South African War & WWI
Name: Alexander George Begbie
George Begbie was born in England in 1878, son of an Anglican Minister, schooled at Seven Oaks, and at a young age went to sea, was ship wrecked and wound up in South Africa during the time of troubles.
He enlisted as a stable boy with the Kitchners Horse Brigade and eventually becoming a calvary man, taking part in the South African Campaign. Arriving in Canada and in the Townships, he worked for the Grand Trunk railroad, spending time in Waterville and Richmond.
George enlisted in the Canadian Army in Waterville in August of 1914 joining the First Canadian Field Ambulance Corp to eventually become a Field Dresser serving on the lines in France for the duration of the war. He returned to Canada in 1919 at 36 years old and single, a quiet man (they were all quiet, those who experienced the battle fields). He married a young lady from Waterville, Marie Lennon, and raised a family working in Sherbrooke at St. George’s Club.
The rest is history. Quiet, good-natured and a gentleman, never spoke about his experiences.
He left me words of wisdom.
Once when eating some bread that had mold on it, I said, “Dad that bread is moldy.” He continued to eat it and said, “What’s a little mold in a great war.” That says it all.
The South African War (1899-1902) or, as it is also known, the Boer War, marked Canada's first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war.
In 1899, fighting erupted between Great Britain and two small republics in South Africa. (See map) The two republics, settled by Boers, descendants of the region's first Dutch immigrants, were not expected to survive for long against the world's greatest power. Pro-empire Canadians nevertheless urged their government to help. The war, they argued, pitted British freedom, justice, and civilization against Boer backwardness.
While many English-canadians supported Britain's cause in South Africa, most French-canadians and many recent immigrants from countries other than Britain wondered why Canada should fight in a war half way around the world. Concerned with maintaining national stability and political popularity, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier did not want to commit his government. Yet the bonds of Empire were strong and public pressure mounted. As a compromise, Laurier agreed to send a battalion of volunteers to South Africa.
Over the next three years, more than 7,000 Canadians, including 12 women nurses, served overseas. They would fight in key battles from Paardeberg to Leliefontein. The Boers inflicted heavy losses on the British, but were defeated in several key engagements. Refusing to surrender, the Boers turned to a guerrilla war of ambush and retreat. In this second phase of fighting, Canadians participated in numerous small actions. Gruelling mounted patrols sought to bring the enemy to battle, and harsh conditions ensured that all soldiers struggled against disease and snipers' bullets.
Imperial forces attempted to deny the Boers the food, water and lodging afforded by sympathetic farmers. Britain’s grim strategy took the war to the civilian population. Canadian troops burned Boer houses and farms, and moved civilians to internment camps. In these filthy camps, an estimated 28,000 prisoners died of disease, most of them women, children, and black workers. Civilian deaths provoked outrage in Britain and in Canada. This harsh strategy eventually defeated the Boers.
Of the Canadians who served in South Africa, 267 were killed and are listed in the Books of Remembrance. The Canadian government claimed at the time that this overseas expedition was not a precedent. History would prove otherwise. The new century would see Canadians serve in two world wars, the Korean War, and dozens of peacekeeping missions.
Canadians on the veldt in South Africa