War Memoirs in North East India

When You Go Home 
Tell Them Of Us 
And Say 
“For Your Tomorrow, 
We Gave Our Today”

“When You Go Home…..”
-The epitaph enshrined on the War memorial, Kohima  

The North East Region in India with its rich cultural heritage interestingly also has a history of the world wars. Here are a few little known facts.

It was a summer day in 1960- late in the afternoon – I, a class VI boy, went for a stroll along with father, along the Golf links-Polo ground rim road, used to be known as long round in this part of the town in old days. That summer Sunday we selected that stretch of the road that, beginning from the north-eastern periphery of the Golf-links passesd through Mawlaifootmoorie before leading us to the 2nd Umkhrabridge by the end of the race course (once). A little before that the road had a diversion to the right to Mawlai skirting a grave yard. The entire stretch of the road was desolate and passed through virgin pine forest. The forest was so dense in some places that it challenged the sunlight to reach the ground. Before we reached the grave yard a long stretch of ground on right hand side, appeared apparently to have had been levelled once- captured by a thin layer of grass now- ran parallel.

Father who was trained under St. John’s Ambulance like some civilian employees of the time pointed out to that and said it was parking space in the war time for Lories and jeeps of the Allied Forces stationed in Shillong. (The town was an R & R Centre for the overseas troops of the Allied Forces in the eastern theatre, I came to know later.) The canopy of the tall trees provided a natural camouflage to the area. When in higher classes, I would go on stroll along that road with my buddy often on holidays. I always felt something eerie about the whole place. Unlike other places in Shillong this entire forested area lay on a flat land. In the 70s Iwould discoverfootmoorie again and again in 2nd World War movies- in Auschwitz camps located deep inside woods. The woods with tall pine trees – in occupied Poland or in Black Forest of Germany maybe- on flat land had an uncanny similarity with what I saw nearer home as a boy .

In early 1970s I was in Kohima, Nagaland for a few days on official assignment. It was till then passing through the phase of insurgency. I have had heard earlier of the evocative epitaph enshrined on the war memorial there built to commemorate soldiers of the Allied forces who laid down their lives in the battle for Kohima for the sake of the British empire. This battle would later be regarded as a great turning point in WWII for the allied forces.As one belonging to the post war generation in the second half of the twentieth century and growing up in Shillong which had been an olive green military station from the beginning of the Colonial administration, the accounts of the world war, particularly the stories of battles that were fought in Burma front were present on our psyche.So, one day I went to visit the cemetery with my colleague.

The cemetery for the Allied war dead was maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery lay on the slopes of Garrison Hill, which was once the scene of intense fighting. The epitaph carved on the memorial of the Division which was engaged with the Japanese became world-famous as the Kohima poem. The verse is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds (1875–1958), and is thought to have been inspired by the epitaph written by Simonides to honour the Greek who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. As I was inspecting the plaques I was attracted to some plaques with Quranic verses belonging to soldiers of then Punjab regiment. I found one with inscription “Om Nomo Shivao” too scripted in Debnagari.

Watching my keen interest, the caretaker came to me with the Visitors’ Register. As I flipped through its pages, I saw the last entry was: “Great things are done when men and mountain meet”, made by a visiting Brigadier earlier in the day. I noted down my bit. This was the first time I ever made a remark in a Visitors’ register anywhere.

Many years later I would know that my predecessor visitor quoted from William Blake.

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.”

I had no occasion to know the poem and the poet, as literature was never a part of my academic discipline. But there was a brigadier commanding anti-insurgency operation, with a poetic bent! I used to think later.