Steve Bloomer’s experiences among the Huns

Sunday, December 1 – 1918
Famous football players begins his thrilling narrative
Steve Bloomer, the famous football player, has returned home after nearly four years’ internment in Ruhleben. Through all the weary months of captivity he kept on smiling, and in the series of articles which begins this week, and which is exclusively contributed to “The Post Sunday Special,” Steve describes how he and other athletic prisoners, by their efforts to amuse and entertain their fellow-captives, defined all the Hun attempts to break the spirit of the Britishers.

‘Home again’. I cannot describe what these words mean to me. Some of my readers who knew me in the old days will be thinking I am getting a bit sentimental, and the person who has not undergone the experience of cruel captivity in the hands of the enemy will find it difficult to appreciate just what home means now to me and to those other fellows who are being repatriated.

At the moment when the collapse of the German Army was taking place I had obtained a job in Amsterdam as coach to a Dutch team of footballers known as Blauw Wit (Blue White), and the full meaning of what it meant to me took some time to soak in. Eventually I realised that my freedom was very close at hand, and soon after the armistice was signed I was ordered to get ready to return home.

I reached Rotterdam on Tuesday, November 19, and found a great, merry crowd of Britishers, the most of whom were Tommies.

Leaving his bride behind
On board our boat there was only one man whose happiness did not seem complete. He was a Scotsman, and, when I first saw him, he was gazing rather wistfully ashore and rather sadly returning the friendly waving of a handkerchief held by a bonnie young woman.

I turned to a young soldier beside me.
“What’s wrong with Jock?” I asked.
“Leaving the missus behind,” came the reply.
“That’s hard luck.”
“Aye, but it won’t be for long,” my informant assured me. “Jock says he’s coming back as soon as he’s seen the old folks. Or, if he doesn’t do that, he’ll arrange for the wife to come to Bonnie Scotland.

“You see,” the man went on, no doubt in answer to my expression of perplexity, “It’s been a bit of a war romance. They met one another when he was sent to Leewarden. She belonged to the place – was a Dutch girl, and, as they both fell in love with one another, Jock fixed up things, and they god spliced.”

“It’s hard luck that they’ve got to be parted.”
“It is. They tried to get her on board, but the authorities wouldn’t hear of it. There’s no sentiment about Government departments,” and the chap went off to try and console his disconsolate pal.

Owing to the fact that the presence of mines made it imperative that we should anchor every night, it took us about four days to cross the North Sea, and the last night we spent in the vicinity of the Humber and were actually within sight of Blightly, but could not land. Many of the chaps took it keenly to heart, and very few slept that night.

Our welcome in Hull the following day I will not describe, except to state that the arrangements for our arrival were perfect. After a jolly good meal we civilians were permitted to continue our journey home, whilst the boys in khaki were sent to Ripon.

The one sad note
I got the first train to Derby, and that night I was safe in the family circle with my wife and daughters.

My first few days at home were a perfect paradise, when all the horrors of the life in the hands of the Germans seemed dim and part of the experience of a man other than myself. It was difficult to realise that I had come safely through them all, and that my efforts to keep myself in fairly decent health had been successful, despite the endeavours of the German authorities to kill us all of by bad food, monotony, and inhuman conditions.

Only one fact mars the complete joy of my homecoming, and that is that since my departure from Derby for Berlin my second daughter, Violet, died during my term of internment in Ruhleben.

She was a dear, lovable girl, of about eighteen years of age, and, although Mrs. Bloomer had several times written and said that she was ill, I was quite unprepared for the shock of the news of her death.

This occurred about April, 1917, and the fateful letter reached me at Ruhleben on May 5. At the time I was seated in a deck chair, enjoying a book and the spring sunshine, when Fred Pentland came up and tossed a letter into my lap.
“From home, Steve,” he remarked cheerfully.

I opened it, and the shock, as the import of the message dawned upon me, just about put me out.

After that 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.

For a month I shunned everyone and everything, and was drifting to a fatal state of melancholy, when my football chums intervened.
“One thing is sure,” said Percy Hartley, “and that is that you must start playing.”

