Two of the most moving examples of the ways in which the FEPOW experience affected the inner spiritual lives of the men who had to endure it are those of Army Chaplain Eric Cordingly, and Sgt. Harry Stogden.
Eric Cordingly was a rector from the Cotswolds when the Second World War broke out. He volunteered as an army chaplain and experienced the Dunkirk retreat before finding himself in Singapore in February 1942, being captured by the Japanese.
Eric Cordingly inside Changi Chapel
Through three and a half years in captivity Eric continued his ministry, creating chapel wherever he was, including by the infamous Thai-Burma Railway. The first of these chapels was in the Changi Barracks and was christened `St George’ after the insignia of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers of which he was a part. The building had previously been a mosque used by the Indian army when they were stationed at Changi. Men set to work creating the fixtures and fittings using what tools and materials they could find and created a beautiful space to worship.
The former mosque which became St George Chapel, drawn by POW Eric Stacy
One particularly charming story was told by Eric in Down to Bedrock:-
`…on a wet afternoon a little bearded Indian arrived on the pillion of a motorcycle. He came straight to me where I was busy giving a talk in Church. He introduced himself as the Moslem priest whose mosque we were now using. He had coem for his prayer books, which fortunately I had saved and kept hidden in my cupboard. He was overjoyed to receive them, and in `pidgin’ English we introduced each other as `padres’ of religion. He rather surprised me with his broadminded remark that he was glad that I was using his building, and that it was being used for the worship of God.’
Eric also led the `Theological Faculty’ at the `University’ set up in the camp. He oversaw the education of around thirty men, with no books or teaching aids to help him. Regular services were held in the chapel, with a daily morning communion, evening prayers, choir practices and instruction for those wishing to be confirmed as Anglicans. Communion took place using a concoction of raisins, water and sugar as the wine.
I shall hope to be able to convince the reader of what is at present felt by us all, namely a growing religious life centred around our Church of St George. No priest could wish for a happier “parish” or sphere of work…We seem somehow to ahve back to fundamentals and simple wholesome worship, and we all feel the need for a real religion and all this in spite of the unpleasantness of Captivity, lack of nourishing food, and the tropical heat. My own life personally is richer by these experiences…Iam sure this experience is something I shall value forever.’
One of the items made for the chapel was a brass altar cross, the base being fashioned from a Howitzer shell case. Eric drew the design and the cross itself was made by Sgt Harry Stogden of the RAOC. The cross went with Eric up the line to the Thai-Burma railway, back to Changi and eventually to Eric’s mantelpiece during his subsequent career which saw him rise to the position of Bishop of Thetford. In 1992 Eric’s family returned to cross to Changi where today it adorns the chapel in the museum as a symbol of hope and reconciliation and to remind visitors of the strength of the human spirit when facing the most adverse conditions.
Tragically the maker of the cross, Harry Stogden, died in 1945 whilst en route back to England. However his son, Bernard, was able to attend the ceremony to place the cross on the altar at the museum’s chapel, bringing him closer to the father he never knew.
Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden
This story is moving in so many different ways – the tragedy of the lives lost unnecessarily due to starvation and preventable diseases, including that of Harry Stogden, the strength of character and moral purpose shown by Eric Cordingly and many others under the most unimaginable conditions, and the inspiration which both Eric, Harry and those mentioned in the books are able to carry on providing due to the generosity of their families in bringing their remarkable stories to a wider audience.
The last word is from Eric Cordingly, writing two decades after these experiences in Beyond Hatred (ed. Guthrie Moir, Lutterworth Press, 1967):-
`It was the most wonderful time of my life, in spite of the grim and hungry times. For once, and for three and a half years, the thin veneer of civilization, or reticence, had been stripped from men. We were all down to bedrock. One saw people as they really were…the truly remarkable thing was the way the human spirit rose to magnificent heights. After months of sheer degradation, gradually the spirit to care for one another revived, incredible kindness and self-sacrifice was in evidence’
The full story of Eric Cordingly and the Changi Cross is one of twenty case studies in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War