Scottish-First Nations soldier honoured for role at Vimy Ridge

Official grave marker of Private George McLean. He was originally buried under a wooden cross in his First Nations graveyard by family and friends.

Tags: | |

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs and Gerry Weaver

Merritt, British Columbia — On April 9, 2017, as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was being commemorated across the ocean in France, another ceremony was taking place in British Columbia to honour a brave Scottish-First Nations soldier who served with distinction during that very battle.

Private George McLean, born on April 15, 1875 in Kamloops, B.C., was the only son of Angele, daughter of First Nations chief Johnny Chillihitzia, Chief of the Douglas Lake Indian Band, and the niece of Nicola, Grand Chief of the Okanagan people and Chief of B.C.’s Nicola Valley peoples. His father was Allen McLean, who infamously led an outlaw gang, the Wild McLean Boys. Allen McLean hailed from the Clan Maclean, which is one of the oldest clans in Scotland. He was hanged in 1881, but his son would go on to bring honour to the McLean name once again.

(Note that the spelling of the name McLean varies throughout this story as is common with surnames that have followed their owners around the globe because of record-keeping errors.)

Pte McLean earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his service. The DCM is the second-highest honour attainable by non-commissioned members in the First World War. A small man at just five feet seven inches, he enlisted when he was 41 with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served with 54th Battalion. He also served during the Boer War in 1902 with the 172nd Battalion and upon his return to Canada, he became a rancher.

A permanent and a traveling version of a display about his life and exploits were unveiled at the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Relatives from far and near made the trek to be present at the ceremony, including Nova Scotia and Portland, Oregon. Event co-chairs Freda McLean, granddaughter of George McLean, and Ian MacLean of the Clan Maclean Heritage Trust attended, as did a second granddaughter, Mary McLean. The traditions of Indigenous drumming and Scottish bagpiping were heard in equal measure.

A letter from the current chief of Clan Maclean, Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean, noted that Pte McLean’s heritage on both sides valued bravery and steadfastness, and he demonstrated both in his exemplary service during the battle, when he attacked a group of enemy soldiers with about a dozen hand grenades and a lot of courage and determination.

The DCM citation reads:

Single-handed he captured 19 prisoners, and later, when attacked by five more prisoners who attempted to reach a machine-gun, he was able — although wounded — to dispose of them unaided, thus saving a large number of casualties.

Between the capture of the 19 prisoners and the second event, a sniper put two bullet wounds in McLean’s left arm. He survived the war, became a fireman in British Columbia, and died in 1934 at the age of 60 of causes undetermined.

Although the Royal Canadian Legion offered a military burial, his family and friends preferred to bury him on the reserve, marked by a wooden cross. After many years, a search for the grave was done and a military headstone was erected through Veterans Affairs’ Last Post Fund program, as was fitting for this hero of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Family members plan to travel to Scotland on June 21, 2017 to attend the International Gathering of Clan Maclean on the Isle of Mull, including Ian MacLean, who plans to report on the commemoration of their ancestor as part of his duties with the Clan Maclean Heritage Trust. Also attending are Pte McLean’s granddaughter Freda McLean, her daughter Emma and grandson Mattias.

“My daughter Emma Louie and I are looking forward to exploring our Scottish ancestry and lineage,” said Ms. McLean.

To comment on this article, visit the Canadian Army’s Facebook Notes.
For more articles, visit the Canadian Army website.

Related Links

Canadian Heritage: World Wars Aboriginal Veterans
Last Post Fund
About National Aboriginal Day
First Nations
Inuit
Métis

Image gallery

  • Private George McLean's granddaughters Freda McLean (left), co-chair of the Private George McLean Commemoration and Mary McLean (right) at the April 9, 2017 event.
  • Private George McLean Commemoration Event co-chairs Freda McLean, granddaughter of George McLean, and Ian MacLean of the Clan Maclean Heritage Trust, with the storyboards created for the Nicola Valley Museum and as a travelling exhibit.
  • Official grave marker of Private George McLean. He was originally buried under a wooden cross in his First Nations graveyard by family and friends.

Article / June 22, 2017 / Project number: 17-0164

Date modified: