South London Memories: The Real Escape to Victory

Millwall stars of recent years had a name for being tough nuts – Terry Hurlock, Dennis Wise, Kevin Muscat, Gary Alexander, Paul Robinson, Alan Dunne – and in the current squad, warrior skipper Alex Pearce.  But one Lions star survived a German prisoner of war camp near Berlin in the First World War.
Here author Paul Brown talks about Jack Brearley, one of the stars of his book The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp.

During the First World War, several of Britain’s best footballers were interned in a brutal prison camp at Ruhleben, near Berlin. Among them was Millwall and Crystal Palace star Jack Brearley.

Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, living in squalor and on meagre rations, and with their families and freedom far out of reach, Brearley and a string of other professionals played football as a means to survive.

It might sound like the plot of popular bank holiday afternoon movie Escape to Victory, but this is a real-life story of footballing prisoners of war, as revealed in a new book, The Ruhleben Football Association by Paul Brown.

The conditions at the Ruhleben prison camp – a former horse racing track – were appalling, with around 4,500 men packed into 11 filthy stables. Food was scarce, the guards were cruel, and the commandant was incompetent.

The men desperately needed something to occupy their minds, keep them active, and – in freezing conditions – keep them warm. That something was football.

Brearley and the others – including QPR’s England international Fred Pentland, England internationals Steve Bloomer and Sam Wolstenholme and Scotland international John Cameron – bartered for balls, marked out pitches, and formed the Ruhleben Football Association.

They organised league and cup competitions involving hundreds of players and watched by thousands of spectators.

The game had a huge impact on the morale and well-being of the prisoners.

As England and Derby County legend Bloomer said: “Myself and many others would not have survived without football.”

Attacking midfielder Brearley played for Palace from 1907-1909 before moving to Millwall (then Millwall Athletic) until 1911.

Fred Pentland was an England international winger who played for QPR during the 1907-08 season, scoring 14 goals.

Both Pentland and Brearley were coaching in Germany in 1914, when the war broke out and British nationals of fighting age were rounded up and interned.

Both men were instrumental in setting up the Ruhleben Football Association, and Pentland acted as its president.

John “Jack” Brearley was a Liverpudlian who began and ended his career at Millwall and also played for Crystal Palace, Spurs and Everton.

Brearley, described as a “contemplative” inside-forward, first played for Millwall Athletic, in the highly-competitive Southern League in the 1899/1900 season, scoring 13 goals. He then moved around the country, arriving at Palace in 1907.

In 1909, he moved back to Millwall Athletic as player-coach.

Brearley was an England reserve, but never got the chance to play for his country – although he would become an international of sorts at Ruhleben, playing for Steve Bloomer’s “England” team.

Like the other Ruhleben footballers, Brearley was coaching in Germany, at Berlin’s Viktoria 89, when the war broke out. He was actually in hospital recovering from illness when, on November 19, 1914, he was arrested. When he got to Ruhleben, Brearley was 39 years old.

Early during the war, Brearley smuggled a letter out to his wife.

It read in part: “I hope you and the kiddies are well, but how you are managing I don’t know. I only wish I could get back, or at least get out of Germany… I can only hope for the best. Possibly I will have to stay here until the war is over. I don’t think the war will last long. Hope not anyhow. It seems years since I saw you. Each week looks like a month or more.

Match at Ruhleben

In Ruhleben, Brearley was the captain of the Barrack 4 football team, which won the Ruhleben Cup in the Ruhelben Football Association’s first season.

Fred Pentland, the England international who was also in Ruhleben, called Brearley “a quiet, unassuming, thorough sportsman… To those people who
are ever ready to decry professionals in sport the character and spirit of the captain of the cup-winning team are eloquent testimony of a sport being fortunate in having such a man in its ranks.”

Most of the prisoners spent four long years in Ruhleben, but two of them escaped, using football as a distraction.

One afternoon, Geoffrey Pyke and Edward Falk slipped away from the games and hid in a shed used to store the football equipment.

After dark, when all of the other prisoners had returned to the barracks, Pyke and Falk climbed the barbed wire fences and crawled for miles on their bellies, then rode trains to the Dutch border and freedom.

Following his return from Ruhleben, Brearley lived at Thorpe Bay in Southend-on-Sea. Tragically, he was killed after being thrown from a bicycle in Southend in 1944. He was 68.

“I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time,” said author Paul Brown. “I‘m fascinated by the football stars of this period, and I love the movie Escape to Victory, so this was my ideal subject!

“It was amazing to see how the prisoners turned to football in such dire circumstances. It shows just how important football can be.

“As well as football, the prisoners played cricket, tennis and even golf.

They arranged concerts, performed theatre plays, and published their own camp magazine. They repaired and rebuilt their barracks, sourced better food, and basically took over the running of the camp from the incompetent German officers.

“Eventually the guards and the officers could be seen watching the football matches and cheering the prisoners on.”

The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp is available from Amazon, priced £10.

More details can be found at www.stuffbypaulbrown.com.

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