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Ruhleben: Golf in captivity
(Source: © 2014-17, Douglas MacKenzie)

This year (2014) marks a century since the start of the First World War. I have written three golf-related articles about it, one to try to record as many of the professional golfers who died on the battlefield when they should have been sclaffing a ball over the links, another about those volunteers, most of whom survived, who formed the Niblick Brigade. This first piece, though, is about those deprived of their liberty rather than their lives.

At the start of the First World War, British citizens living in Germany, foreign nationals with British connections, and British merchant seamen in German ports were arrested and interned. Most, around 4000 of them, ended up at a hastily assembled camp built around the Ruhleben racecourse in Berlin. Among this number was a group of British golf professionals and this is a general article to provide links to the entries for each of them in the Makers section of the site.

The British press made much of ‘starvation’ of the prisoners. ‘Torture at Ruhleben’ screamed the Exeter Gazette in a July 1916 headline above a fairly innocuous paragraph; ‘prisoners go wrong in their minds through solitary confinement .... Many die from heart and stomach troubles’, proclaimed Dundee’s Evening Telegraph later in the same year which is all part of the propaganda effort one would expect though even after the end of the war the Hull Daily Mail used the description, ‘awful, horrible, inhuman and brutal’. This short piece is not about who was beastlier to whom: women, children and older men in Ruhleben were released in 1916 leaving the position much the same as it was in Britain with German men between the ages of 18 and 50 kept in camps, principally at Douglas and Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. The Royal Navy imposed a blockade on Germany causing major shortages of foodstuffs. From Britain, though, appeals, bazaars and Civilian Prisoners’ Relief Funds (and the CP War Committee using government funds), meant food reached the prisoners and many of those who travelled through Germany on their final release were shocked by the emaciated state of the German civilian population. If you want to get a view of general life and conditions in the camp, one of the internees, Israel Cohen, released in 1916, wrote a very readable account, The Ruhleben Prison Camp: A Record of Nineteen Months’ Internment, Methuen 1916.

However, to describe Ruhleben as a concentration camp, which was not uncommon in the press, and evoke comparisons with the camps set up by the British in the second Boer War is a nonsense. From August 1915 the camp was run by the British internees themselves rather than the military authorities on a model somewhere between a town council and a minor public school. This internal authority instituted a civilian police organisation with the Carnoustie golfer, and erstwhile professional in Berlin, Cuthbert Butchart, at its head.

Ruhleben’s civilian police led by C S Butchart (centre)

Ruhleben Civilian Police, C S Butchart 1st row, centre, 1915-16

It had a camp magazine, classes towards matriculation at the University of London with exam papers being sent between the university and the camp, a cinema, orchestra and sport: rugby, cricket, hockey, lacrosse and football teams, eight tennis courts and a golf course which is the reason for this article.

Organised sports began at the end of March 1915 with half of the inner racecourse being given (or rather rented) to the prisoners, 2400 marks a year coming from British Government funds, for sporting purposes. It was available from 8am in the morning until noon and from 2pm until 5pm in the afternoon with an extension until 7pm in the summer months. Cuthbert Butchart, already mentioned, was the driving force behind the golf club and, having laid out several courses in Germany, set out a 12 hole course. A multitude of sports competed for the space and accounts talk about ‘an hour of golf’ each day. The club’s membership rose to around 200, from beginners to professionals and, for the professionals in the camp, a tournament over three days was organised in September 1915.

The arrangements for the tournament were made by a Mr A Gummery who is credited both in Cohen’s book and the camp magazine as being attached to the Royal Golf Club of Belgium (now better known as Ravenstein). Whether he was a professional or member is not clear but I have found no record of him in the professional ranks. There was an A Gummery on the committee of one of the Worcester clubs in the 1890s, and organising a tournament sounds like something a committee man would enjoy, but it’s rather a tenuous link.

Ten of the professionals in the camp took part with Robert Murray, pro at Dresden and originally from North Berwick, tied with the Cheshire professional at Hamburg James Holt after 36 holes. A play-off on the fourth day saw ‘the little Scotsman’ triumph by three strokes, garnered on the last two holes of the twelve.

Other players who took part in the competition were William Jackson, professional at Köln, Ernest Warburton, Fred Richardson of Bremen, C W Culling of Darmstadt, Jock Brown, Arthur Andrews, C E Kyte, and R Cramp, the assistant at Hamburg.

In addition to Butchart, other professionals at Ruhleben who did not feature in the tournament were Bernard Calloway, Edward J Carter, professional at Baden-Baden, Arthur Jackson, no relation to William, at Wiesbaden before the war, James Thomson Balfour at Wentorf-Reinbek, T Holt, presumably a relation of James and also at Hamburg and Ernest Bishton who is listed as a professional golfer though I can find no trace of him other than at Ruhleben.

Other golfers, of course, found themselves interned in other parts of Germany and Austro-Hungary: Malcolm Goodwillie and his brother in Budapest, Joe Auchterlonie in Carlsbad, Sam Freemantle in France and Robert Doig in Marienbad.


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