Feature

When you go home ...

Last Updated: 10 Nov 2017
The story behind the Kohima epitaph.

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Our 2016 10m high Poppy Waterfall, next to the GCHQ Crest in the foyer
The Poppy Waterfall and the GCHQ Crest. ©GCHQ 2016

 

By James Bruce, Researcher, GCHQ Authorised History

Kohima is a hill town on the India-Myanmar border that between April and June 1944 saw some of the bitterest fighting of the Far East campaign, as British, Indian and Gurkha units, sustained by supplies dropped by the RAF, met and defeated a Japanese offensive intended to disrupt the planned Commonwealth advance into Myanmar and even enable a Japanese advance into India. The 2nd Division's war memorial in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Kohima bears the epitaph that has become synonymous with the battle:

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Interesting spiral-knit poppy, red with black wool centre

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

Although now commonly called the 'Kohima epitaph' these words were not written to commemorate Kohima, but were composed at the end of the First World War by a Cambridge classicist turned wartime codebreaker.

John Maxwell Edmonds was born in Stroud in 1875.  Recurrent bouts of polio delayed his graduation from Cambridge until 1898, after which he spent some years as a schoolmaster before returning to Cambridge as a lecturer in classics in 1908.  He would spend the rest of his life teaching and researching at Cambridge, apart from what his Times obituary coyly described as 'absence in connection with military intelligence during 1918-1919'.  

In fact, both Edmonds and his wife, Ethel, spent that 'absence' in London working for the War Office's codebreaking bureau, M.I.1(b).  His exact role in M.I.1(b) is unknown, Ethel worked on the diplomatic ciphers of Scandinavian countries. They remained in M.I.1(b) until the summer of 1919, by which time it had been decided to combine M.I.1(b) and the Admiralty’s 'Room 40' into the Government Code and Cypher School, the forerunner of GCHQ.

In February 1918 The Times published four epitaphs composed by Edmonds, including one titled 'On Some who died early in the Day of Battle':

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The 3D printing method causes linear texture patterns that enhance the petal shapes

Went the day well?  We died and never knew;
But well or ill, England, we died for you

that would be much used in newspaper in memoriam notices and provided the title of the 1942 Ealing film Went the day well?.

By August 1919 Edmonds had composed a dozen epitaphs.  Nine of these appeared in Inscriptions Suggested for War Memorials published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in December 1919, including one intended 'For a British Graveyard in France':

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Red felt poppy with black centre button, with overstitching and beading

When you go home, tell them of us, and say
"For your to-morrows these gave their to-day".

In 1920 all twelve were published by a small London press as Twelve War Epitaphs.  To Edmonds' chagrin this printing changed what he considered the much more correct and effective 'tomorrows' of his original manuscript to the singular 'tomorrow', the version that became general usage.  Modern renditions have moved even further from Edmonds' original, with the second line often given as 'For your tomorrow we gave our today', a reflection of the words now usually being spoken as an invocation rather than read as a memorial inscription as Edmonds originally intended.

Equally vexing to Edmonds was the popular belief that he had merely translated Greek originals - while he acknowledged that he had been influenced by the style and brevity of classical Greek epitaphs, his were original compositions.

These irritations notwithstanding, by the time of his death in 1958 Edmonds had seen his words, or versions of them, become part of the liturgy of remembrance.  And in the next few days, nearly 100 years after their composition, they will be heard at remembrance services around the world - including the one attended by today's codebreakers in GCHQ.

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People in standing during the service, military and civilians. A large helicopter in the sky above
Chinook helicopter fly-by during Remembrance Day 2016. ©GCHQ

 


Sources

Published:

Edmonds, John Maxwell Twelve War Epitaphs (Chelsea:  Ashendene Press, 1920)

Smith, Sir Cecil Harcourt (ed) Inscriptions Suggested for War Memorials (London: HMSO, 1919)

War Office The War Office List (London:  HMSO, 1918)

Newspapers:

The Times  12 Feb 1918 – ‘Four Epitaphs’; 19 Mar 1958  – 'Obituary – Mr J M Edmonds'

British Library:

Correspondence associated with Twelve War Epitaphs. General Reference Collection,  C.102.i.4