The First World War imprisonment of Derby County footballer Steve Bloomer
PUBLISHED: 14:27 01 July 2014 | UPDATED: 14:27 01 July 2014
Legendary footballer Steve Bloomer spent the entire First World War interned in a German prison camp. His biographer Peter Seddon tells the story
In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, many poignant stories have emerged of those who actively served ‘King and country’. Whether they survived or gave their lives, all deserve remembrance. But another category of Great War veteran tends to be overlooked – because they didn’t engage in the main arena, those incarcerated in prison camps are either sidelined in the narrative or even ‘accused’ of having had ‘an easy time of it’. Yet that was far from the truth, for the prisoners of war – many in any case beyond the fighting age – suffered great personal hardships, and doggedly fought in spirit if not in arms. The story of ‘Bloomer’s War’ encapsulates the breed.
Steve Bloomer’s unscheduled ‘adventure’ was precipitated one hundred years ago this month. In June 1914 after 22 seasons in top-class football, the Derby County and England star made it known that at the age of 40 he had finally ‘hung up his boots’. In that ‘last English summer’ before everything changed, the nation’s football favourite found himself out of work with decisions to make.
English clubs were slow to react. But ambitious continentals keen to benefit from English experience moved swiftly. Within weeks Bloomer accepted the post of ‘coach and instructor’ to the Britannia Berlin Football Club. Leaving behind his wife and family, Bloomer arrived in the German capital on 14th July 1914.
Although the ‘trigger’ assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand had already occurred in Sarajevo on 28th June, nothing cataclysmic was at that time widely predicted. Bloomer travelled with confidence – yet his decision proved fateful. Three weeks after his arrival Britain and Germany were at war. For several months ‘alien civilians’ were merely ‘observed’, but soon enough the edict was issued for mass incarceration. Along with scores of others Bloomer was arrested at midnight on 5th November 1914 and frogmarched to the Ruhleben Civilian Internment Camp on the outskirts of Berlin. He next saw his wife and children four years later on 22nd November 1918. By then his life had been indelibly impacted – and almost one million British Empire servicemen had died in the interim.
Conditions in Ruhleben – a former racecourse hastily adapted to retain 4,000 civilian prisoners – were extremely spartan. To the newly-arrived internees it must have seemed a cruel irony that ‘Ruhleben’ means ‘peaceful life’.
The men (there were no women) were bundled into horse-stalls in the stables, or else into the haylofts above, given a straw-filled sack and a horse-blanket each, with no heating and minimal light. Each received a tin bowl and a coarse face-cloth, but no eating utensils. Bloomer recalled that ‘a piece of repugnant blood sausage and watery “skilly” were all we ate in those dark early days’. The coaching dream had become a nightmare.
It quickly became clear to the prisoners that the Germans had no idea how to run an internment camp. Left to the officials, primitive chaos would have prevailed for the entire war. So the prisoners sought permission from their captors to run the camp themselves – with the mission statement ‘to create a place fit for Britishers to live in’. Permission was granted, and the community which evolved at Ruhleben proved one of the most remarkable in military history.
What made this bold move possible was the calibre of internee. Most foreign civilians in Germany at the outbreak of war were there by dint of talent. Bloomer’s was football. But those arrested on the same fateful night included scientists, musicians, actors, golfers, jockeys, academics, tennis players, business entrepreneurs, quick-witted salesmen and captains of industry. Thrust together in adversity, they refused to accept their fate. Instead they made things happen.
The community they created was a microcosm of a typical British town. Small businesses sprang up to cater for every need. There was a theatre and an extensive programme of educational classes. The ‘streets’ were named after famous London thoroughfares. The officer-class created a club for themselves, complete with white-coated waiters. The camp had its own postal system, political elections, and a committee for absolutely everything. A well-stocked library and the ‘Ruhleben Camp Magazine’ provided ample reading matter. Those who valued their privacy could even pay to use a ‘ticket only’ lavatory.
