Rev. Dr. Norman Cliff

A transcript of a talk on his experiences of Weihsien Camp. He describes Eric Liddell’s life and death in the camp.

In September 1943 I was a boy of eighteen among several hundred prisoners in Chefoo now called Yentai.   We were crowded into a small launch in Chefoo harbour and were told that we were going to Weihsien now called Weifang.   As we got into the ship we realised that it was going to be a pretty congested journey.

The Japanese had warned us they would not provide us with any food for the journey and we had arranged for a former missionary employee to bring us some bread.   The boat began to move out of the harbour and I could imagine our school principal thinking about all the school children without any food.   Suddenly the ship halted again.   A boat caught up on us and brought the bread from our former employee.   It was part of a series of miracles that happened to us right through to the end of the war when the American parachutists came to rescue us.

Soon we were out of the harbour and on our way to Chinchow. It was not an easy journey and most of the travellers were small children and we were put in the hold of the ship. The portholes were covered up with rough pieces of cloth because we were afraid of American submarines.  And as we travelled along we could hear the ladies singing next door the hymn “Jesus Saviour pilot me, over life’s tempestuous sea”.

We had rats running over us and we were sleeping down there in the hold of the ship with our luggage around us. There were no luxuries of any kind ~ no blankets ~ no nothing. When we got to Chinchow we had to carry our luggage from the harbour to the station. We got on the train at Chinchow and we were crowded in with our luggage into a few compartments. That afternoon we arrived in Weihsien and got into lorries and buses and we jogged along for several miles until we got to Weihsien Camp.

Weihsien Camp suddenly sprung into view ~ juniper trees, long lines of dormitories, an Edwardian style church, electrified wires around the camp and occasional towers where the guards were on duty. As we drove into the entrance of it there were remains from American Presbyterian days now called “The Courtyard of the Happy Way”. The lorries and buses went up a hill and to the right, beside a playing field, and there the commandant read to us the camp regulations.

We looked around us and there were hundreds of people looking at us and we were looking at them. We thought that they were very strange looking people and they probably thought that we were very strange looking people too. They were badly tanned from working in the sun. They were barefoot and wearing Khaki shorts and they spoke with strange accents, because they were a mixture of Greek, Scandinavian, British and American. That was our introduction to Weishang Camp.

 

Within a few days of arriving, someone who “adopted” me on arriving at Weishang Camp, said to me “Do you see that man over there?” he pointed to the man. “That is Eric Liddell the man who would not run on a Sunday”. And of-course we were brought up to observe the Sabbath.   Soon we got to know him quite well. He was everywhere, he was ubiquitous. One moment he was speaking to us schoolboys in his cheerful way, then he was gone and he’d be seen talking with some businessmen half a mile away. Wherever he went he brought confidence and happiness.

One of the first jobs that I was given to do was to join Eric Liddell as a Sunday school teacher. There were a lot of children in the camp and I joined the Sunday school staff. I remember sitting round Eric Liddell’s bed. When I say ‘bed’ it was some pieces of wood and a mattress on top. We had some notes that someone had brought to the camp about the life of Joseph ~ that was our subject.   Somehow it all seemed to fit in so well ~ Joseph was in prison and God was with him. We were in prison and God was with us.

The Camp Labour Committee had to deal out jobs to everyone in the camp and we had to fill out a form stating what qualifications we had and whether we were healthy. Eric Liddell was given two half jobs; one job was to run sports for the young people and the other half of his assignment was to teach science. There were two or three schools in the camp including a Catholic school.

And he went from one group to another teaching science. They had everything against them ~ no desks, sitting on the edge of beds, they were using the same paper over and over again ~ they had no instruments and no textbooks. Yet when I look back on these years I think of people who have become well-known scientists, doctors, and psychologists since those days. And how good God was to us that in spite of all these handicaps we were able to carry on so much business as usual. I was not one of those students because I had matriculated six months before. Eric Liddell taught my sisters.

Another thing that happened in Weihsien Camp was the formation of the Weihsien Christian Fellowship. There were dozens of missionaries from many denominations. And sad to say, there were tensions between them. While we were struggling to keep ourselves alive we were arguing about how many days it took God to create the world and that kind of thing.

Eric Liddell moved into these groups with the greatest of ease. The groups accepted him and they acclaimed him as one of them.   That was the genius of Eric Liddell.

Life in Weishang was a fight for survival. We had bread porridge for breakfast, bread soup for lunch, and bread pudding for supper. It was bread in a hundred and one varieties. Eric Liddell had the same struggles as the rest of us. And we would see him queuing up for a small ration of food for a family who were sick. Climate was extreme ~ extreme heat and extreme cold so when winter came it was 40 degrees below freezing and we had to made coal bricks. We were given coal dust and learned how to mix the dust with coal. Soon we learned how to apportion it ~ if it was to bank up the fire it was a certain ratio of dust and coal, if it was to cook food it was a different ratio ~ soon we learned how to do it. Eric Liddell was doing it for various families. There were all kinds of things to carry around the camp. Eric Liddell was seen carrying things for other people.

