The Story of the Kohima Epitaph

From the V.J. Day Service.

As we began to plan the VJ day  service I started to wonder about the Kohima Epitaph. For several years now it has been a part of the British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, and consequently of other Remembrance Day services including our own. I knew that the epitaph appears on the monument at the Kohima War Cemetery honouring the men of the Kohima 2nd Division who fell there, giving it a particular resonance with VJ Day which we are commemorating that day.  But who wrote it and how did it come to be there?

The first surprise was that it was written not during the Second World War but during the First. It was one of a collection of twelve epitaphs written in 1916 by John Maxwell Edmonds.

He was a classical scholar, too old to be a combatant but clearly wishing to acknowledge the sacrifice that that was being made by so many, not least on the Somme, the major battle of that year.

However his inspiration was another battle long ago, that of Thermopylae fought in Ancient Greece in the year 480 BC. At Thermopylae the Spartans fought to the death trying to prevent the Persian Army from advancing further into mainland Greece. Afterwards the lyric poet Simonides of Ceos wrote an epitaph for them which has been translated as,

“Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That faithful to their precepts here we lie.”  

When the Kohima memorial was being planned, Major John Etty-Leal of the Second Division suggested the wording.

He was also a classical scholar and perhaps recognised the similarity between the two battles. In 480 BC Spartans trying to prevent the Persian Army from further advance, just as at Kohima in 1944 British forces had prevented the Japanese from advancing into India.

The words of the epitaph remind us as each year passes to give thanks for all the tomorrows that we have enjoyed, because of the sacrifice of those who gave their todays during the Second World War.

Elizabeth Young