Honouring major 'Longlegs'

Hugh Seagrim was an unsung war hero who gave his life for the Karen people and the British empire

It's a long way from the genteel village of Whissonsett in eastern England to the steamy jungles of Myanmar, but the memory of one man lives on in both.

SOLDIER’S TOWN: The Mae La refugee camp near Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar border, is home to a dwindling number of Karen World War II veterans and their widows.

Maj Hugh Seagrim, a British war hero executed by the Japanese nearly 70 years ago, helped raise a guerrilla army from the Karen tribe that played a crucial role in World War II.

The small Norfolk village of Whissonsett recently honoured Seagrim in a special service at its church, where his father was once rector. On what was believed to be the 69th anniversary of his death in September _ there is some uncertainty over the exact date _ residents paid tribute to the unsung hero who surrendered to the Japanese to spare his loyal Karen supporters from further suffering. When he heard that villagers were being tortured in a bid to catch him, the devout Christian gave himself up in an ultimate act of sacrifice that has made him a legend among the Karen people to this day.

Thousands of kilometres away, in Myanmar and in refugee camps along the Thai border, Seagrim is still remembered with great affection by the dwindling band of veterans who fought under him in the special operations unit known as Force 136. They nicknamed him ''Grandfather Longlegs'' for his tall, slender build.

Among them is 90-year-old Saw Berny, who was in the village of Mewado with Seagrim when he surrendered. The Japanese went into the Karen hills ''and were chasing after Major Seagrim. They went from village to village, torturing the people,'' he says in fluent English, a product of his colonial education.

Saw Berny tells the story of an elderly man who was accused of taking rice to Seagrim. The Japanese strung him up from the ceiling by his wrists and lit a fire beneath him, in a bid to force a confession. He later died, and shortly afterwards Seagrim surrendered.

The British officer had injured his leg, Saw Berny remembers, so the Japanese made a stretcher and carried him away. They didn't know each other personally but Saw Berny's brother, who looked very similar, had served under Seagrim and knew him. As he was being carried away, Seagrim stared at Saw Berny in recognition.

''He stared at me, because I'm very much like my brother who joined the Burma Rifles under his company. I wanted to go and speak to him, but the Japanese didn't allow me to speak.''

The Allied war effort in Myanmar owed much to men like Saw Berny, who after the war become a civil servant and now lives in the former capital, Yangon.

When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, many of the locals initially supported them, seeing them as liberators who would put an end to the hated colonial rule.

But some hill tribes in the frontier areas, including the Karen, remained fiercely loyal to king and empire. They had been favoured by the British before the war, and many were Christian.

The Japanese advanced quickly, forcing the British to withdraw across the border with India.

But Seagrim and a few other officers volunteered to stay behind and organise guerrilla units behind enemy lines.

PEOPLE’S LIBERATION: Gen Tamla Baw, former leader of the Karen National Union, at his home on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Before the invasion, Seagrim had been seen by his fellow officers as a likeable eccentric, a good goalkeeper with a love of classical music. ''He often said that he would sooner be a postman in Norfolk than a general in India,'' wrote his biographer, the Australian journalist Ian Morrison, in the 1947 book Grandfather Longlegs.

One fellow officer said Seagrim gave the impression of ''a man who was groping for the answers to things''. But in the two years he spent in the hills with his beloved Karen, he apparently found his calling, forging close bonds with his men and developing a deeper interest in religion. He played a key role in recruiting and organising the ''Karen levies'', a loyal army of peasant soldiers whose ambushes, sniping and surprise attacks struck fear into the Japanese.

Saw Berny was just 17 and at school in the town of Papun when he joined up. ''The school closed, the only thing that we can do is to join Major Seagrim's volunteers,'' he laughs. ''At that time, we thought the Japanese were dacoits [bandits]. They were too cruel.''

Saw Berny and the other recruits underwent three months of training, learning how to live in the jungle and lay booby traps. ''Can't be shot but can shoot. Can't be seen but can see,'' he says proudly as he recalls his guerrilla warfare training.

He retains fond memories of the British officers he served under, and would like to see an independent Karen state under a British governor-general _ ''like New Zealand''.

Another old soldier, 93-year-old General Tamla Baw, also has fond memories of Seagrim. ''He was a good officer and he relied on the Bible,'' he said at his home on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Until last year, the general _ now frail and mostly bedridden _ was the leader of the Karen National Union, which for more than 60 years has been fighting for independence or greater autonomy. After the war, the Karen sent a delegation to London pleading to be allowed to stay in the empire, but to no avail.

To the dismay of many, they found themselves part of an independent Myanmar in 1948, and not long after a long and bloody conflict ensued. A ceasefire was signed last year, but the prospects for permanent peace remain fragile. About 130,000 refugees _ mostly Karen _ now live in refugee camps across the border in Thailand. Among them are around 100 World War II veterans, with another 300 or so in Myanmar.

They receive scant recognition from for their efforts, although a small charity called Help 4 Forgotten Allies, run by Cambridge housewife Sally Steen, distributes small grants each year.

''It has been a privilege to get to know the veterans,'' says Ms Steen, who has worked with them for more than a decade. ''Those I meet are typically understated about the sacrifices they made and the dangers they risked fighting with the Allies. They speak with great affection of the British officers they knew and seem not to bear a grudge about having been given no pension.''

Following his surrender, Seagrim was taken to Yangon, where he was executed with some of his men in September, 1944. It is commonly thought that he was shot by a firing squad, but some say he was in fact beheaded.

Seagrim was awarded the George Cross for his gallantry, and his brother Derek received the Victoria Cross _ also posthumously _ for his valiance in the North Africa campaign. A house at Norwich School is named after the brothers, and several pupils and teachers attended the Whissonsett service. Also present were Ms Steen and Seagrim's nephew Michael Seagrim, the author of a novel called Escaping Shadows, which explores the influence his famous uncles have had on his life.

''As a little boy we heard the wonderful stories about him [Hugh Seagrim] from my father, who was very close to him. Even as a little boy he was a formidable personality, as he was at Sandhurst [Royal Military Academy], up to real pranks,'' he said. ''Moreover, not only was he incredibly brave but he was a very good man, within the confines of being a serving officer fighting total war against a ruthless and barbaric enemy. And yet for all his heroic and lovely qualities as a man, there was another side which I attempted to address in my book.''

Nearly 60 people attended the service and representatives of the Karen refugee community in the UK sent greetings, said the organiser, the Reverend Robin Stapleford.

''Since I have been rector of Whissonsett, I've had this growing feeling that even nearly 70 years on Hugh's story should still be remembered,'' he said. ''The perspective of the passing years even seems to sharpen the focus. This feeling has been encouraged by the interest of others near and far. With the anniversary of Hugh's death falling this year on a Sunday, it seemed appropriate to hold a special service _ not exactly a memorial, but a celebration of his act of ultimate friendship, which remains cherished.''

Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Bangkok. He is working on a documentary about the Karen in World War II.
Email fennmark@hotmail.com.

IN MEMORIAM: Maj Hugh Seagrim’s grave at the War Cemetery in Yangon.

LOYAL FIGHTER: Above and below, Gen Tamla Baw’s identity card, issued by British military authorities. It bears his Myanmar name, Saw Wa Sein.

UNDER THE CROWN: The War Cemetery in Yangon contains the graves of nearly 1,400 soldiers, from all over the British Empire, who fought in Myanmar during World War II.

About the author

Writer: Mark Fenn