A private soldier doubtless suffers less from his privations than from ignorance of what is going on; in terms of chess, he is a pawn. But the significance of our deployment on the forward slopes of this position was not lost on us. No purpose served consulting horoscopes at Delphi; students of Herodotus would know withdrawal to Thermopylae and putting up barbed wire could only mean fighting a rearguard action Q.E.D., as Euclid would have put it. We had been deposited into the warlike lap of ancient deities. I said to Blue, my Aussie mate, "There was this famous chap Leonidas, he was the Spartan who defended it with just 300 men against an army." Bluey took a draw upon his cigarette. "Well stuff'im then!" a pungent comment on the art of war. Foreboding we looked back across the plain which we had crossed, towards Lamia, towards the north just as the Spartans must have lain with spear and sword and watched the Persian hordes amassing for the battle long ago. It was deserted, a proscenium where once Leonidas heard trumpets blow, a theatre whose auditorium, the home of gods, was mountains, and whose stage was lapped by Homer's wine-dark seas as blue as lapis lazuli, where in a rage Poseidon wrecked Odysseus and his crew and siren voices tempted. In the wings of history we waited for a roll of other drums and strident trumpetings to usher in the gods of war. The soul of Sparta stirred, could but the brave Leonidas renew his mortal span instead of merely turning in his grave, and all his hoplites, perished to a man, but resurrect themselves. . . . I said "They wore long hair, the Spartans, a visible proof that they were free, not helots, and before the battle they would gravely sit aloof and garland it with flowers." Bluey spat. Continuing to watch the empty road across the plain he took off his tin-hat (a proof that he was bald) and said "A load of bloody poufdahs!" Thus he laid the ghost of brave Leonidas. Herodotus informs us Xerxes, leader of the host, when told was equally incredulous, though whether from a soldier's point of view of army discipline or on the grounds of social prejudice like my mate Blue, was not elaborated. With the sounds of planes we kept our heads down. After dark we dug slit-trenches neath the April moon in silence broken only by the bark of some Greek shepherd's dog while our platoon commander and the sergeant walked about discussing fields of fire. We lit a smoke, which made the section corporal shout "Put out that bloody light!" It was the Colonel broke the news, like some deus ex machina descending from above. THEY SHALL NOT PASS... THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE etcetera, all sentiments of which Leonidas would have approved, and as he disappeared into the moonlight, with a martial air, a crown and two pips, everybody cheered instead of putting flowers in their hair, but muted just in case the Germans were in earshot and from feeling (for myself at any rate) that we should much prefer that history did not repeat itself. And later with our cigarettes concealed behind cupped hands we peered into the night across the darkened plain and it revealed first one and then another point of light, and then a hundred of them, moving down the distant backcloth, shining off and on like tiny jewels sparkling on a crown of moonlit mountains, a phenomenon caused by the winding path of their descent round liair-pin bends cascading from the heights beyond Lamia, our first presentiment of evil genius - they were the lights of Hitler's war machines! So fate had cast us in the role of heroes in the same arena where the heroes of the past had closed their ranks and perished in the name of freedom. Was there one of those among the Spartans who, at the eleventh hour upon the eve of battle, while he hung his hair with many a patient-wreathed flower, prayed that some unpredictable event like Xerxes dropping dead, some miracle, might even yet occur and thus prevent the battle being joined the oracle at Delphi notwithstanding? "Time to pick the flowers Blue, that bloom upon the steep hillside" I said "make daisy-chains and stick the buggers in our hair !" He was asleep. So all night long I watched and when the skies had lightened with the dawn (doubtless the last that I should ever see with mortal eyes before we joined those heroes of the past in the Elysian fields) and bold day broke across the misted plain on mythic banks of white and yellow asphodel he woke and heard combustion engines. German tanks? I said a private soldier suffers less from his privations than from ignorance of what is going on, but we could guess that some extraordinary circumstance had made the sergeant, full pack, rifle slung, rise up before us blotting out the sun. Phoebus Apollo? Götterdämmerung more likely! GREEKS CAPITULATED ... HUN MIGHT CUT US OFF ... NO PANIC ... GET EMBUSSED ... YES 3-TON TRUCKS HAVE JUST ARRIVED ... I thanked the Lord for it and meanwhile Bluey cussed and our lance-corporal said he'd been outflanked at Passchendaele and got away with it. As Bluey put it "if some bloody mug brasshat had only warned us, used a bit of common sense we never need have dug that something something slit-trench!' (Stuff 'im then?) But as we drove away I must confess it felt like a desertion. Those few men with flowers in their hair were heroes! Yes!
Written April 25, 1941, in Salonika P.O.W camp.
- J.E. Brookes
- The Voice of War -- Michael Joseph Ltd (1995)