On 24 September 2021 it will be exactly 40 years since the Australian release of the film Chariots of Fire. As a young track and field athlete at the time I was very taken by the film, and various subsequent coincidences and connections involving my father and me (both Scottish descended Christians who had run the 400 – well, in his case the 440 yards) have made it resonate with me even more over the years. And while we are enduring indefinite house arrest at the hands of our own governments, part of the back story is as inspiring to me as the main events.
As alluded to in the film, Eric Liddell was a missionary in China, and in the early 1940’s was interned by the invading Japanese, eventually dying in a prison camp in 1945.
Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of Liddell, For the Glory, describes the low-key heroism of Liddell’s leadership in the camp, remembered with gratitude ever after by the survivors. The biography states that a letter Liddell wrote to his wife on the day he died referred in passing to “a forthcoming camp wedding”. I believe that the wedding was that of the Reverend Edwin Davies and Nelma Davies, who survived the war and ended their lives in the unremarkable but tranquil surrounds of Geelong, where they were among my parents’ friends. My mother tried to persuade Nelma to write the story of the wedding as a narrative for publication, but I believe Nelma never did. What follows is therefore based largely on what my mother told me, supplemented by the few brief remarks Edwin and Nelma ever made to me on the subject.
Edwin and Nelma had each been very young missionaries in China when they were interned. They each found themselves at Weihsien prison camp, where they met Eric Liddell. As they got to know each other a romance blossomed. They announced their engagement – and their delighted fellow internees set about planning the wedding. (Eric Liddell was to have been best man, but sadly died a couple of weeks before the wedding took place.)
A large shed was chosen as the venue. It was cleared out, scrubbed spotless and decorated, and furniture from around the camp was selected. Food was painstakingly saved, and secret transactions with the local Chinese supplemented the supplies. It even proved possible to make a wedding cake.
Many of the internees had been arrested abruptly and given only a very short time to pack. Some had hurriedly made decisions which had seemed quite irrational. One woman couldn’t bear to be parted from her wedding dress – so Nelma had a suitable outfit for the day. So did Edwin – one of the men had similarly felt unable to abandon a very fashionable and expensive suit which was the highlight of his wardrobe. A journalist had impulsively packed his typewriter, so the invitations, orders of service, menus etc. on miscellaneously collated paper and cardboard could be presented in immaculate font.
All other arrangements were likewise made with diligent enthusiasm by the excited internees. The great day arrived, and that evening everything went off splendidly.
A day or so later Nelma was walking around the camp when she spotted a woman who had been exceptionally energetic and selfless in making the wedding a great occasion. Nelma approached the woman and began to thank her for what she’d done, but the woman wouldn’t listen “We should be thanking you,” she told Nelma. “For a whole night I forgot that I was a prisoner.”