The Forgotten Blue of Ruhleben Prison Camp

The tale of Walter "Wattie" Campbell, a former Everton player who was taken captive by the Germans when war broke out 1914.

Tony Onslow 22/10/2013 28comments  |  Jump to last

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, her ally Germany immediately closed her borders to prevent all British nationals from leaving the country. The date was June the 28th, 1914. They were then rounded up and placed in a civilian internment camp at Ruhleben race course on the outskirts of Berlin.

Amongst them were several former professional footballers who, prior to the outbreak of war, had been helping to improve the standard of play at several German football clubs. It has been believed, by the certain historians, that three of these individuals had once played football with Everton before accepting a coaching position in Germany. There was however, a fourth who, unlike his former teammates, was the holder of Football League Championship winners medal.

Perhaps the two most noted of the footballers, held at Ruhleben, were England internationals Steve Bloomer and Fred Spikesley. The latter had won a Football League championship medal with The Wednesday club of Sheffield. The three former Everton players, confined with them, were John Cameron, John Brearley and Fred Wolstoneholme.

These individuals, to make the best of their imprisonment, helped to organise football matches amongst the 3,000 or so civilian prisoners held inside the camp until, early one morning, their numbers increased considerable when a train carrying some 1,400 British merchant seaman arrived at the local railway station. Amongst them was a certain Walter Campbell.

Born 1869 in the Dumfriesshire town of Moffat, Wattie Campbell began his football career with Moffat Swifts before moving, with the rest of his family, to settle at 26 Clare Road in Bootle. He first had a trail period with Everton, which proved unsuccessful, before signing for his local football club at their home at Hawthorne Road.

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Wattie soon became a permanent member of the Bootle half back line and helped to win the Liverpool Senior Cup in both 1888 and 1889. Everton however, having been expelled in 1888, then refused to take part in the 1889 tournament so the two sides, to decide local bragging rights, agreed to meet at Anfield on the 5th April, 1890. Bootle surprised their Football League neighbours and beat them by 2 goals to 1. Wattie, having given an MOTM performance, was later persuaded to join Everton in time for the new season.

Walter Campbell made his Everton debut, 06-09-1890, and scored one of the goals in a 4-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns. During the course of the season he took part in 13 of the 22 Football League games played by Everton as they went on to win the championship. The club, to celebrate this historical occasion, decided to strike a gold medal for each of the players and Campbell was one of the recipients.

He was back in the Everton side at the beginning of next season where he was pressed in to the left back position by the untimely departure of Danny Doyle. Walter Campbell made four appearances in this position until a knee injury, received against Preston NE, put a premature end to his football career. He then opted for a life in the Merchant Navy and began work his way up through the ranks.

He took up residence 131 Chatsworth Avenue, Walton and it was from here, in June 1914, that Wattie, now a Chief Engineer, left home to set sail from Liverpool aboard the SS Zealand. He would not see his home again for nearly four years.

The SS Zealand, on the day war was declared, was docked in the German port of Hamburg. The vessel was then seized by the German Government and its crew taken in to captivity. The same restrictions were imposed on every British sailor, and those of her Empire, who were, at this time, berthed at a port in Germany.

The men of the British Mercantile Marine, after being collected together, were then incarcerated in the bowels of the infamous prison hulks that were, at the time, moored on the banks of the River Elbe. There is, to date, no other record of any other former British professional footballer being treated in this manner. (Escape to victory no chance.) The eldest British seaman held with Wattie was 69 while the youngest just 14 years of age.

Nevertheless these British subjects were held in these terrible conditions for five months before they were put a aboard a railway train and sent eastwards to Berlin. They arrived at Ruhleben, rather ironically, in the early hours of the 11th of November where each man was given a soup bowl, a towel, and a sack, which when filled with straw, was to serve as his mattress. Horse boxes were first used as billets, where the men slept in groups of four, until wooden barrack blocks, eventually, were constructed. This setting would be home to Walter Campbell for the next three and a half years.

There does exist, in the camp archives, a football handbook which proves that Wattie became involved with the organising and possibly taking part in, of association football matches during the time of his confinement. This activity, no doubt, helped him to survive this ordeal until his release from Ruhleben on the 6th of March 1918.

Walter Campbell was taken by train to the border town of Gogh where, after medical examination, he was allowed to cross the border in to neutral Holland. He was then taken by train to the port of Flushing where he boarded a ship that took him back to England and home to Liverpool.

This diehard wee laddie later returned to the sea until affected by ill health he was admitted to hospital and, eventually, died there on the 12th of June 1930. Wattie, in the later part of his life, was cared for by his sisters, Margaret and Mary, and it is these two ladies who he remembers in his will. This former Everton player, the forgotten footballer of Ruhleben, was laid to rest at St Lukes churchyard in Crosby.

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Reader Comments (28)

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Paul Wharton
1 Posted 22/10/2013 at 11:37:06
A great read once again, great research.
John Audsley
2 Posted 22/10/2013 at 12:24:37
Thanks Tony,

These articles are a real joy to read and its a real lesson for me on forgotten names from the past.

