Remembrance in Myanmar

In August 2015, Head of Seagrim House Mr Curtis travelled to a Myanmar/ Burma to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day and to remember ON Major Hugh Seagrim, after whom Seagrim House was named. Mr Curtis is getting ready to return to the area in order to attend the unveiling of a commemorative plaque to Hugh Seagrim in Yangon/Rangoon cathedral. He is collecting unwanted reading glasses to be redistributed to the elderly, with the Karen veterans of the Burma campaign now in their 90s. If you would like to know more, please visit www.h4fa.org.uk or search @glasses4myanmar on Facebook. Ahead of his trip in November the story of his last trip can be seen below:

The taxi is confronted by a stiffly uniformed military policeman tasked with hindering any further progress, so I step out of the cool of the car into the fuggy humidity of early morning Yangon. As I try to slalom my way through army jeeps and jumpy policemen as deferentially as possible, the congested, muddy road gives way to the pristine grass of the war cemetery. 

On 15th August 2015, many people gathered together to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day, and I travelled to the Rangoon War Cemetery in Myanmar/Burma and, more specifically, to plot 4, row A, the grave of Major Hugh Paul Seagrim GC DSO MBE and Old Norvicensian. Seagrim is known for his willingness to operate behind enemy lines as the Japanese advanced on British controlled Burma during the Second World War; his ability to raise a volunteer army of 3000 to surreptitiously disrupt the enemy; and eventually his self-sacrifice to protect his friends who were being executed in order to force him to surrender. What is perhaps less documented is his obsessive assimilation with and care for his soldiers, who had been drawn from the Karen, an ethnic group who were Christian and loyal to the imperial crown they viewed as paternal.

As I loiter, waiting for the service to begin, numerous and varied interested parties file in: a Burmese general and his entourage; the Commonwealth defence attaches, hot and gleaming in gold and white; a battery of photographers and journalists, pencils and Pentax made ready; diplomats, with calm smiles but eyes darting; security guards and gardeners; casual observers of this anachronistic spectacle. Had the ancient veterans not been wearing their traditional woven, blood red tabards, their arrival might have gone unnoticed (and they, the most important guests!). As the diminutive men shuffle through the gate and over the lawn, like tired imps, toward their reserved seating, it’s like a pulse leaping, throbbing life back into the day. For them, neither the names on the headstones, nor the accounts of battle read out are unfamiliar: names are friends, and battles real.  

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Annually honouring the fallen is a sombre, serious imperative, but one which causes no great inconvenience. All we have to do is polish our shoes a bit, conscientiously attempt to visualise their ordeals, recite the appointed words, keep a minute’s silence and ‘show our respect’. The elderly soldiers in the dense heat of a Rangoon graveyard represent the uncomfortable reality of remembrance however, as if we really want to show our respect to the dead, should we not ensure we care for the living? Maybe all too often we salute at the Cenotaph whilst ignoring the homeless squaddie, slumming it on the Strand.  

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After the main service has finished, the Karen veterans make their way determinedly to plot 4, row A. A spontaneous and less formal act of remembrance ensues. A Karen choir starts to sing Seagrim’s favourite hymn, in their own language, which Seagrim took the trouble to learn. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. The veterans sing along enthusiastically: they believe in a Father God who won’t turn His back on them in the way the father empire did after the war was won. Saw Berny, a 92 year old who fought alongside Seagrim gesticulates from his wheelchair about his friend: “he wore our dress, ate our food, spoke our language; he loved us”. I stand and listen to his fluent English, words only obscured by a lack of dentures, and marvel at him and his tenacity, as well as the man from Norfolk who led these warriors. Exhausted after his exertion, Saw Berny is wheeled away and returned to his fellow pilgrims. I am suddenly alone at Seagrim’s graveside, along with those of the other 1330 men buried here: in a nowhere part of a forgotten city, in an abandoned country.

The 1925 prefect board standing in School House

The 1925 prefect board standing in School House

Seagrim’s story was always inspirational and relevant, and undoubtedly a good name for a new House in an old School; his conduct in a cruel 20th century battle sets an example to the pupils and staff in a safer 21st predicament. But since visiting his home church in Whissonsett, looking at his name on the 1925 prefect board still standing in School House, travelling to his grave in Yangon and meeting the men still alive who knew him, I more keenly feel the fierce challenge of Seagrim’s example, that is, to remember actively, rather than passively. The forgotten Karen of Myanmar, who fought for Britain and her interests against tyrants are still alive and in need, as are those veterans in this country who are reeling from physical, mental and spiritual injury from more recent conflicts. We should remain diligent in remembering those who did not come back, but also better care for those who did.

Philip Davies has recently released a book, Lost Warriors - Seagrim and Pagani of Burma The last great untold story of WWII, which tells the story of Major Hugh Seagrim and Ras Pagani, who fought alongside each other. It is an epic tale of two Englishmen, who were among the most courageous and resourceful heroes of the most savage conflict in human history, yet who remain unknown in their own country. Philip will also be travelling to Myanmar next week and will unveil the plaque to Hugh Seagrim at Yangon Anglican Cathedral. The book can be purchased through Amazon here.