In Ruhleben Camp: “British Organisation”

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. On the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story. 

“Sport.” In Ruhleben Camp, No. 2, 27 June 1915. Masterman, Box 2 Seq. 202
“Sport.” In Ruhleben Camp, No. 2, 27 June 1915. Masterman, Box 2 Seq. 202

In addition to paving the way for greater self-governance within Ruhleben, the American Ambassador James Gerard also helped the camp put its best foot forward in a more literal way: sport.

After Gerard’s visit, the German authorities lifted the ban on organized sporting competitions, including football (soccer). The return of sporting events to the field in March of 1915 transformed the camp. Sport stood at the heart of popular British culture, and the internment of several prominent British sportsmen at Ruhleben, including the celebrity footballer (later inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame) Steve Bloomer, made the matches an especial source of pride to the internees.

Apart from the benefits of rigorous activity and purposeful competition, sporting events allowed the prisoners to exercise the British value of sportsmanship, implying not just physical excellence but also team spirit, fair play, and good humor. Sports took off with a vengeance, and the organization necessary to arrange games, then leagues, then full seasons called for “a multitude of clubs, committees, and subcommittees” including the Ruhleben Football Association, Cricket Association, Rugby Football Club, Lawn Tennis Association, Hockey Club, Boxing Club, and Golf Club, among those that J.D. Ketchum recalls (Ketchum, p. 194).

Sport provided a model for increasingly complex bureaucratic structures. A Sports Committee was formed to manage sporting demands, and was complemented by the Entertainments Committee for theatrical and musical events, while the Education Committee took charge of the Ruhleben Camp School. All such committees answered to the Captains’ Committee, which held the purse strings for the camp. Surveying the administration that emerged, the Captain-of-Captains Joseph Powell would later subtitle his history of the camp, a “record of British organisation.”

Under the aegis of the Education Committee, the first issue of In Ruhleben Camp was published in June 1915, amidst this efflorescence of “British organisation. Positioning itself as a platform for public debate, the magazine began printing interviews with camp administrators, open letters to and from the Captains’ Committee, and zinging satirical articles and cartoons. It was also filled to bursting with reviews of theatrical and musical performances in the camp, reports from boisterous debating society meetings, updates on new groups such as the Horticultural Society, the Irish Players, the French and Italian language magazines, and so on—all liberally marinated in British sarcasm.

In subsequent issues, In Ruhleben Camp and its successor The Ruhleben Camp Magazine would reveal populist leanings, encouraging the camp to keep its officials accountable for their projects, budgeting choices, record-keeping, and attitude towards their fellow prisoners. Taking a humorously combative stance, the magazine demanded that the Captains, Committee Chairs, and other administrators justify their sense of self-importance—which it often delighted in deflating. As one wit quips in the opening pages of the first issue: “Consider the officials, how they grow!” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 155). Readers could finish the original verse sotto voce: “consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not” (KJV Luke 12:27).

The editors also recognized the vitality of sports in the camp. Towards the front of the first issue, readers found a review of the football season by “the English International, F.B. Pentland, of Middlesborough F.C. [Football Club].” Pentland, who had arrived just before the war to train the German Olympic team, relates a telling anecdote: “Passing through our Trafalgar Square some days ago,” he chuckles, “a man from Barrack 9 asked could he book the football ground for October 1st next. It sounded a strange request, of course, and an individual near remarked, “October indeed, what’s the matter with being at home by that time?”” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 161).

As Pentland well knew, sport brought structure to the blank tedium of camp life. Like theatrical performances, sport colored in the future—at least provisionally—and gave internees a reason to keep track of time. And like theatre, sporting matches could absorb the attention and erase the outside world so effectively that they jeopardized the prisoners’ sense of reality.

This problem would fuel the most heated debates and stinging satire in the camp magazine: could internees make camp life vivid without losing their perspective? In struggling for psychological survival, were internees reducing themselves to spoiled children, playing at war? Were folks back home right in imagining Ruhlebenites lounging in deck chairs, enjoying the “quiet life” while Europe burned?

Bibliography & Further Reading

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 155

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 161

Ketchum, J. Davidson. Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. With a Foreword and Postscript by Robert B. MacLeod. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Foreword (Ithaca, NY, April 1964)

Powell, Joseph and Francis Henry Gribble. The history of Ruhleben: the record of British organisation in a prison camp. London: W. Collins Sons & Company Ltd., 1919.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

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