War epitaphs and memorials have a powerful way of encapsulating the profound emotions that surround the tribute to fallen soldiers, both as an expression of gratitude for their life sacrificed and as a reminder of the heavy cost of war. One such epitaph which has resonated with millions across the world is that found in the War Cemetery in Kohima, India. The epitaph reads:
“When you go home tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow we gave our today.”
This poignant and evocative tribute is largely credited to John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958), an English classicist, poet, and writer. In this blog post, we will delve into who Edmonds was and the story behind the creation of this famous war epitaph.
John Maxwell Edmonds – The Man Behind the Words
Born in Sussex, into a family teeming with intellectual pedigree – his father being a well-respected scholar and his mother coming from a long line of clergymen – John Maxwell Edmonds displayed considerable talent in classics from a young age. After receiving his education at King’s College, Cambridge, he would go on to spend over three decades teaching at prestigious schools such as Winchester College, Eton College, and Charterhouse School.
Outside the classroom, Edmonds was an active writer and poet with strong interests in history and archaeology. He wrote many poems in both Latin and Greek – receiving recognition for his Latin compositions – as well as various books on Western literature including “Anthologia Latina” and “Anthologia Graeca”.
The Creation of the Kohima Epitaph
It is widely accepted that Edmonds first penned what would become known as the “Kohima Epitaph” as part of a larger series of epitaphs titled “Four Epitaphs.” These were published in “The Times” newspaper on February 6th, 1918. Although somewhat modified from its original form, it was no doubt this publication that brought these lines to wider notice.
The Battle of Kohima took place between April and June 1944 during World War II between the British Empire’s Fourteenth Army and units from Japan’s Fifteenth Army. The battle raged on for months over control of the town of Kohima, situated in northeast India near its border with Burma (now Myanmar). Despite being heavily outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts, British forces managed to hold their ground thanks to tenacious resistance fighting.
In 1944, as part of Britain’s efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives during World War II, the British War Graves Commission (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission) erected a cemetery at Kohima for soldiers killed in action there. The cemetery is where Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison unveiled the first memorial on May 1945.
The Memory Endures
The last two lines from one of Edmond’s four epitaphs had struck a chord with soldiers returning home after World War I. In response to their sacrifice for peace during that conflict years earlier, these words would carry more weight than ever when adapted for use half-way around the world at Kohima.
Over time, these words became synonymous with the soldier’s selfless dedication to protecting their country – fighting not just for one nation but for humanity’s future. Today, these lines are engraved on numerous other war memorials across the globe, often quoted during remembrance services and ceremonies.
In conclusion, John Maxwell Edmonds’ creation has transcended time in honoring soldiers who made personal sacrifices fighting for others’ safety or ideals. His words serve as both comfort for families who lost loved ones during conflicts past or present while simultaneously reminding future generations never to forget those before them who gave up their lives so willingly amidst horrors.
Least we forget…