Remembering the sacrifice of true hero Hugh Seagrim GC

Hugh Seagrim: He gave his life to save his beloved Karen fighters.

Hugh Seagrim: He gave his life to save his beloved Karen fighters. - Credit: Archant

A new book celebrates the life of one of Norfolk's most gallant war heroes, Hugh Seagrim, and his equally remarkable 'lieutenant'. Trevor Heaton talked to its author Philip Davies.

Hugh Seagrim's name on Whissonsett war memorial. Picture: Ian Burt

Hugh Seagrim's name on Whissonsett war memorial. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

The last thing Philip Davies was expecting on a 2002 trip to Burma was to uncover a story which would become a consuming passion in his life.

The historian, town planner and acclaimed author, whose packed CV includes being a former Director of English Heritage, was in the South East Asian country to advise on the conservation-led regeneration of its capital Yangon, the former Rangoon.

As part of his background reading he was leafing through a history of the country when he came across something which brought him up short. 'There was a one-line reference to this British officer, Hugh Seagrim, fighting behind the Japanese lines for more than two years,' he recalled. 'I was astonished. I thought: 'Why on earth don't we know about this?''

It was the spark for a project which has now seen the publication 15 years later of his book Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma, which tells the story of Norfolk's Seagrim but also his lieutenant-in-arms, the resourceful Roy 'Ras' Pagani.

Philip Davies: ' I was determined to write the story.'

Philip Davies: ' I was determined to write the story.' - Credit: Archant

On his return to England Philip tracked down Ian Morrison's 1947 biography of Seagrim, Grandfather Longlegs. 'I got in contact with the Seagrim family and they were immensely helpful in letting me go through their archives and letters.

'And I managed to find Roy Pagani's address in Clacton – but I [only] got to him one month after he died. I was able to track down his daughters through his death certificate, and they were extremely helpful,' he said.

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'Here you have two absolutely sensational stories of the Second World War and hardly anyone knew about them. I was determined to write the story.'

Those family papers and his own extensive researches, which included many subsequent visits to Burma – now known as Myanmar - have resulted in this marvellous and moving story which deserves to be brought to a wide an audience as possible.

Seagrim may be unsung elsewhere, but not in Norfolk. Not here. I know: every day I drive past the village sign in Whissonsett, near Dereham, which depicts both Hugh and his brother Derek.

Hugh received the George Cross, and his brother Derek the VC, the only time the country's two highest awards for gallantry have been made to brothers. While Derek earned his for storming German defences in the Western Desert, Hugh's award came for his final, poignant, sacrifice to save the lives of his fellow fighters, the Karen tribespeople, in the very different landscape of the Burmese jungle.

It's not forgotten at Norwich School either, where one of the school houses is named after these brave brothers, both former pupils.

But there is no denying that, nationally, the story of Hugh's life – and its tragic and moving conclusion – have slipped off the national 'radar'. That had looked unlikely in 1947 when Morrison published his book. 'When Grandfather Longlegs [its title comes from the Karens' nickname for Seagrim] came out it was described as one of the 'great epic stories of World War Two',' Philip said.

'But then Morrison was killed in Korea, and Burma itself fell out of the Empire and effectively disappeared behind a bamboo curtain of military dictatorship for more than 60 years. It is only in recent years that it has come back on the global map again. Because of that we have this huge gap in our knowledge – and then there is all the aspect about the 'Forgotten Army' too.'

It was to the quiet mid-Norfolk village that Philip travelled early on his researches. Hugh Paul Seagrim was actually born in Hampshire, in 1909, but moved early on to Norfolk when his father became rector of Whissonsett-with-Horningtoft.

Hugh and his four brothers had an idyllic childhood of genteel poverty – the latter being caused by their father Charles having disastrously plunged his wife's savings into a reckless Canadian business venture.

At the end of the First World War brothers Hugh, Jack and Derek were boarders at King Edward VI School (later Norwich School), where they were known as Seagrim major, Seagrim minor and Seagrim tertius. A natural sportsman, 6ft 4in Hugh even attracted the interest of Norwich City as a goalkeeper.

All five brothers went into the army, with Hugh progressing via Sandhurst to the Indian Army. In 1931 he was posted to the Burma Rifles, where he picked up the nickname of 'Stookey' after the then-current Vicar of Stiffkey scandal (Hugh had – unwisely - pointed out the local pronunciation to the officers' mess).