The end result was a strange hybrid. Ruhleben was university, public school, army barracks, holiday camp, ‘Gold Rush’ frontier settlement and tumbledown shanty town all in one. But Bloomer still described it as a ‘hell-hole’ on his return. Despite the veneer of normality, it remained unequivocally a prison camp. Critics chiding the internees for having a ‘peaceful life’ seemed to forget that their ‘comforts’ were all self-generated.
And one thing above all sustained many of the captives. Bloomer made it clear - ‘Myself and many others would not have survived without it’. He was talking of sport. The men kicked a ball around in the yard from day one, but full-scale games on what had been the centre of the racecourse were initially forbidden. The prisoners lobbied constantly until the stubborn camp commandant Baron von Taube finally relented. After the ‘Ruhleben Football League’ was formed, the inaugural game in March 1915 was actually kicked-off by von Taube himself. The ‘Ruhlebenites’ were a persuasive bunch.
Psychologists have concluded that the prisoners slowly moulded the Germans into vaguely comic puppet figures who would do their bidding almost unwittingly. Even with a smile. As the epitome of ‘stiff upper lip’ Britishness, the spirit and humour of the ‘Ruhlebenites’ was remarkable, rendering the German authorities flummoxed by much of what went on. How could men get hold of the Times the day after publication? Why the delirious excitement when a packing case full of equipment arrived from Lancashire County Cricket Club? Bemused by the silly songs, nicknames, and daft catch-phrases, the German camp officials might almost have been the prisoners. It was a triumph of will for the allies.
Despite his forty-plus years Steve Bloomer starred in the football, captaining the Ruhleben select XI and leading his barracks to the first Premier League title without dropping a point. In summer the prisoners turned to cricket on ‘The Oval’ before packed houses. Bloomer smashed the camp batting record with a cool 204. Everybody knew ‘Steve’ – when he finally left Ruhleben in 1918, a farewell football match was staged in his honour.
But no amount of celebrity could ease the pain of imprisonment. In May 1916 in a letter to Ernest Gregson – landlord of the Eagle Tavern in Derby – Bloomer wrote: ‘Thank you for the cigarettes. I am so grateful my friends don’t forget to send me comforts. It is hard being kept here all this time, but we are a merry crew. All that really troubles me is that I want to see good old Derby again.’
Bloomer constantly hoped for news of his release on age-grounds. In April 1917 he was called to the commandant’s office. But the ‘news’ was that his 17-year-old daughter Violet had died of a kidney complaint. He was finally released from Ruhleben on 22nd March 1918, but was required to stay in neutral Holland until after the armistice. Lodging in Amsterdam with a chemist and his family, he quickly secured a coaching position with Blauw-Wit (‘Blue and White’), even playing in a number of exhibition games. Contrary to popular myth, his physical condition after four years imprisonment was quite robust.
After the ‘war to end all wars’ finally closed, Derby’s favourite sporting son sailed into Hull on Friday 22nd November 1918 and arrived at Derby station the same evening, where his wife and family were waiting. Steve Bloomer seldom spoke of his lost four years. Like all the ‘Ruhlebenites’, he knew what he knew.
Nor was he the only Derbeian to share the experience. With him at Ruhleben was the Derby-born jockey Sam Heapy (1882-1963) – rider of an astonishing 3,260 winners in a long career, much of it based in Belgium, where he became a top racehorse trainer.
Making up a trio was organist and music teacher Dr Arthur Griffin Claypole (1882-1929) – taken captive while on a leisurely holiday in Leipzig with his wife and infant son. After Claypole returned home in February 1919 he resumed his music – from 1921 to 1929 he was choirmaster and organist at Derby Cathedral.
In 1919 a Union flag presented to King George V on behalf of the ‘Ruhlebenites’ carried a telling inscription: ‘Although unable to fight for our King and country on the battlefield, we endeavoured to maintain the British ideal of patriotism, patience, courage and usefulness through four years.’
Steve Bloomer’s lasting recollection of those lost years was poignantly lyrical: ‘In Ruhleben we were all brothers. We made a life for ourselves out of nothing. We will always share a kinship and never forget. 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 cricket and football. Those were the days when men became boys again.’