Love tragically lost on Valentine’s Day

Gunner Robert Begbie from Musselburgh
Gunner Robert Begbie from Musselburgh
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IT was not under enemy fire, but under the surgeon’s knife in a British military hospital that Gunner Robert Begbie was fatally wounded while serving in the Great War.

The centenary of his death on February 14, 1918 will be commemorated today by his family in Musselburgh in honour of a “quiet, unassuming, brave man”.

They will also reflect on the heartache endured by his wife Margaret, who lost the love of her life on Valentine’s Day – having travelled for hours to be at his bedside, only to arrive too late.

The second eldest of seven children, Robert was a cooper at Whitelaw’s Brewery, Musselburgh, where he started out as a carter. He married Margaret (nee Murdoch) and they had four children.

His death, aged 43, is still felt deeply by his family, including his great-granddaughter Olivia Begbie, who grew up sharing memories of the tragedy.

Olivia said: “When Robert Gibson Begbie was born in 1875 in Fisherrow, little did he know that catastrophic events would take him away from his beloved family to places he would read about at school.

“Places in France where he saw friends die in agony; once beautiful landscapes turned into fields of treacherous mud in which hidden landmines obliterated thousands of soldiers. A world away from the harbour and sands of Fisherrow.”

After the outbreak of the First World War, Robert joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a gunner with the 390th Siege Battery, seeing active service in Northern France.

“Having survived the horrors of the trenches and heavy artillery bombardments, he was taken to Ripon Military Hospital in February 1918 suffering from appendicitis,” said Olivia. “Unfortunately, the surgeon cut too deeply and my great grandfather bled to death on the operating table on St Valentine’s Day.”

When Margaret learned that her husband had been admitted to hospital, she travelled alone by train to Yorkshire, making the final part of the journey on foot.

Olivia continues: “This was quite an undertaking in those days as well as being costly, but all she wanted to do was to see her husband.

“When she reached the hospital, she was told she had wasted her time because he had died that morning. She wasn’t even allowed to see him in the mortuary. One nurse was kind and made my great grandmother a cup of tea which she had in the corridor before she began the long journey back to Musselburgh.

“Instead of celebrating St Valentine’s Day with the love of her life, she travelled home alone, with only her grief as company. Once home, she bought a lair at Inveresk Churchyard and he was brought home and laid to rest.

“The one consolation for Margaret was that she was able to visit his grave, which many other wives were not able to do.”

For serving his country, Robert was awarded three medals posthumously.