in terms of fame and ability was the old forward, Derby County’s record goalscorer, England’s greatest match-winner, and the very best player of his generation — Steve Bloomer.
Bloomer had always been a slender figure, and the past few months had hardly fattened him up. Meager rations had thinned his limbs and slightened his build, just as they had sapped his strength and drained his energy. There were dark lines under his eyes. Bloomer was 41 years old — still young by modern standards, but not by the standards of the day, and certainly not by the standards of professional football. But he could still play, and he remained the focus of attention on the pitch. He didn’t run around as much as he used to, but he controlled the game with calls and gestures and clever touches and bursts of his once-famed speed.
For the spectators, Bloomer and the other footballers were close enough to touch. And, more than that, the footballers were a part of their community, living among them and sharing their experiences and misfortunes. They lined up next to these footballers at roll call, stood next to them around the water standpipe, and queued behind them for food rations. They ate with them, talked to them, and slept beside them. Some of them got to play football with them. And those that didn’t get to play at least got to watch. These famous names were comrades, companions, and friends.
The pleasures of football brought a reassuring warmth to spectators as a cold drizzle blew across the plain. The football pitch was marked out on a large oval playing field, big enough for four such pitches, although much of it was a boggy marsh. Surrounding the field was a cinder and sand racetrack, ringed with rails. Beyond the track was an eight-foot wire fence. The fence posts were sharpened to jagged points, with barbed wire strung along the top. Guards stood at the fences in spiked helmets or pickelhauben, with rifles and fixed bayonets.
At the side of the field, along the home stretch of the racetrack, were the old grandstands, where more spectators congregated to watch the action. And next to the grandstands were the red-brick barracks, where the men lived and ate and survived, and the guardrooms, where their captors lived. Two more fences surrounded the camp and separated the men from freedom.
This was Ruhleben, a former racetrack-turned-prison camp located to the west of Berlin, Germany. The camp was set on low-lying land part-encircled by a bend in the River Spree. To the south was a railway line, which ran to central Berlin, just seven or eight miles away. To the north was the Spree and beyond that the Spandau arsenal and munitions works, its tall black chimneys spewing smoke into the air.
In the camp, the game continued. More goals were scored, and the crowd applauded. The guards watched keenly from their posts, and even the German officers were enthralled by the action. Trains rattled along the railway and barges passed by on the river. Flocks of birds flapped across the cold, grey sky. For a moment, all of those present could experience a taste of normality, even if nothing about their situation was normal.
Outside, beyond the guards and barbed-wire fences, Europe was at war. This was the Great War for Civilisation, a cataclysmic conflict that was shaping history and changing the world. The war was out of sight but never out of mind. The prisoners read news of the Marne, Ypres, and Gallipoli and felt frustrated, useless, and hopeless. Many of them wanted to be released not so they could return to their families but so they could head to the battlefronts and “show the Hun a thing or two”. But for now, they were stuck on this cold, open plain. And so they played football.
There were eight professional footballers in Ruhleben, plus several amateurs who had played the game at a decent level. Numerous others had played football at school or university, for their village or works teams, or with friends in the streets or the fields. There were around 4,500 men in the camp, and almost 500 of them participated in organized football matches. Thousands of others became spectators and supporters. Most would not see home or their families for the long duration of the war. They were prisoners, but football — for a short while — made them feel like they were not. It offered them enjoyment, camaraderie, and an escape from the reality of their situation.
“An epic story of the triumph of the British spirit of sportsmanship in a German prison camp!” proclaimed one newspaper when it published an account of the Ruhleben footballers. The importance of football to the prisoners could not be overstated. One of the footballers, Everton’s Wattie Campbell, said the game helped break the monotony of camp life and “carried away thoughts of home for a while”. It was absolutely essential for maintaining the prisoners’ physical well-being and mental health. Football, he said, “kept us alive”.
“An epic story of the triumph of the British spirit of sportsmanship in a German prison camp!”
Ruhleben was a former harness racing track, and its horse stables — still littered with straw and manure — became barracks. Steve Bloomer was one of the first few hundred prisoners to arrive at the camp, in November 1914. 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 football players at Ruhleben. Most of them, like Bloomer, had been coaching in Germany when they were arrested. Key among them were Bloomer’s friends Fred Pentland and John “Jack” Cameron. All three men recognized that football 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. “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 football. The game that was helping to keep them alive had been taken away. The men knew, if they were to survive this hellhole, they must find a way to return to playing soccer.♦
Excerpted from The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp by Paul Brown.
How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp
by Paul Brown
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