An Okanagan Hero
November 6, 2020
In a damp, dark trench crawling with rats, George McLean sat silently alongside his fellow members of the Fifty-Fourth (Kootenay) Battalion. The year was 1917, and in a few hours the silence that had descended over no-man’s land would be broken by the sounds of screams, explosions, and machine gun fire. It was the first morning of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, which many historians consider a defining moment, and one of the greatest victories, for the Canadian Army.
George McLean, from the Nk’maplqs (Head of the Lake) Band, was not new to the world of soldiering by the time of the Battle for Vimy Ridge. During the Boer War, when he was 25-years-old, McLean had served with the Canadian Mounted Rifles. When World War One broke out, McLean, alongside every other male member of the Head of the Lake Band between the ages of 20 and 35, enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Almost immediately, he was sent overseas to France.
It was the start of the third day of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, but for the soldiers who were participating, it undoubtedly felt much longer. One member of the 2nd Divisions’ 6th Brigade described “wounded men sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in craters, the field swarming with stretcher-bearers trying to keep up with the casualties.”
Just after pulling a wounded officer to safety, McLean and another soldier discovered a dugout hiding several German troops. Before either of the men could respond, McLean’s fellow soldier was struck. Alone in a vulnerable position, McLean responded quickly, raining small “pineapple” bombs down on the German troops. This did not result in any German casualties, but certainly startled the cowering men. A German Sergeant called to McLean to stop the onslaught, and asked how many troops he had with him. McLean replied that he stood with 150 men. Immediately, the German officer gave over his weapon and ordered his troops to stand down. McLean then single-handedly captured 19 prisoners and marched them back to his own lines. As they walked, McLean was shot twice in the arm, and five of the prisoners attempted to disarm him, but he did not falter.
Due to his wound, McLean was evacuated from the front lines and sent to London to recover. Later, he was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Metal for his outstanding bravery. When he died in 1934 of unknown causes, the Royal Canadian Legion offered his family a war hero’s burial, but they declined, preferring instead to bury him near Douglas Lake Ranch. George McLean’s grave was marked with a simple wooden cross, as modest and steadfast as the man himself.
We will remember them.
Private George McLean
George McLean (standing, far right)
Sunday, November 8, 2020 is Indigenous Veterans Day. To see all of the veterans from the Nk’maplqs (Head of the Lake) Band (Okanagan Indian Band), click here.