Major Hugh Seagrim is a western name known by many in the jungles of Burma. He was a British officer in the army during WWII and became a hero among the Karen people back then and remains one today. They called him “Grandfather Longlegs” when he fought alongside them, due to his tall, lanky stature (he was around 6’4″) — and also to contrast him from the “shortlegs,” a slur the Karen used for the Japanese occupiers.
He was assigned to the 20th Burma Rifles, mainly because he knew the languages spoken throughout the jungles there. Seagrim was a deeply Christian man, though somewhat of a mystic as well — another officer that knew him said that he was always “a man who was groping for the answers to things.” Despite his love for Christianity, he was not a fan of the church or other traditional means of religion.
Seagrim was a born leader, known for his preference to be out in the front lines with his men instead of back in the safety and quiet of the rear. The book “Grandfather Longlegs” by Ian Morrison describes him: “Although a highly unconventional person, he did not set out deliberately to be unconventional. It was rather that he took nothing for granted and he cared little what other people thought.”
And with this mindset of thinking unconventionally, he fought guerrilla missions against the Japanese in Burma in all sorts of ways. In one instance, they had an objective inside a city that was heavily defended on the outside. He noticed that interior defenses were lacking, and that when Karen women rode the bus into town, the Japanese didn’t make them stand up. He and his Karen fighters hid under their dresses as the bus passed through all enemy defenses — a sort of Trojan Horse. It worked well, and he began to create a name for himself as the guy who fought alongside the Karen and began to make some serious waves in the fight against the Japanese.
His story, documented in Morrison’s “Grandfather Longlegs,” is quite impressive. He would be joined by a few other British soldiers, one of which was a reconnaissance soldier who had escaped captivity. Many of them and his Karen friends would be captured and/or killed. His guerrilla tactics and creative problem solving inspired the Karen resistance against the Japanese, and he fought as one of them.
Major Seagrim’s actions worked so well, that the Japanese eventually developed a hunter-killer team specifically designed to root out Seagrim and his Karen fighters. Many of his men were killed by this group, and many more were tortured. He knew they specifically wanted him, and so he turned himself in prevent the further torture and deaths of the people he had come to love. He knew what fate awaited him.
He once said that, “Christ sacrificed for the world. I will sacrifice for the Karens.” One of his Karen fighters said that, “The Karens loved him. Of course. They knew that he came to save them. If it had not been for him we should all have been killed.”
Of his execution in the fall of 1944, Morrison says:
Except for the Japanese who formed the firing squad there were no witnesses of Seagrim’s death. These executions at Kemmendine were carried out in great secrecy, in a corner of the cemetery screened by bushes and clumps of grass … Beyond the facts that they were blindfolded, shot, and then buried in a common grave, we know nothing. But, knowing the character of Seagrim and his devoted Karen followers, we may be certain that they met their death bravely and betrayed no fear in those last moments.”
From the British military, he would earn not only the George Cross, but the Distinguished Service Order and the MBE as well. And it must have been in his blood — the George Cross is the second highest award that can be given by the U.K. honors system, and his brother, killed in combat in 1943 in a completely separate battle in Tunisia, earned the Victoria Cross. If the George Cross is the equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross in the U.S. system, the Victoria Cross is the British version of the Medal of Honor. They are the only two siblings in British history to share those honors.
Major Seagrim’s George Cross citation, as reported by the London Gazette in 1946:
Awarded the George Cross for most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner. Major Seagrim was the leader of a party which included two other British and one Karen officer working in the Karen Hills of Burma. By the end of 1943 the Japanese had learned of this party who then commenced a campaign of arrests and torture to determine their whereabouts. In February 1944 the other two British officers were ambushed and killed but Major Seagrim and the Karen officer escaped. The Japanese then arrested 270 Karens and tortured and killed many of them but still they continued to support Major Seagrim. To end further suffering to the Karens, Seagrim surrendered himself to the Japanese on 15th March 1944. He was taken to Rangoon and together with eight others he was sentenced to death. He pleaded that the others were following his orders and as such they should be spared, but they were determined to die with him and were all executed.”
His brother Derek’s Victoria Cross citation:
On the night of the 20th-21st March 1943, the task of a battalion of the Green Howards was to attack and capture an important feature on the left flank of the main attack on the Mareth Line. The defence of this feature was very strong and it was protected by an anti-tank ditch twelve feet long and eight feet deep with mine-fields on both sides. It formed a new part of the main defences of the Mareth Line and the successful capture of this feature was vital to the success of the main attack.
From the time the attack was launched the battalion as subjected to die most intense fire from artillery, machineguns and mortars and it appeared more than probable that the battalion would be held up, entailing failure of the main attack.
Realising the seriousness of the situation Lieutenant-Colonel Seagrim placed himself at the head of his battalion which was, at the time, suffering heavy casualties, and led it through a hail of fire.
He personally helped the team which was placing the scaling ladder over the anti-tank ditch and was himself the first to cross it. He led the assault, firing his pistol, throwing grenades and personally assaulting two machine-gun posts which were holding up the advance of one of his companies. It is estimated tiiat in this phase he killed or captured twenty
This display of leadership and personal courage led directly to the capture of the objective.
When dawn broke the battalion was firmly established on the position, which was of obvious importance to the enemy, who immediately made every effort to regain it. Every post was mortared and machine-gunned unmercifully, and movement became practically impossible, but Lieutenant-Colonel Seagrim was quite undeterred. He moved from post to post organising and directing the fire until the attackers were wiped out to a man.
By his valour, disregard for personal safety and outstanding example, he so inspired his men that the battalion successfully took and held its objective, thereby allowing the attack to proceed.
Lieutenant-Colonel Seagrim subsequently died of wounds received in action.”
Featured image: In this January 26, 1945, file photo, men of the British 14th Army 36th Division pass a pagoda as they advance on a debris-littered street in an unknown Burmese town, during World War II. Seventy years after the war ended, withered and mostly impoverished veterans will gather at the graveside of a British officer who almost no one in England remembers. Maj. Hugh Paul Seagrim — or Grandfather Longlegs — remains a legend up in the hills of Myanmar, among a beleaguered ethnic minority for whom peace never came. (AP Photo, File)