Everybody quotes the famous Kohima Epitaph, but very few know the exact origin. It has been very often wrongly attributed to Leonidas, King of Sparta who fought to the death to defend the pass against Xerxes and the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) .
In fact, it was the poet Simonides of Ceos (Kios) (586 – 468 B.C.), who immortalised it as: “Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,That faithful to their precepts here we lie.”.
During the Spanish civil war, curiously enough, it was the same thought “to hold the pass to death”, which influenced the Spanish Republicans in their famous “no pasarán” (they will not pass) fierce defence of Teruel.
The sentiment in the epitaphs is certainly Spartan in tone and the writers were influenced by their classical education. The first of them was written by J. M. Edmonds for a graveyard in France, circa 1916 during the First World War: When you go home tell them of us, and say ‘For your to-morrows these gave their to-day’
The original version of the Kohima Epitaph which is inscribed on the monument was unveiled at Kohima in November 1944.
The author was Major John Etty-Leal, the G.S.O. II of the 2nd Division. He was a classical scholar and had imperfectly remembered what J.M. Edmonds had written. His version reads:
“When you go home, Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, We gave our to-day”.