Saturday, September 21, 2013

Remembering Hugh Seagrim

Tomorrow marks the sixty ninth anniversary of the death of Major Hugh Seagrim. Born in 1909, Seagrim attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhust and joined the British Indian Army and then the Burma Rifles. As a young officer, Seagrim practiced the official religion of the British Army: lapsed Anglicanism.

In January, 1942, the Japanese Army invaded Burma. Several months before the invasion an Assistant Superintendent of the Burma Frontier Service began organizing and training guerrillas. Seagrim, who had become fluent in several Burmese languages, was recruited and formed a guerrilla force of Karens, one of the loyal hill tribes.

The Karens are a curious people. Wedged between the Thais and the Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Burma), the Karens have long struggled to exert their own identity. Nineteenth century European anthropologists suspected that the Karens might be a lost tribe of Jews: they worshiped a single god, Y'wa. The story goes that Y'wa had three sons, a Karen, a Bamar, and a pale son. To each he gave a copy of his laws: the Karen received the laws on tablets of gold, the Bamar and the pale son on tablets of lesser materials. When the Bamar lost his tablets, he tried to steal those of the Karen, who in turn entrusted them to his pale younger brother. The pale brother sailed off to the west with the golden tablets, promising to return with Y'wa's laws some day. So when Christian missionaries arrived in Burma, they found many Karens ready to welcome them with open arms; after all, they were the decedents of their little brother, returning with God's law. As a result of missionary work by American Baptists, as well as Catholics and other Protestant denominations, approximately 15% of Karens came to accept the Christian faith.

While in the jungle of the Karen Hills, plotting attacks on Japanese convoys and trying to maintain contact with the outside world, Seagrim rediscovered his Christian faith. He and his men - who affectionately referred to the 6' 4" British officer as "Grandfather Longlegs" - would read the Bible together and pray before turning to their work of resistance. The extent to which his new-found love of Christ infused his life and work is best exemplified by his death.

Seagrim's Karen forces were a major thorn in the side of Burma's Japanese occupiers. So much did the Japanese fear him that they undertook a major effort to find and capture him. But Seagrim enjoyed the support of the local Karen population and had a superior command of the local geography. He always remained ahead of his would-be captors. Frustrated by their failures, the Japanese began undertaking a tōbatsu, a "punitive expedition", into the Karen Hills. Hundreds of villagers were arrested and tortured. Many died for their refusal to reveal Seagrim's location.

In the end, Seagrim, sickened by the destruction being visited on the people he had come to love, saw only one way to end the violence: by giving himself up. So on 15 March 1944 he surrendered to the Japanese. He was taken to Rangoon, where he was sentenced to death, along with eight of the Karens with whom he worked. Seagrim begged for their lives, arguing that they had merely followed orders, and that the responsibility for resistance activities had been his. But Seagrim's companions - much less their Japanese captors - would hear none of it; they were fiercely loyal and vowed to die with him. Seagrim was killed on 22 September 1944.

In 1985, the Karens gave a plaque to Seagrim's native village in England:

Hugh Seagrim and his brother Derek, who won the Victoria Cross in another theater of the Second World War, are also remembered on the village sign:

Those interested in Major Hugh Seagrim can read more in Ian Morrison, Grandfather Longlegs: The Life and Gallant Death of Major H. P. Seagrim, G.C., D.S.O., M.B.E. (London, 1947).

Today's image of Major Seagrim comes from the Karen Heritage website.