Eric Liddell’s Christianity came to the fore in all those difficult days at Weihsien Camp. So when it was announced that Eric Liddell was going to do a series of talks on something the attendance at Weishang Christian Fellowship increased for here was a man who was the embodiment of what the Christian faith was all about. He preached on St Paul’s letter, 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 5 – 7 ~ the Sermon on the Mount. I can remember him saying at the end of the series on the Sermon on the Mount something like this ~ ‘Read the sermon on the mount over and over again, ponder it’s meaning and apply it to your daily life, do not try to explain it away, do not dilute its meaning but face up to its challenge’. Then he would say ‘let’s add it on to the end of the Apostles Creed and when you finish saying the Apostles Creed say I believe in the Sermon on the Mount’. And I intend, with God helping me, to apply it to my life. That was what Eric Liddell taught us to do.

As the months in Weihsien Camp went by, life became increasingly difficult. Inadequate nutrition month after month, kept within the confines of electrified wires; all these things began to take a toll on our lives. There were mental breakdowns; cases where workers collapsed at work, typhoid, malaria, and dysentery were prevalent among the prisoners. And with the war dragging on like this we wondered when it would end and if it does end who is going to win.

Morale began to go downhill and sports activities began to fizzle out and this general deterioration in health and morale also came to Eric Liddell. He was as human as the rest of us. He started getting severe headaches, he found glare and noise tiresome and he began to feel the separation from his family.

He tried to continue to be of service to fellow internees. Though the will was there the energy was not. He began to confide in fellow missionaries of the London Missionary Society of his own struggles and fears, his loneliness, and his family. In January 1945 he was taken to the camp hospital.

Now there was one institution at Weihsien Camp which was a great blessing to us all ~ I am sure you would agree. It was The Salvation Army Band. I was privileged to join it and played the trombone every Sunday and we would play at various points in this large camp, some of the great hymns of the Christian church. “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear” “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood” “What a friend we have in Jesus, carry everything to God in prayer”.

The singing and playing of these hymns gave us a tremendous boost. They reminded us that God had not forgotten us. Then one Sunday in mid-February 1945 we were playing at one of our usual spots just outside the camp hospital and while we were playing, a nurse sent out a note through the window, ‘Eric Liddell has asked if you would play Finlandia’. Of course our leader led us and we played for him. “Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side; bear patiently the cross of grief and pain; …be still my soul … thy best, thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways, leads to a joyful end”.

A few days after that Eric Liddell sat up in bed and wrote on a piece of paper to his wife, Florence, in Canada “… was carrying too much responsibility…  had slight nervous breakdown…  much better after a month in hospital. Special love to you and the children, Eric”. Within an hour he had gone.   After writing this over optimistic note he said to his friend and colleague, Annie Buchan “It’s full surrender” and he went into a coma from which he did not recover.

The funeral, a few days later, was crowded and the church could not hold all the people and many were standing outside. All kinds of people came who did not normally come to our Sunday services.  There was, for example, a prostitute for whom Eric had done some chores without asking anything in return. Many internees were crowded inside and outside the church. And I was part of that cortège of those who carried the coffin down the road to a small cemetery in Japanese quarters.

It was a difficult task because coffins were rather badly made and they were made of poor material so we had to carry it very carefully down a road that was called Rocky Road.

Stephen and I were part of the Guard of Honour at the graveside in the Japanese officers’ quarters.

I had the fortune and the privilege of following Eric Liddell’s footsteps in several ways. I moved into the bachelor dormitory where he had been up to his death. There were 10 bachelors in that room ~ five missionaries and five businessmen. And having moved into that position they obviously turned to me to do Eric’s job as Roll Call Warden. So Eric’s friends in that room became my friends and Eric’s job as Roll Call Warden became my job. Blocks 23 and 24. I had to line them up every day. I had two things to do walking in Eric Liddell’s footsteps: I had to go down to the guardroom and they would give me a signal and I would ring the bell and everyone in the camp had to stop their work and go to their respective groups ~  there were five groups in the camp for roll call; then I had to meet the Japanese Guard coming to our section ~ blocks 23 and 24. It was a privilege to do this because I could see that Eric Liddell had won the confidence of the Guard, he did not ask difficult questions and he would take the Guard along the rows of internees and he counted them all and so on. Then I went back to the guardroom and they would give me the signal and I rang the bell for everyone to go back to their work.

That was half a century ago. As I prepared this talk I asked myself ‘after fifty-one years what would Eric Liddell say to you and to me today’ he would say many things. I have chosen just two things.

One; he would say at this time of broken homes, breakdown, immorality, crime, violence, neglect of the Lords Day, neglect of the Lords house, to come back to the Sermon on the Mount and to its teaching on purity, love and reconciliation. I think that was one thing he would say.

Secondly; Eric Liddell would say “When you speak of me, give the glory to my master, Jesus Christ”.   He would not want us to think solely of him. He would want us to see the Christ whom he served.

I have chosen a hymn ~ one of Eric Liddell’s favourites which gives us some insight to his theology.   “I will walk with the Lord in the light of his word”.