Please keep them coming.

John Haldane
3 Posted 22/10/2013 at 13:48:28
Splendid stuff, Tony. A real pleasure to read.
Paul Kelly
4 Posted 23/10/2013 at 06:44:06
Take a bow Tony. A good read indeed. Quality research.
Trevor Lynes
5 Posted 23/10/2013 at 08:32:17
Internment was done by all sides during both wars and actually the first use of concentration camps was by us during the Boer war.

A great snippet of history though and enlightening for me.

Steve Green
6 Posted 23/10/2013 at 12:08:31
Brilliant stuff Tony. Can you point me in the direction of any other similar stuff you may have compiled. Thanks, Steve
John Gee
7 Posted 23/10/2013 at 16:38:06
Tony, a great article. A real window to a world we could never imagine.
Mike Gaynes
8 Posted 23/10/2013 at 17:15:20
Fascinating, Tony. You are a remarkable historian.
Tony Onslow
9 Posted 23/10/2013 at 21:46:03
Steve, This article is an abridged version of the Wattie Campbell Story which will appear in my new book The Tales from the Hill Country. which is soon to be published. There is a shorter version of this story in my last book The Scottish Footballers of Everton.

I am, at present, working a story about Tom Evans, a Derbyshire born man who first taught the nave footballers of Liverpool(Everton) how to play the game properly.. I am then planning to work on another former Everton player who scored a unique goal in the Scottish Cup Final.

I would also like to thank all the other true blue Toffee web readers for all their kind comments.

Eugene Ruane
10 Posted 23/10/2013 at 21:53:33
Love these pieces! Great stuff Tony.
Mike Gaynes
11 Posted 23/10/2013 at 22:58:19
Tony, I'll be checking out your books on If you get a sudden burst of orders from California, that's me.
Peter Mills
12 Posted 23/10/2013 at 23:05:13
Tony, I did post a comment complimenting you on this piece, but it seems to have disappeared from the thread.

The point I was trying to make was that I love to hear about our history, I have had some wonderful times listening to my late Dad, and his great pal Dick White who is still so coherent and clear about so many events, prime of which is his story of getting in by the skin of his teeth to watch William Ralph score his 60th goal. I have always found the first 50 years of our existence to be rather dry, but you bring it to life as if I was in the pub listening to tales of, say, Jimmy Harris, someone I never saw but was within my lifetime.

Great stuff.

Michael Kenrick
13 Posted 24/10/2013 at 00:08:13
Sorry, Peter, but that's your one and only post that came through.
Rob Sawyer
14 Posted 24/10/2013 at 07:43:59
Excellent research and article Tony. I look forward to the book.
Peter Mills
15 Posted 24/10/2013 at 08:05:47
Michael, it is within the realms of possibility that I failed to press the "Submit Comment" button!
Trevor Lynes
16 Posted 24/10/2013 at 12:14:08
Its a shame that fans spent more time on the Ferguson/Moyes saga than this one.

This is a much more interesting article.

Harold Matthews
17 Posted 24/10/2013 at 14:21:11
Thanks Tony. What a wonderful story.
Colin Glassar
18 Posted 24/10/2013 at 17:05:37
I love reading these stories. No wonder TW is for the thinking Evertonian.
Joe Bibb
19 Posted 24/10/2013 at 20:11:50
Great stuff Tony I have read all your stuff and George Orr's book on the Second World War and Everton is also a great read.

if anyone contacts they can get details of the book.
Also been told George will be selling it on the Park End Car Park before the Spurs game.

Excellent read Tony keep up the good work

Mick Davies
20 Posted 25/10/2013 at 00:07:56
Another great Everton related historical treasure. Just one thing you may be able to she'd light on; why was he released in March when the war didn't end until November?
Trevor Lynes
21 Posted 25/10/2013 at 11:12:54
Mick, many wounded soldiers were released and exchanged via the Red Cross from both sides. My father was wounded at Flers during WW1 and exchanged through Switzerland in 1917.
Mike Owen
22 Posted 25/10/2013 at 16:03:14
Brilliant, deserves a wider readership.
Sort of thing that can make kids think history can be interesting.
Ged Alexander
23 Posted 26/10/2013 at 11:21:31
Superb...a documentary.
Tony Onslow
24 Posted 27/10/2013 at 14:49:25
Sorry everybody but I have gaffed., Wattie scored his goal at Stony Lane because WBA did not move the Hawthorns until 1900.
Derek Williams
25 Posted 27/10/2013 at 20:29:03
Buck up Tony - however we'll let you off on this occasion! seriously, a really interesting read
Mick Davies
26 Posted 28/10/2013 at 19:30:44
Thanks Trevor @750, I assumed that was the case but with such a fit man,he must have sustained a serious injury or illness while a POW
Ross Kerry
27 Posted 30/10/2013 at 10:51:15
Paul McGrath's great great grandad.
Tony Onslow
28 Posted 04/11/2013 at 22:05:53
The full version of this story, along with 20 others, are now available in my new book which was released at the weekend. contact,

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