Thermopylae 1941

J.E. Brookes

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...
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 
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)