To his fellow officers, Hugh was something of an eccentric, preferring to read or trek though the Burmese hills rather than playing polo or visiting local fleshpots. He preferred the company of the Karens who formed his company to making small-talk in the mess.

He was also going on a remarkable spiritual journey, something which Philip's book explores. The author has made a copy of Seagrim's own private anthology, 350 personally-typewritten pages which drew on all different religions and spiritual traditions.

'He saw himself very early on as a hero figure, as a saviour figure,' he said. 'That's why he didn't want to marry – he felt it would only get in the way [of his destiny].'

As war loomed, Seagrim found himself at odds with his old-school-tie senior officers who rejected his calls for the Karens to be trained as a guerrilla force to help counter the growing Japanese threat.

The army establishment thought a Great War-style defensive conflict was likely. But the fall of Singapore and the rapid advance of the Japanese troops put paid to that assessment. Hugh was seconded to the clandestine Oriental Mission and in January 1942 was sent into Karen territory with a small cache of old weapons to raise a guerrilla force.

Over the course of the next 17 months Seagrim – now 'Grandfather Longlegs' – not only evaded capture but laid the foundations for a 3,000-strong 'underground army'. In December 1942, the 'barefoot, bearded, thin and haggard' Seagrim was delighted to encounter a fellow British soldier. And Corporal 'Ras' Pagani was, like Seagrim, no ordinary man.

For Pagani had already had an astonishing war, having escaped alone from Dunkirk, then from the Fall of Singapore and finally – most remarkable of all – from the notorious Death Railway. His resourcefulness was just the boost which Seagrim and his campaign needed.

In his turn, Pagani fell instantly under the spell of the charismatic major. Although they were together for only ten days before the corporal was sent off to organise more guerrilla forces, he had forged a deep and life-long respect for a man he regarded as a hero and saintly figure.

The author meticulously follows the ebbs and flows of the guerrilla campaign and the net which the Japanese army slowly tightened around Seagrim and his force, which faced enormous hardship in trying to tie down the invading army.

In the end, in an act of enormous bravery and self-sacrifice, Seagrim walked out of the jungle one day in March 1944 to save the lives of Karen tribespeople threatened with torture and worse by the Japanese. He told a senior Japanese officer: 'Treat the Karens generously. They are not to blame. I alone am responsible for what has happened in the hills.'

That decision to surrender attracted some criticism after the war, Philip said. 'There were the contrary voices who asked 'why did he give himself up?' They said it hadn't happened in occupied Europe, where reprisals were carried out on civilians.

'But the difference was that Hugh Seagrim was among the Karens for two and half years and treated them as equals. He felt betraying them would be in conflict with his moral conscience. He couldn't allow his friends – the people who had fought with him – to be systematically abused and tortured. And there would have been more than 200 of them. I find [his decision] immensely inspiring.'

Seagrim's relationship with his beloved Karens was much more than that of a regular army officer attempting to mould a guerrilla force. He loved the simplicity of life and quiet courage of the people. The feeling was mutual: the Karens had a mythology which spoke of a white brother coming from across the sea.

In his final chapter Philip discusses the legacy of Seagrim. He makes no apologies for bracketing him with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. 'I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say he is one those great 'imperial mavericks' – people like Lawrence, Scott of the Antarctic and – especially Gordon of Khartoum. He really is a figure of that magnitude.

'Hugh Seagrim has this extraordinary spiritual dimension to him. He was an immensely charismatic man – even the Japanese recognised that.'

The book has already attracted plenty of media coverage, and the author has also taken party in a documentary being made by a television production company about the Karen veterans.

One day it could be more. 'I am hoping now that because so many people are a. surprised and b. fascinated by the story that it will be a film. It's such a gripping story – it lends itself to that treatment. It's not my special field of expertise, but I am hoping that in the next year or two something will happen. It would make a splendid film and would give Hugh Seagrim and Ras Pagani the national profile they both deserve.'

Philip Davies recently returned from perhaps his most poignant visit to the former Burma, to the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Yangon, where together with the British Ambassador and Michael Seagrim – Hugh's nephew – he unveiled a memorial plaque.

The plaque, which the author had personally paid for, was unveiled exactly 70 years after its predecessor memorial to Seagrim at the cathedral.

In the congregation were 15 or 16 veterans of the Karens – including a 107-year-old, who sang the first verse of the Karen Hymn. 'I found that incredibly moving,' he said.

The Karens have not forgotten Grandfather Longlegs and Ras Pagani, and never will. And, hopefully, neither will we.

Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma, by Philip Davies, is published by Atlantic Publishing, £20