The Norwich City defender who survived a First World War prison camp
PUBLISHED: 11:30 22 February 2020 | UPDATED: 14:49 24 February 2020
When thinking about football and prisoner of war camps, a former Norwich City defender who played for the club more than a century ago is probably not the first thing that springs to mind.
Instead, Escape to Victory is probably the first thought - the star-studded film released in 1981 which told the story of allied prisoners during the Second World War using a football match against a German team as cover for an elaborate escape attempt, starring Hollywood actors Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine alongside a raft of real-life professionals including Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles and Pelé.
But while the facts of the story that the piece of cinema is based upon are disputed - according to myth, a Dynamo Kiev team were all shot after they beat German soldiers in a so-called 'death match', but this has not been proven - the tale of a former Norwich City player using football to survive a First World War camp is true.
Sam Wolstenholme was born in Little Lever, Lancashire, in 1878, and started his senior footballing career with Football League founder members Everton at age 19.
He spent the next decade playing in the north west, first with the Toffees and then for Blackburn Rovers, before moving to Norwich City in 1909 - at that time, the Canaries were playing amateur football in the Southern League.
The half-back, who could also play in midfield, stayed with City until retirement in 1913, racking up 145 appearances and scoring eight goals before moving to Germany to take up a coaching role.
However, when the First World War broke out the following year, he was among thousands of British nationals rounded up in the country and interned in the Ruhleben detention camp, on the site of a former horse racing track near Berlin.
There, around 4,500 men were packed into 11 filthy stables, forced to live in squalor while surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
Wolstenholme was among several well-known footballers of the time to be held there - fellow England internationals Steve Bloomer and Fred Pentland were held at Ruhleben, as was John Cameron, who had been capped by the Scottish national team.
A new book has now revealed how the inmates used football as a way to keep themselves warm in freezing conditions and boost morale in a desolate place where food was scarce and the guards were cruel.
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The footballers bartered for balls, marked out pitches and formed what would be known as the Ruhleben Football Association, which formed leagues and cup competitions in which hundreds took part and thousands more watched - it was how they kept up morale among the prisoners.
"As well as football, the prisoners played cricket, tennis and even golf," said author Paul Brown. "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."
Most of the prisoners, including Wolstenholme, 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, climbed the barbed wire fences and crawled for miles on their bellies, then rode trains to the Dutch border and freedom.
"I've wanted to tell this story for a long time," said Mr Brown, who writes about football and history for the likes of The Guardian and FourFourTwo.
"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 a prominent member of the Ruhleben FA, Wolstenholme also refereed a number of matches, including the final of a football tournament held in the camp in November 1914.
Wolstenholme survived the war, but never played again, though he did go to Spain to manage Gimnástica de Torrelavega between 1924 and 1926.
There is some dispute over his death - some believe that he died in Wigan on January 28, 1933, but a report in the Norwich Evening News on October 20, 1945, reported that he had died in hospital, aged 68, and described him as "a half-back of high ability".
Whichever is the case, what cannot be disputed is that football played an interesting role in Wolstenholme's life, and that Norwich City played a part in that.
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 here.
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