‘Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by,
That faithful to their precepts, here we lie’
Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC)
Last weekend we marked Armistice Day and that moment at the end of the 1st World War when the guns finally stopped. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin of ‘Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division’ recalled the day…
“The Armistice came, the day we dreamed off. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.
We were stunned. I had been out there since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost."
So in tribute we paraded and stood silent and wore poppies and lowered flags and remembered the millions of men and women who have been killed in war. “The Glorious Dead”. For some of us remembrance was of people once known, but for most it was about gratitude and respect. And in that moment of remembrance we couldn’t help but ask ourselves how we would have reacted if called upon like them.
There have been many poems written about war, most taken from the viewpoint of the survivor – the grieving, the appalled, the witness – and it is perhaps this that makes them so poignant and memorable. There are few who will not have read and may even remember….
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
But perhaps the most moving of these poems are those written with the voice of the dead. In them they record their own epitaph…
Here dead we lie Because we did not choose To live and shame the land From which we sprung. Life, to be sure, Is nothing much to lose, But young men think it is, And we were young.
A E HOUSMAN
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
One of the most moving of these epitaphs is a simple couplet, written in 1916 by the classicist John Maxwell Edmonds and first inscribed on the war memorial in Kohima, North-East India. It was here on the border with Burma in early 1944 that a small force of British and Empire soldiers stopped the Japanese advance into India and on 6/7th June 1944 finally repulsed them. The Kohima Epitaph is now repeated on war memorials around the world…
“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”1
It is a reminder of the debt that we owe all those who stood against the things that they believed to be wrong. One can only imagine what life would have been like if they had not taken their stand. Think on…
Ye that live on 'mid English pastures green, Remember us, and think what might have been.
John Maxwell Edmonds
1 In some versions of the epitaph the final line has been revised to read “For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”
Credits: Sergeant-Major Tobin’s quote is from “Forgotten Voices of the Great War” by Max Arthur. The photograph of the epitaph at Kohima is by David Lock. The photograph of the memorial at Kohima is by Mahendra Kumar Goyal. The photograph of King George laying a wreath in 1919 is from roll-of-honour.com.
— from Martyn Day