I protested, but it was of no avail. The whole bunch would hear of nothing else but that I must turn out again, and I was simply forced to do it.

Now I am glad that those real pals of mine were so insistent, because had I cut myself adrift from all interests I feel certain now that my reason would have gone.

The fateful day
Now that my experiences at Ruhleben are over, I cannot help wondering how so many of us have survived the treatment which the Huns meted out to us. To live for three and half years in captivity, controlled by men whose one desire was to make life unbearable, to be compelled to eat food which was not fit for dogs, and to endure sheer monotony for that period, is a future which few men would like to contemplate.

I had only been in Germany a month when that country declared war on Russia. I had gone to Berlin as sports coach to an athletic club known as the Britannia Club. The job was a fairly good one, and would have been very enjoyable had the members been British, but they were Germans and poor sportsmen, and instead of my work being a joy it was simply work. Howbeit, I only held the appointment for about a month, for when war was declared on Russia my contract was cancelled at once.

The president of the club, Herr Fauber, called me to his room.
“Of course, Mr. Bloomer,” he remarked, speaking in excellent English, as a large majority of the members of the club did, “this war – this glorious war – will cancel our contract with you, just as the war will cancel all private contracts.”

“I understand that.” There was no use quibbling about the matter.
“That is good,” and he reached into a drawer and drew out a sheet of paper.
“Then perhaps you won’t mind signing this.”
He passed the sheet to me, and I read the written words. These were to the effect that my signature on this document made all previous contracts void. I signed it, and in return received a sum of money to cover my expenses home and also my salary.
“And now, Mr. Bloomer,” Herr Fauber went on, “take my tip and get out of Germany as quickly as possible.”

Taking the advice to heart, and realising the danger of my position, for although Britain had not then entered the war, it seemed highly probable that she would do so, I went straight away to the train station to get a train for home.

But it was impossible. “There are no trains for the civilians,” I was told. “We must get out troops away first. Then, perhaps —“

That was all the satisfaction I could get during the short intervening period before Britain entered the war. Each day I went up to the station, and each day I was turned away as an impossible passenger.

In the meantime there was a great excitement in the streets of Berlin. There were wild scenes in all cafes and beer gardens. The world would see what German militarism could do! The “Field-Greys” would teach Europe a lesson!

I kept fairly quiet, and I kept a jolly sight quieter when, on August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The Huns were really wild about that event, for it upset their plans.
“We will go through Belgium,” I heard one man say, “then take Paris, then Calais, then London. Christmas in London would be nice!”

I didn’t say anything, although I smiled to myself. My position was a delicate one.
On August 5, 1914, the day on which my late club, the Britannia Club, angered that Britain had entered the war, changed its name to the Berliner Sport Verein, I was arrested.

That fateful morning, anxious to get out of the country, I went down to the British Consul’s office. At the door were to gendarmes. They stopped me, and fired a question at me in German, which I didn’t understand.
“They want to know your name,” an English voice at my elbow explained.

I gave him the desired information, and he translated it to the two Germans.

Next they inquired my age, then whether married or single, what my business was in Berlin, and why I wanted to see the British Consul, all of which questions I answered satisfactorily. Then the Germans put the man who had translated my replies though a similar examination.

The outcome of these proceedings was that we were both carted off and placed in a room which already contained about a dozen other Britishers. Later, we were formed up in a column and marched for a quarter of a mile through the Berlin streets to the Alexander Platz. A guard arrived with revolvers and swords, and was sent along with us, and before starting the sergeant told is that his men had instructions to kill any man who tried to escape.

It was rather a lively journey. Crowds surged round us.

“Swine Englanders!” was, I think, the favourite description applied to us, and this was accompanied by loud and prolonged hisses.

Arrived at the Alexander Platz, we appeared before a row of Magistrates, and were cross-questioned.

Glad to be interned
The outcome of this examination was that we were given a slip of paper containing our names, descriptions, &c., and were told to report to the police at periodical times.

