Sunday, December 8 – 1918
Football saves the men from going mad
After spending three and a half years in Ruhleben camp, Germany, as an interned civilian, Steve Bloomer, the famous football players, has returned to his home in Derby.
In this series of articles, which are exclusively contributed to ‘The Post Sunday Special,” he tells how the King of Sports was organised in the camp, and how the interest which the game created saved many men from losing their reason on account of the hardship and the monotony of their lives.
In last week’s article he described his arrest in Germany on the day on which Britain declared war. At that time he had only been a month in the country. He had gone there as a coach to a Berlin athletic club, but on the day when the war cloud burst his contract was cancelled, and on November 6, 1914, he was sent to Ruhleben.
Although about eighty men had been arrested previously and despatched to Ruhleben, the great bulk of the 5,000 Britishers who were interned arrived at the camp on November 6, 1914.
The conditions were vile, and the treatment which we received at the hands of our guards was unspeakable.
The food consisted solely of black bread, acorn coffee, soup made from potato peelings, cabbages, and swedes, and sometimes skilly.
The hardships we were enduring appeared to considerably amuse our guards. Protests were made to them, but in vain.
There was one incident which plainly indicated the state of mind of the camp. It was on a particularly cold day, and on drawing our tea rations we found that the “skilly” was not in a fit state for human consumption.
Besides the ordinary ingredients there appeared to be small insects floating about in it. The complaints were loud and continuous. One group of prisoners, passing the commandant’s quarters on their way to the barracks, suddenly made up their minds to make a formal complaint, and then went inside.
Baron von Taube, the commandant, a tall, well-groomed, grey-haired, grey-moustached man, was seated at his desk.
“Well?” he asked in good English.
“This ‘skilly,’ sir,” one of the Britishers remarked, “is verminous. Look —-“ and he placed the bowl under the commandant’s nose, “you can see the things kicking about.”
Prepared to dispute the truth that the stuff was really bad, the Baron gazed at the liquid mess for a considerable time, but even he had to admit the justice of the complaint.
“It is bad,” he was compelled to agree.
“But go back to the barracks and I will see that something else is prepared for you.”
Armed men to prevent riot
Believing him to be a man whose word could be trusted, and forgetting for the moment that he was a Prussian, the group returned to their barracks and passed the word along to the whole camp that we should get something else for tea. Everyone at once poured their ‘skilly’ away and waited for the signal that the substitute was ready.
An hour passed without any sign being made. A lot of the men became restive. Always hungry, an extra hour between meals added pain to the ordinary discomfort of hunger.
As time went on the restiveness developed into rowdiness. Anger was written on every face. Men moved about the camp in groups, and threats against our captors were made on every hand. The incident marked the breaking point of our endurance and began to take on an ugly aspect when the guards were suddenly augmented by armed soldiers from the neighbouring barracks, and we were at once rushed indoor and locked in. As a result of that incident we were confined to barracks for several days.
There was no work do in the camp. Our thoughts consequently dwelt on our captivity. The Huns wished to drive us mad. A number of us at once realised that organisation was required, and accordingly a Mr. Powell was elected captain of the camp, and to assist this gentleman captains were elected for each barracks.
These were the first steps towards order, and others followed in quick succession. Working gangs were appointed to carry out the necessary duties of the camp. We appointed our own police, who patrolled the barracks, and kept order in the place. There were men who attended to the sanitary arrangements of the camp, others who helped in the canteen, and others again who kept the place clean.
As a professional footballer I felt that there was some useful work in the camp which I could accomplish.
Already there were signs that a number of the men were keen on football. We had no ball, of course, but to amuse themselves a number of the chaps made a substitute of a few rags, and, forming themselves into sides, played a keen but unsatisfactory game between two of the barracks.
During these exhibitions one truth made a deep impression on me, and that was that if only the game could be played on properly organised lines an interest would be created that would go a long way towards relieving the monotony of the life we were leading.
Even these “back entry kick abouts” drew their “gates.”
Then the great day dawned when a German football found its way into the camp, and immediately we professionals got into conference.
A football association was immediately formed. Jack Cameron (now manager of Ayr United) was elected president, and Fred Pentland, the internationalist, of Middlesbrough, the secretary. Our rules were few
A list of pros
Each barrack, of which there were fifteen, which thought it could raise a team was entitled to join the association, and, as illustrative of the keenness of the camp, fourteen teams were at once formed.
Fortunately, the professional players were scattered about in the various barracks, and, consequently, there was small danger of the sides being lop-sided on that account.
The following is a list of the professionals and the barracks in which they lived: –
Barrack 1 – Steve Bloomer.
Barrack 4 – Jack Brierley (Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Middlesbrough). – sic. John Brearley.
Barrack 7 – Percy Hartley (Bolton Wanderers).
Barrack 9 – Sam Wolstenholme (Everton).
