Ruhleben Football Association

Rob Halligan 10/04/2020 18comments  |  Jump to last
A few days ago, I commented on The English Game thread, about a book I had recently purchased called The Ruhleben Football Association. The book is a true story about British prisoners of war, taken prisoner during The Great War (World War One) and interned in a brutal prison camp at Ruhleben, located about 8 miles west of Berlin.

I first read about the book in an article in the red Echo, who gave a brief description about the book, as it included four former Everton players. Obviously, my first thought was that it was about British soldiers taken prisoner during combat and sent to Ruhleben, who then set up their own league. I also thought that, as with many professional footballers during WW1 and WW2, the former Everton players had joined up to fight in The Great War alongside the regular army, and been captured, and sent to a POW camp.

However, this was a POW camp with a difference. The camp held over 4,500 prisoners, yet not one was a British soldier. There were also prisoners from other countries within the British Empire, including the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India. At the outbreak of The Great War, there were many British civvies working in Germany (along with those from the countries named above) which included the four former Everton players John Brearley, John Cameron, Walter Campbell, and Sam Wolstenholme. There were four other former professional footballers, Edwin Dutton, Percy Hartley, Fred Pentland, and probably the most famous of them all, Steve Bloomer. There were also several amateur and semi-professional players incarcerated in the camp.

However, as I said, they were POW's with a difference, because they were all working in Germany at the outbreak of the Great War. Six of the former professionals were coaches at German clubs in the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB – the name of the football association in Germany long before the formation of the Bundesliga), while the other two, Edwin Dutton was a sports retailer, and Walter Campbell was a Marine engineer. Almost every other prisoner had their own business in Germany or worked for German companies.

Other prisoners had professions such as jockeys, professional golfers, music hall actors, university lecturers, pharmacists and seafaring men. There were men on holiday in Germany and even men on their honeymoon. There were even Germans who could not speak a word of English, but had English parents, and were born and raised in Germany. Basically, anyone British, or with British relatives, or even married to German girls, was captured and sent to Ruhleben, rather than being sent back home.

Conditions in the camp were treacherous with very little to do, so naturally with former professional footballers in the camp, kick-abouts were common, using tin cans, or sheets or sacks rolled up and tied to make a "football". Somehow, a proper football found its way into the camp, much to the delight of everyone in there.

Ruhleben was originally a "trotting track", a racetrack used for harness racing, where jockeys ride in a two-wheeled cart behind trotting horses. There was a big playing field within the track to mark out two full-size football pitches.

In March 1915, the POWs formed the Ruhleben Football Association (following permission being granted from Berlin), with a chairman, secretary, honorary president and two vice-presidents. Team names were determined by barrack numbers. So For example, the fixture list was simple, Barrack 1 v Barrack 2, and so on. There were enough POWs in each barrack (each barrack held between 300 - 400 prisoners) to form two teams, a first team and a reserve team, so there were two divisions, each with 14 teams in it. Squads for each barrack were determined by trials. Each barrack was captained by a former professional or amateur or semi-professional player.
Edwin Dutton, who was a sports retailer in Berlin, managed to supply equipment, including boots, footballs and kit. Players had to buy boots and socks, but the barracks had to raise funds to buy shirts and shorts. Goalposts were made in the camp by a carpenter incarcerated in the camp. All games were played in accordance with the English FA rules, the only difference being games were 30 minutes each way, and betting on games was strictly forbidden!

A cup competition was also introduced, along with international games, England POWs v Scotland POWs, England v Rest of the world (ROW), and so on.

The POWs did not think they would complete the first season of the Ruhleben FA, as they fully expected the Great War to only last a short time. Little did they know the majority of them would spend the entirety of the war in Ruhleben. As with any POW camp, many tried to escape, but very few succeeded. They were treated like any other POWs in any other POW camp. Armed guards patrolled barbed wire fences, they had roll calls at least twice a day, and were confined to their barracks early each evening.

The Ruhleben league lasted a total of four years. A fifth season had started, but with the announcement of the war ending in November 1918, the fifth season was scrapped. In the four seasons completed, Barrack 9 won the league three times, while Barrack 1 won the inaugural season.

The four former Everton players were:

1) John "Jack" Brearley. 1902-1903. 24 appearances, 8 goals. Was working as a coach for the Berlin Viktoria club when arrested.

2) John "Jack" Cameron. 1896-1898. 42 appearances, 12 goals. Was working as a coach for Dresdner SC in Dresden when arrested.

3) Walter "Wattie" Campbell. 1890-1891. 17 appearances, and won the league with Everton in 1891. Was working as a Marine Engineer when arrested.