The next few weeks were very trying. One never knew what was to happen. Excitement was at fever pitch. Evert German man was a red-hot patriot. Their victories were acclaimed in continual outbursts of wild talk and boastings. Men made a point of getting drunk every night and looking for trouble. I assure you that I kept as far away as possible from these scenes and spent most of my time in my lodgings or feeding at a quiet café.

To tell the truth, I don’t think that I was exactly sorry when on November 6, 1914, I was taken off to Ruhleben and interned. I could not have kept quiet any longer. There were one or two members of the Berliner Sports Verein who were going too far in making unfavourable references to England, and it was as much as I could do to refrain from “belting” them.

There was one man in particular, named Schliezburg, who behaved in typically Hunnish manner. During those days before my interment I used to go to the club ground and potter about doing any odd job, and I was always in the club at night.

In one room there was a large map of Europe, and whenever I was there Schliezburg usually took the opportunity of moving the flags closer towards Paris and the Channel Ports.

At these times my fingers would itch to show the Hun what at least one Britisher could do with his bare fists, but I always managed to control myself sufficiently to walk out of the room.

The first few days of my captivity in Ruhleben camp will always remain with me as the most remarkable experience of my life.

Ruhleben was a trotting racecourse about seven miles outside Berlin, and the camp, or “barracks,” were the stables where the animals were kept.

The telegraphic address of the place, in the opinion of the interned, was “Horror.” Several thousand Britishers were dumped down in this place, and really we were a motley crowd. Every type of man was represented.

There were the Earl of Perth, Sir John Irving – a North of England commercial magnate with a big interest in the fishing industry. Mr. Balfour’s nephew, a man we called Bicycle Sam, who was taken into captivity when riding from London to Berlin on a bicycle which he could not have sold for five shillings; there were men who were captured on their honeymoon, jockeys, professional golfers, music hall actors, seafaring men, men on holiday, men on business in Germany, men with businesses of their own in Germany, and even men who did not know a word of English and could only speak German.

These, then, were the various types – about many of whom, by the way, I have interesting and amusing stories to tell in the subsequent instalments – that were collected together and dumped into stables. No distinction was drawn between class. The lucky ones got a bunk in a horse-box; the unfortunate ones were packed like herrings in the loft above, where they were left to keep themselves warm with two blankets about the size and thickness of a napkin.

Efforts to relieve the monotony
As we were then in the midst of a very hard winter, and as a number of the men were past the prime of life, the hardships and the sufferings of a lot of the prisoners will be readily understood.

Complaints were heard on every hand. Then on top of this the food that was served out to us was not fit for dogs. It consisted solely of black bread, acorn coffee, and soup made either of potatoes or cabbage. There was no nourishment in the stuff at all, and when complaints were made to the authorities we were told that the “swine of Englanders would go to the swill tub for their food.”

It very soon dawned on me that these conditions would be the death of a lot of men unless something was done quickly. Other men came to the same conclusion. What was wanted was organisation and a sort of communal interest set up. Others more capable than myself took upon themselves the duty of appointing the work and electing captains of barracks, &c., but I devoted myself to the organisation of sport, a matter on which I knew something.

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. My experience of football told me that if that did not provide sufficient interest nothing else would.

As soon as I came to the camp I learned that there were several other well-known professional players in the camp. These were Percy Hartley, of Bolton Wanderers; Jack Cameron, of Everton and Tottenham Hotsur; Fred Pentland, the internationalist, of Blackburn and Middlesbrough; Sam Wolstenholme, of Everton; Jack Brierley (sic. Brearley), of Tottenham, Liverpool, and Middlesbrough.

We held a confab, and came to the unanimous decision that King Football would have to do his best to keep us from moping.

When we came to that decision we had no idea of the big task that lay before us. In the first place we had neither ground, ball, nor anything else necessary, Our guards were unsympathetic, and all our appeals met with refusal. All that we were permitted to do in the way of football was to kick a bundle of rags about in any little bit of space we could find among the barrack-buildings.

We were not discouraged, and how we came to get the game properly organised on a decent footing, with properly constituted League rules, I will tell next week.
(Sunday Post, 01-12-1918)

Steve Bloomer with his wife and two daughters.
Ruhleben 2

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