Barrack 10 – Jack Cameron and Fred Pentland.
As soon as the association was formed we commenced playing, and a competition was formed. Our “ground” was the largest open space in the camp – a division between two barracks, which measured about thirty-two yards by fifteen yards. We had no goal posts and only one football.
The competition ended with my team, Barrack 1 being the winners, and each player was presented with a box of cigarettes.
Although under those conditions it was impossible to form a correct judgment of individual play, I knew that I had some promising players in my team. I liked the way they shaped. It was apparent that some of them had a pretty thorough knowledge of the game.
In a subsequent instalment I shall give my football readers some interesting information with regard to these players which, I think, managers of some of the British first-class clubs will find to be profitable.
Of course, as the skipper of the winning side, I came in for man than my fair share of the congratulations.
“You did well, Steve,” said one of my closest chums, Edwin Dutton, who was at one time connected with Newcastle United, and who prior to the war had a sports outfitting business in Berlin, and which, by the way, was carried on by his mother whilst Ted was interned.
“Yes,” I admitted. “But it makes me feel a bit ambitious. That ‘back entry’ business is very unsatisfactory. Now, if we only had a decent ground —“
And his eyes followed mine towards the great open space encircled by the racing tracks.
“Then we should see some game,” he remarked.
But, far from that hope being realised our efforts to establish the game on any footing at all were dashed to the ground.
On the day when my barrack won the first football competition in the camp, we were all paraded in front of our habitation and addressed by Baron von Taube, the commandant.
“These football games,” he shouted in the tense, clipped manner of the Prussia militarist, “must stop.” Already a considerable number of windows have been broken, and I won’t have any more damage done.”
This was indeed a blow, and the real grief which it created was reflected on every face. Had we not been fearful of the consequences the man would have been hooted.
My own disappointment can be better imagined than described. Life was just becoming bearable, and to have the cause of this new joy suddenly snatched away was, to say the least, very annoying.
Dutton was standing by my side at the moment when the commandant threw his cold water on our football.
“I never did like that man,” I remarked.
“I don’t fancy the look of him, and I’ll bet he turns out to be a bad ‘un.”
“I could forgive him a lot,” responded Eddie, “if he would only smile.
“I’ve not seen his face crack a smile since we’ve been in the camp. When it does, he’ll get it right again.”
In discussing the ban at a later date we came to the conclusion that the stoppage of these harmless games was but part of their policy to break our spirits.
But they had set themselves a hard task. We were not so easily beaten as all that and almost immediately after football had been prohibited we commenced playing a new sort of game, which was a cross between baseball and the rounders that are played usually at Sunday school picnics. For this game we used a chair lag and a tennis ball, and although the game fell short of football or cricket we managed to keep ourselves interested, which, of course, was the main thing.
A pleasant surprise
Meantime we had not allowed the prohibition on football to remain without our making an effort to remove it.
Acting on behalf of the enthusiasts of the camp, Mr. Powell, the captain, kept continually appealing to the commandant for permission to resume the game. It was put to Baron von Taube that we must have something to occupy our attention. Sports was one of the best methods of keeping everyone out of mischief, and, as we caused damage inside the camp by our games, why not permit us to go out on the racecourse and do the thing properly?
Our agitation for this concession commenced some time during the month of December, 1914, but it was not until about the second week in March, 1915, that the required permission came through.
The day on which we heard the glad tidings will always remain very vividly in my mind.
On that memorable day in March I was promenading up and down the grand stand in company with Fred Pentland, a Mr. Swift, and a Mr. Fisher, when one of us spotted Mr. Powell bearing down on us at express speed.
“Hello!” remarked the spotter. “Powell looks mighty excited.”
We halted, and Mr Powell approached us breathlessly.
“Steve, my lad,” he said, shaking my hand, “we’ve got it.”
For a moment I didn’t grasp what he meant, and my three companions remained somewhat dumbfounded.
“Got what?” I questioned, “The flu?”
“No, my lad, the ground. This,” and he waved his arm towards the precious stretch of mangy grass in the middle of the track.
We all shook hands and danced. Then we shouted the good news to all those who were sitting on the stand, and a cheer, such as had never been heard before in Ruhleben, went up from thousands of throats.
Afterwards one could hardly hear oneself talk because of the din of chattering tongues.
Songs were started and sung with great enthusiasm, and when the time for our departure for barracks came one voiced shouted out above all others – “Are we downhearted?”
“No,” came the response with sufficient volume to shake the roaf.
Next week I hope to describe how football was put into full swing, and give full particulars of the men – some of them dark horses – who took part in the game.
(Sunday Post, 08-12-1918)
Back row (from left to right) – J. Richardson, professional golfer; Oswald Groening, 120 hurdle champion; Mendleson, all round sportsman; Fred Pentland, the famous footballer.
Front row – Steve Bloomer; T. Sullivan, champion sculler; Freddy Winter, jockey.