b. 04/07/1888 Willington, County Durham. d. 28/11/1926 Brighton, Sussex.
George Burdon McKean (1888-1926) was born on 4th July 1888 in Willington, County Durham, where his father was a furniture dealer. After George’s father died, George moved with his mother and sister to Bishop Auckland, where he attended Bishop Barrington School. Then in 1902, aged just 14 years old, George emigrated to Canada to live and work on his elder brother’s cattle ranch. His mother died in 1905.
When the First World War began, George McKean, 5’ 6” tall and weighing only nine stones, was rejected three times for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, before he finally enlisted on 23 January 1915 in Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta. After completing his training, Private McKean arrived in Britain in April 1916 and joined the 14th Infantry Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) on the Western Front in June 1916.
After he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery at Bully-Grenay, near Lens in France, George McKean was commissioned in April 1917 as a Second Lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but remained with the 14th Infantry Battalion.
On the night of 27-28 April 1918, during a raid on German trenches at Gavrelle, near Arras, a patrol led by Lieutenant McKean was pinned down by intense machine gun fire and hand grenades thrown from a strongly-defended German position. Realising that this obstacle had to be destroyed or the raid would fail, George then rushed the barbed wire barricade and, armed only with his revolver, leapt over the top and fought with two German defenders before killing them both. The remainder of the Canadian patrol then joined their lieutenant, as he cleared the trench and dug-outs with Mills bombs, killing or taking prisoner several German soldiers.
For this action in April 1918, Lieutenant George McKean was awarded the Victoria Cross, one of seven County Durham men who were awarded the VC during the First World War, and the official citation (see below) praised both his “splendid bravery and dash” and “his leadership that has at all times been beyond praise”.
This, however, was not the end of George McKean’s military career, as he was also awarded the Military Cross in September 1918 at Cagnicourt, when he led a small advance party of the 14th Infantry Battalion and took over 100 German prisoners. Badly wounded by shrapnel during this action, Lieutenant McKean was invalided to England and he took no further part in the war.
In July 1919, George McKean retired from the Canadian Army with the rank of Captain but, instead of returning to Canada, he settled near Brighton and married. Then, on 28th November 1926, he was fatally wounded in a horrific accident at a saw mill. He was buried with full military honours at Brighton Extra Mural Cemetery, Brighton, Sussex. His medals which include the VC, MC, MM, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 are held and displayed by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: BRIGHTON EXTRA MURAL CEMETERY, BRIGHTON, SUSSEX
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
Mount McKean, Alberta, Canada
Leon Underwood painting
Courtesy of Sharif Tarabay
Images of the VC commemorative stone unveiling at Willington Library courtesy of Andrew Swan