THERMOPYLAE 1941

by 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...
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