Page 1: Biography
Begg, Charles Mackie
Doctor, surgeon, army health administrator
This biography, written by Neil Begg, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Charles Mackie Begg was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 13 September 1879, the sixth of nine children of Alexander Campbell Begg, an accountant and Free Church Presbyterian, and his wife, Katherine Clarke, both of Scottish descent. He was educated at Kaikorai School and Otago Boys' High School before entering the University of Otago Medical School in 1898. After completing the preliminary medical course he sought further study at the University of Edinburgh. There he graduated MB, ChB with distinction in 1903 and MD in 1905. He qualified FRCSE in 1906. Ten years later the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh was to award him its fellowship.
Charles Begg returned to Wellington in 1906 and joined W. A. Logan in general practice. He was appointed honorary surgeon to the children's ward at Wellington District Hospital, and in August was commissioned surgeon captain in the New Zealand Medical Corps. In 1909 he was given command of No 5 Field Ambulance, serving in the Volunteer Force (renamed the Territorial Force). On 9 December 1909 at Lower Hutt he married Lillian Helen Lawrance Treadwell, daughter of Wellington barrister and solicitor C. H. Treadwell and his wife, Ada. They were to have two sons.
War with Germany was declared on 5 August 1914 and the medical units gathered immediately for training near Auckland. On 16 October the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force sailed from Wellington with Begg in command of the New Zealand Field Ambulance on the Star of India. The Ambulance disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt, on 3 December 1914 and moved to Zeitoun, near Heliopolis. After two months' training, sections of the Ambulance were moved to Ismâ'ilîya as part of a force that repelled a Turkish attack in early February 1915. Begg had few casualties to treat. On 11 April he took the Field Ambulance to Alexandria and on 17 April they embarked for Gallipoli on the Goslar.
When the Anzacs landed on 25 April casualties were unexpectedly heavy. Begg sent his bearer sections ashore while his surgical teams provided treatment on various ships. These were quickly filled by casualties returning on barges and many did not get the surgery they needed. On 28 April Begg took the Ambulance ashore to dig in a dressing station on the beach. Surgery began immediately and continued through incessant shelling and small-arms fire until 27 June, when a Turkish shell destroyed the station and wounded Begg. Nevertheless, he took his depleted unit along the beach to start up again under Walker's Ridge. Between 25 April and 5 August the dressing station treated over 15,000 wounded Anzacs.
On 7 August 1915 the New Zealanders suffered grievous losses during their attack on Chunuk Bair, and the under-staffed Ambulances could not handle the casualties. On 9 August Colonel Neville Manders, assistant director of medical services of the New Zealand and Australian division, was shot and Begg took his place. By this time there was a breakdown in the collection and evacuation of the wounded, and hundreds were lying unprotected on the beach. When Begg made a direct approach to Generals Alexander Godley and F. C. Shaw, infantry units arrived to help the bearers and the navy resumed its barge transport from Walker's Pier. By 13 August the beach had been cleared. A few days later Begg was taken to a hospital ship for treatment of para-typhoid fever and was transported to the No 1 General Hospital, Camberwell, England. After a short convalescence, he boarded the Maheno and returned to Gallipoli at the beginning of November. He was reappointed assistant director of medical services and, as winter approached, he helped to plan the successful withdrawal of troops from the peninsula. General I. S. M. Hamilton mentioned Begg in dispatches on 26 August 1915 and he was appointed CMG on 8 November 1915.
The New Zealand Division was moved from Egypt to the western front in April and May 1916. Begg had his headquarters near Armentières, France, where the Medical Corps practised its twin responsibilities of caring for the wounded and promoting the general health of the troops. These skills were tested in September and October 1916 at the battle of the Somme. The medical services won praise for evacuation and treatment of the wounded but the sickness rate was high.
In February 1916 General Godley was promoted to command II ANZAC Corps and in October Begg joined him as deputy director of medical services. The corps moved that month to its winter quarters near Sailly-sur-la-Lys, where efforts were made to improve the general health of the troops. Respiratory and enteric diseases, infectious fevers, venereal disease, scabies, trench foot and battle fatigue required treatment and there was a need for dental services. Better food, accommodation, health education, immunisation, sanitation and counselling were provided, and even in the unusually severe winter of 1916–17 the condition of the men improved. General Douglas Haig mentioned Begg in dispatches on 13 November 1916.
At Messines (Mesen) in June 1917, 9,735 casualties were evacuated and treated satisfactorily. However, at Passchendaele (Passendale) on 11 October torrential rain turned the ground into knee-deep mud and all wheeled vehicles were immobilised. It took a team of six bearers five to seven hours to carry one casualty between 3,700 and 6,000 yards to a dressing station. It was the first time that the medical service had failed to clear the wounded. Haig made special mention of Begg's work on 7 November 1917 and he was appointed CB on 1 January 1918.
In early 1918 Godley was placed in command of XXII Corps and again Begg joined him as deputy director of medical services. Moved south to help stem the German offensive, by August the corps began its advance towards the Hindenburg defences. Care of the wounded progressed satisfactorily as emphasis was on early surgery with more self-sufficiency and mobility for forward medical units. However, in mid-year the troops were hit by the first wave of the influenza pandemic. Begg was also given responsibility for the care of wounded from the French Fifth Army and on 11 October 1918 the president of the French Republic honoured him with the highest order of the Croix de guerre.
On 30 November 1918, after 4½ years in the field, Charles Begg was promoted to director of medical services in London, England, where his wife and children had arrived to join him. Eight weeks later he developed influenza, then acute pneumonia. He died in Twickenham on 2 February 1919 and on 5 February was buried with full military honours in Walton-on-Thames. At just 39 years of age he had held the top medical post in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and had been the most decorated member of the Medical Corps.