It\'s not about the medals
It\'s a gallery about recipients of the Victoria Cross and George Cross, so you could argue it is about the medals, and for those who like some medal bling, there\'s plenty there to enjoy. But after months of writing for the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, and writing the accompanying book, I would say it\'s about a lot more than that. You only need to look at the varying prices that otherwise similar medal groups have reached at auction to realize that it is actually all about the story. Every man, woman, and child included in the new gallery did something, or several things, both astoundingly brave and unbelievably dangerous.
The gallery features the first Victoria Cross bought by Lord Ashcroft, which was presented to James Magennis, whose action is a perfect example of boldness, one of the seven qualities of courage celebrated in the exhibition. He was the diver on a mini-submarine tasked with sinking the Japanese cruiser Takao off Singapore in 1945. Magennis squeezed out the sub, through a hatch which wouldn\'t fully open, and spent over half an hour chipping barnacles off the ship\'s hull before having to resort to tying on the magnetic mines. All the time his equipment, damaged by the hatch, was leaking bubbles up to the surface, which could have been spotted at any time. He returned to the sub exhausted, his hands ripped to shreds. But as the sub finally wriggled out from under the ship, one of the side charges got stuck. The sub was in shallow water just yards from the Takao, but Magennis went out again. Armed with a large spanner and, clearly visible from the ship, he used brute force to get the charge free. The VC received by the mini-sub\'s commander, Ian \'Titch\' Fraser for his heroic actions on the same mission is also in the gallery, as is Magennis\' diving suit, worn on the fateful mission.
There are other heroes featured in the gallery that you will probably have heard of, such as Noel Chavasse, one of only three men to receive the VC and bar; Johnson Beharry VC; Leonard Cheshire VC; Matt Croucher GC ; William Leefe Robinson VC; and Norman Jackson VC. But I think many visitors will be as intrigued as I have been in the stories that perhaps we haven\'t heard before. There are several medals which haven\'t been displayed before, or where the readily available details about a recipient\'s action have been sadly lacking. During my work on the gallery, I admit that I developed \'favourites\', and none more so than the Seagrim brothers, whose medals have been loaned by the Seagrim family to be exhibited together for the first time. There are several sets of siblings and relatives, among the ranks of VC and GC recipients, but Derek and Hugh Seagrim are the only brothers to hold the VC and GC between them. Born into a military family, they and their three brothers all joined the army. Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Seagrim personally led the 7th Battalion, Green Howards against the Mareth Line in March 1943. Leading from the front he was first across the scaling ladders over the anti-tank ditches, and personally took two machine-guns holding up his men. When they had taken the position he encouraged his men to defend it against counter-attacks for almost 24 hours until the attackers were wiped out. He was recommended for the VC, but died a couple of weeks later.
His youngest brother Hugh, an officer in the Burma Rifles, volunteered to stay in Burma in 1941 as the British retreated into India. For over two years he worked alone and undercover, recruiting thousands into an irregular army ready to help the British when they returned. He was sheltered by the Karen hill people, who were devoted to the man they called \'Grandfather Longlegs\'. In 1943 the Japanese became aware that Seagrim and two other British officers were operating in the area. They killed or tortured hundreds of Karens, but they wouldn\'t give Hugh up. To save the Karens from further pain and suffering, Hugh walked into a Japanese camp and surrendered. After 5 months of imprisonment, he was sentenced to death in September 1944. He pleaded for the lives of eight of his followers who had been imprisoned with him, but the Karens were determined to die with their leader, and they were all beheaded. Hugh is buried in Rangoon War Cemetery, surrounded by his loyal followers.
Hugh\'s widowed mother returned to Buckingham Palace in 1946 to receive his posthumous GC. Her five sons had given over a century of active service, and two of them had paid the ultimate price. This exhibition pays tribute to their lives and heroism, and many others who willingly risked their lives for their friends, for complete strangers, and for their country.
The Lord Ashcroft Gallery opens at the Imperial War Museum on 12 November 2010. Entry is free.