McKEAN, GEORGE BURDON, army officer and author; b. 4 July 1888 in Willington, County Durham, England, son of James McKean, a furniture broker, and Jane Ann Henderson; m. first 1915 Isabel Hall; m. secondly Constance ––-–––, and they had a daughter; d. 28 Nov. 1926 in Potters Bar, England.
His parents deceased, George McKean immigrated to Canada at the age of 14 in 1902 to join his elder brother, J. W. McKean, who farmed near Lethbridge (Alta). After some years of ranching and farming, in 1912 he enrolled at Robertson College, the Presbyterian theological school in Edmonton. During summers he served as a student missionary at Hardieville and Athabasca Landing (Athabasca), and in 1912–14 as assistant minister at Robertson Church in Edmonton. In 1913 he organized the first Boy Scout troop in this church. He may have had some question about his vocation, however, because, on joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I, he gave his occupation as schoolteacher.
After being turned down three times, he enlisted in Edmonton on 23 Jan. 1915 as a private in the 51st Infantry Battalion. Perhaps his small size had been an obstacle: he was five feet six inches in height and 120 pounds. He went to Britain as a sergeant in April 1916 and, after transferring to the 14th Infantry Battalion (the Royal Montreal Regiment), was sent to France as a private in June. When he won the Military Medal at Bully-Grenay, near Lens, he had advanced to corporal and was recommended for a commission, which he obtained in April 1917.
Perhaps because of his size, and his aptitude, McKean was often assigned to scouting duties, creeping across no man’s land and reporting on the enemy. “It was the pure love of adventure that attracted me to scouting,” he later wrote, adding that the appeal had roots in his involvement with the Boy Scouts. On the night of 27–28 April 1918, near Gavrelle, the Canadians encountered stiff opposition; artillery could not be called in because the Germans were too close to the front line. With his patrol held up by grenades and rifle fire, Lieutenant McKean determined that this resistance had to be wiped out. Revolver in hand, he dived over a barricade of barbed wire and crashed into a German soldier, whom he shot. When another rushed at him with his bayonet, he killed him too. His men then joined him, and they charged along the trench. The Germans, who fled into a dugout, were dispatched with a Mills bomb. The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded McKean for this action reads: “This officer’s splendid bravery and dash undoubtedly saved many lives. . . . His leadership at all times has been beyond praise.” When she learned of this decoration, Isabel McKean, who had married George just before he enlisted, was “keenly pleased.” At the time she was working as a private secretary in the office of Major J. M. Carson, the military registrar in Calgary. McKean was awarded the Military Cross for his part in an action in September at Cagnicourt, where he and his scouts led the battalion forward, sent back accurate reports, and captured a “party of the enemy over a hundred strong.” McKean’s “conduct throughout was magnificent,” read his citation.
Severely wounded in this engagement and invalided to England, he was unable to rejoin his regiment before the end of the war. During his convalescence, while he was reportedly still suffering shock, his portrait was painted by Frederick Horsman Varley*, one of Canada’s war artists. Of this haunting work, the artist’s son Peter writes, “In his characterization of McKean, Varley caught the numbed horror of his shattered soul: rigid, staring, one eye showing a wild defiance, almost rage; the other guarded, cynical, hiding a storm of hatred.” While recovering McKean also prepared for popular consumption a book on his war experiences, Scouting thrills (New York, 1919). He would later draw on his time in Canada for a juvenile book, Making good; a story of North-West Canada (London, 1921), an account of two English lads’ adventures ranching in Alberta.
Following his release from hospital, in February 1919 McKean, with rank of acting captain, was put in charge of the Bureau of Information at the Khaki University of Canada in London, an educational scheme initiated by the Canadian Young Men’s Christian Association of Canada to prepare soldiers for civilian life. He retired from the forces in July and subsequently settled near Brighton. In 1926 the sawmill he was operating at Cuffley, north of London, flew apart and a piece of blade fractured his skull. He died at nearby Potters Bar Cottage Hospital and was buried in Brighton Extra-Mural Cemetery. His medals and portrait are held by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
George Burdon McKean is the author of Scouting thrills (Toronto and New York, 1919) and Making good: a story of northwest Canada (Toronto and London, 1921).
Canadian War Museum Arch. (Ottawa), File on decorations of G. B. McKean. General Register Office (Southport, Eng.), Reg. of births, Willington, 4 July 1888. NA, RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, file 436568. Beaver (London), 22 March 1919. Edmonton Journal, 29 June 1918, 11 Nov. 1996. Lethbridge Herald (Lethbridge, Alta), 1 Dec. 1926. Morning Bulletin (Edmonton), 1 July 1918. Ottawa Citizen, 28 March 1979. Presbyterian and Westminster (Toronto), 18 July 1918. Times (London), 29 June 1918, 29 Nov. 1926. W. A. Bishop, Our bravest and best: the stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross winners (Toronto, 1995). F. H. Varley: a centennial exhibition, comp. Christopher Varley (Edmonton, 1981), 34. The register of the Victoria Cross (rev. ed., Cheltenham, Eng., 1988). The Royal Montreal Regiment: 14th Battalion, C.E.F., 1914–1925, ed. R. C. Fetherstonhaugh (Montreal, 1927). Peter Varley, Frederick H. Varley (Toronto, 1983)