4) Samuel "Sam" Wolstenholme. 1897-1904. 160 appearances. Was working as a coach for The North German football association in Hamburg when arrested.

Upon the war ending, Cameron and Wolstenholme continued coaching, but not in Germany. Cameron went to Ayr United in Scotland, while Wolstenholme went to Spain, coaching RS Gimnastica De Torrelavega for two seasons. Walter Campbell returned to the Merchant Navy as a Marine Engineer whilst its unknown whether John Brearley returned to coaching?

This was a really fascinating book which I've enjoyed reading. Obviously, I've only given a small overview of the book, should anyone be thinking of getting a copy. The book cost £10 and, as I say, a really enjoyable read.

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Reader Comments (18)

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Tony Abrahams
1 Posted 10/04/2020 at 09:27:37
Sounds like a good read Rob, just as I thought it might be when you mentioned it last week.
John Raftery
2 Posted 10/04/2020 at 09:29:10
Many thanks Rob. It looks like a very interesting read, one I shall add to my list. I see there is another book about the Ruhleben Camp entitled ‘British Civilian Internees in Germany: The Ruhleben Camp 1914-1918'.
Darren Hind
3 Posted 10/04/2020 at 09:33:01
Thanks Rob

I know where my next tenner is going.

Danny ONeill
4 Posted 10/04/2020 at 13:23:41
Thanks for the article and the steer Rob.
Jack Convery
5 Posted 10/04/2020 at 15:55:23
A really interesting article and a tribute to the British Spirit.

I wonder if the stalags in WW2 had similar things going on? Any idea if they played cricket too? Thanks for posting.

Kevin O'Regan
6 Posted 10/04/2020 at 16:57:17
Thanks a lot for the nice article and book tip, Rob. Just found a tenner yesterday, so that's heading for that book. Hopefully we'll get back to football soon as a way of bringing people together from all walks of life in often difficult circumstances – a source of hope (yes, even for Toffees).
David Cooper
7 Posted 10/04/2020 at 16:58:51
My dad was a POW in Stalag 4d in Torgau. In his diary, he has a self-made cricket scorebook from a match played between POWs. I have no idea how good the players were except that the scores were quite low! Maybe the pitch at Torgau was bowler-friendly! His diary gave quite an insight into camp life, especially his earliest following of EFC as he comments on the exploits of Dixie Dean.

He was captured in North Africa before Tobruk and ended up in Germany after spending time in Italy. From what I could tell, he survived the experience though he never spoke to me about it and I didn't ask.

His survival and subsequent return to “normal” life gives hope to me at this time. If he could get through 3+ years in a German POW camp, we can get through a few months of isolation!

Thanks for starting this theme!

Rob Halligan
8 Posted 10/04/2020 at 18:03:51
Jack # 5. When the POW's in Ruhleben weren't playing football, cricket was another game they played, as well as rugby, tennis and even golf. A small five hole golf course was made, though I should imagine the longest hole was no more than a two par!!

The British spirit clearly shone through in such difficult times, and the German guards were taken back at the British enthusiasm for various sports.

Tony Onslow
9 Posted 10/04/2020 at 22:03:15
Jack Brearley spent the rest of his days in Southend on Sea. He was knocked off his bike – and later died in Hospital – 27 September 1944.
Keith Dempsey
10 Posted 11/04/2020 at 09:53:50
I know this might be obvious, Rob, but what do the dates relate to alongside the names of the Everton players – is it their Everton record?
Rob Halligan
11 Posted 11/04/2020 at 10:15:08
Sorry, Keith. Yes, the dates are the period they spent with Everton, along with the number of appearances they made for the club.
Gerard McKean
12 Posted 11/04/2020 at 18:31:49
Very good piece, Rob, and thanks for drawing attention to a book that had slipped under my radar. Yes, we British love our sport and football certainly helped these lads through a physically and mentally harrowing time.

I think it's interesting to note that most of the POWs were already living in Germany at the outbreak of war, and of course the converse was also true of many thousands of Germans living here. This was a common practice at the time with even the British royal family proud and open about its German roots.

For anyone who wants to understand better the closeness of the two nations up to 1914 I can recommend: The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism by Paul Kennedy, the first sentence of which is – Why was it that the British and German peoples, who had never fought each other and whose traditions of political cooperation were reinforced by dynastic, cultural, religious and economic ties, went to war against each other in 1914?

The Germans love their football as well and I know Rob won't mind if I tell a story looking at the issue he highlighted from the opposite perspective.

During the 1970s, I was asked to teach German to people employed at Ford in Halewood. Most were management level who often had to travel to the sister plant in Cologne but some were shop-floor workers who wanted to learn German for reasons other than career benefits.

One such in the latter category was a lad called Tommy Williams. He was anxious to learn at least a few phrases because he'd been invited to visit Germany for the first time by a friend he'd not seen for many years.

Tommy passed away a few years ago in his 90s, a gentleman to the end and always proud to recall his war service. In 1944, he was in the first wave of landings on D-Day and, terrified as he was by his own admission, he battled through until being wounded a few months later.

His wounds were relatively light and he was fit to return to duty by the March of 1945 and, to his relief, he was given a home posting guarding a small POW camp in Wiltshire. The by now Lance Corporal Williams took the view that being civil would yield better results than ruling by force.

The officer in charge lived locally and was able to go home in the evenings. As the war came to an end and the Spring evenings got lighter, Tommy took advantage of the officer's absence to bring an old case ball into camp and the German POWs had a rare old time.

Somehow, the officer in charge found out about all this and Tommy was called in. Incredibly he was demoted and became Private Williams again. The ball was confiscated.

Many of the POWs would remember the kindness of Tommy but one, a former fighter pilot who became one of post-war Germany's most powerful industrialists, decided to try to track Tommy down. It was he who invited Tommy to come and stay with his family and I can say with certainty that the several visits he made were amongst the highlights of Tommy's life. Tommy would always end his recollections of these visits with the words his friend used to introduce him to others: Das ist der britische Soldat, der mit uns Fussball spielte. I don't need to translate.

As Rob points out, football transcends and heals. I was personally so grateful to hear so many English fans returning from the 2006 World Cup praising Germany and the German people for being “just like us, they enjoy a beer and a laugh and the food was great!” If it was up to ordinary folk, there'd be no need for wars; like the soldiers who came out of the trenches on Christmas Eve in 1914, it could all be sorted out with a game of football.

Tony Abrahams
13 Posted 11/04/2020 at 19:13:14
If I could go back to any time in my life, then it would be to this World Cup, Gerard, and even though we stayed in Holland, we had made such a choice because Dortmund, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen were all just over an hours drive from our base near Venlo.

A wonderful time, so many memories, including a game of football with a few German lads whilst The Poles and The Germans were running amock on the other side of the fan park. Also managing to get the kids into a couple of games, whilst they should have been in school, instead of learning about life and the beauty of everything you have just described Gerard!

Pete Jones
14 Posted 12/04/2020 at 14:38:14
Thanks for this, Rob, it's another title for the list of things I must read. I have a personal interest in that my great uncle Herbert was serving on the same vessel as Wattie Campbell and was interned with him.

Sam Wolstenholme also appears in an Antiques Roadshow book which came out to coincide with the centenary of WW1; his family have a football trophy from the camp.

Mick Davies
15 Posted 12/04/2020 at 15:43:50
Thank you, Rob, just ordered it, and looking forward to a 'real' POW story after just watching Escape To Victory for the umpteenth time. Although Sly is one of us, his acting skills are on par with Bobby Moore's.
Dale Rose
16 Posted 13/04/2020 at 11:22:42
Fascinating article. A must read. Mick #15. You jumped in before me, regarding that cinematic classic Escape to Victory. I can still see Anton Diffring turning down the cheers.
Derek Knox
17 Posted 14/04/2020 at 04:58:39
Thanks Rob for an interesting insight of the book, not sure whether it will be a future purchase soon, but it has been noted and on my list.

During this lockdown I have been engaging myself in many pursuits to keep the grey cells ticking over. I have rekindled my interest in mastering, well becoming reasonably proficient, speaking a couple of languages.

I did French and German at school so have a basic knowledge, much of which I have miraculously remembered. Although I must hasten to add that is mostly vocabulary, and have become extremely forgetful of the grammar and verb forms/gender usage.

I also have a very basic knowledge of Spanish, Portuguese and Greek. I have the audio CDs of all of these plus the text books on grammar, general usage etc. So I have quite a mountain go climb with those alone, plus the books I already have and my music collection.

I don't think anyone has enjoyed this lockdown and the totally different daily routines, but I am, and have made the most of it, to the limitations of my ability. I believe in the importance of mental agility, and having goals to aim for, then keep moving the goalposts so as not to get frustrated or bored.

Mick Davies
18 Posted 16/04/2020 at 00:29:20
Dale @ 16 lol, mate. I reckon the Nazis taught the Tories the same tricks – looking forward to getting the book; I must have read 6 or 7 since this lockdown.

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