Introduction Football Cricket Boxing Miscellaneous Sports

Sports: Introduction

Handbook of the Ruhleben Football Association.

Reading the various histories of Ruhleben written by former prisoners, one point is consistently made. Sports, more than any other factor, was the salvation of the prisoners, keeping them both mentally and physically healthy. As one former internee noted, one cannot consciously be a prisoner while also playing center forward on a football team. By immersing themselves in the world of sports with new roles and with new activities, the men ceased to feel like captives.

Sports – both organized and informal – were a part of the internees’ lives from the very first week with the playing of an improvised football (American soccer) game. From this improvisation quickly came an elaborate sports schedule. When the racetrack playing field was opened up to the Ruhlebenites, two football fields were laid out and teams were organized in fourteen of the barracks. The first match of the season was held on March 28th with Captain Van Traube on hand for the kick-off. A five-hole golf course was constructed and seven tennis courts were laid out on the straight sections of the track. Other sports quickly followed including rugby, hockey, cricket, and baseball. The Ettinghausen and Masterman collections contain evidence of organized interest in billiards, boxing, bridge, track and field competitions, and even club swinging.

Internees did not have to play a sport to be involved. They came out in droves to support their barracks in football or cricket competitions or cheer for friends in individual contests. Additionally, the wide variety and number of sports teams and competitions produced committees and subcommittees to organize their events and promotions, including the Ruhleben Football Association, Cricket Association, Rugby Football Club, Lawn Tennis Association, Hockey Club, Boxing Club, and Golf Club. The camp-produced newsletters and broadsheets kept internees up-to-date on scores, players, and team rivalries. As a result, the sporting world became an alternate—and sometimes all absorbing—world for the internees allowing them to escape or mitigate the effects of “barbed wire disease,” a condition of nervousness and mental instability triggered by the boredom and helplessness of imprisonment. In a living situation where the internees had no way to know or predict the future, and in which every day held questions without answers, sports provided discreet events to promote, cheer, discuss, and even speculate upon. While the outcomes of athletic contests were temporarily unknown, in a short time winners and losers were declared providing answers in an environment with very few.

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