By MEL ROTHENBURGER
April 9, 1917, 5:29 a.m., Vimy Ridge, France
Twenty thousand Canadian soldiers sat silently in their rat-infested, urine-soaked trenches, stretched out for four miles along the so-called Vimy Sector. Across No Man’s Land, a cratered sea of mud and bones, were the Germans, behind rows of barbed wire, in their ditches, tunnels and pill boxes, facing the Canadians with rifles, machine guns, and heavy artillery.
On the left flank of the Canadian front line, the men of the Fifty-fourth Battalion, Fourth Division, awaited the signal to fix bayonets.
Waiting in the trench with the other soldiers of the Fifty-fourth was Private George McLean, aged 44, loaded down with his rifle, ammunition, rations, gas mask, water bottle, shovel, and Mills hand grenades.
This was a much different sort of war from the one against the Boers. In that one, George McLean had enlisted in the Canadian Mounted Rifles. Though he hadn’t seen much excitement, riding a horse on the open veld easily beat waiting in a stinking trench to see whether a sniper, mustard gas or trench mouth got you first.
Since October, 1916, when he’d joined the 172d Battalion being recruited in the Okanagan and then been transferred to the Fifty-fourth in France, he’d been just another foot soldier in the great European stalemate between Fritz and the Allies.
All along the trenches the order finally came to fix bayonets.
Back in the mid ‘90s, I used to correspond with an old cowboy named Red Watson, who lived in Virginia City, Nevada.
Red once rode with George McLean and George’s one-eyed horse Joker on the Douglas Lake Ranch, and got to know him. He got to know that George didn’t like being known as the son of an outlaw who was hanged for murder.
After Const. Johnny Ussher was killed by the infamous Wild McLean gang in 1879, George’s mother took him to live across the border for awhile. George grew up thinking Allen McLean, the leader of the outlaw gang, was his uncle, not his father.
The whole story was, as Red put it, “a touchy subject.”
But George did talk about Vimy Ridge. One night when they were camped on the Nicola River, George talked about the famous day he captured all those German soldiers, killed some others, and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
“It seems he had an Indian friend who he thought a lot of,” Red wrote to me on Jan. 25, 1994. “And when they were getting ready to go over the top they passed out the powerful liquor that made you not fear God, man, beast or the devil
“And this young Indian refused it, and as George took it from him as the boy offered it to him, a sniper bullet ended the young man’s life. “
“George evidently went berserk and the rest is history. He did deserve the Victoria Cross.”
October 5, 1917, Kamloops
George McLean was an unlikely hero. At 44 years of age, he was also an unlikely soldier. He was barely five feet, seven inches tall, just over 150 pounds, with dark skin, jet-black hair, and soft brown eyes. Age and physical stature had had nothing do with heroism when he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion when dealing with enemy snipers. 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.”
That’s what the official London Gazette citation said.
Later, the newspapers dubbed him The German Killer. When he arrived back in Kamloops after being discharged due to his wounds, he stood on the platform of the CPR station in Kamloops describing what happened at Vimy.
“There were two machine guns playing on us and one of our officers got hit. I pulled him out of the mess, and at the time I was close to the Germans’ dugouts. I knew there were about 60 of the enemy there and I got hold of my bombs and just as I was in the act of pulling the pin my partner, who was close to me, got it in the head. Then I bombed them. And I bombed them again and again. I used nine bombs altogether and they ran like rabbits into their dugouts. After they ran into the dugout I kept bombing them until their sergeant-major threw up his hands shouting, ‘Don’t throw the bomb’ and I didn’t. He came out of the hole and handed me his automatic pistol and asked me how many there were of us and I said there were 150.”
Merritt, Friday, Sept. 7, 1934, morning
Sometime during the night, George McLean curled up in the bush behind a local farmer’s barn to sleep. They found him there in the morning, after someone had spotted his horse tethered nearby and started looking for him. He’d spent the previous evening around town, as he often did, getting drunk. Since it wasn’t yet very cold outside, even overnight, it wasn’t exposure that killed him. Probably he’d passed out, thrown up and suffocated on his own vomit.
Since the war George McLean had done exactly what he wanted to do, wrangling at Douglas Lake and other ranches in the Nicola, living in a small cabin. He was “a likeable type,” and for a few beers in one of the local watering holes, he’d tell any who wanted to listen about Vimy. He might even pull out his medal for people to admire. The legend of George McLean tended to get enhanced. It became an accepted part of the story that when he’d captured the German soldiers, they’d thrown up their hands in surrender and shouted, “Me go England.” And George had supposedly shouted, “You go Kingdom Come,” and bayonetted all of them.
Dying there on the ground, pointlessly, alone, was a sad end for a war hero. The Canadian Legion offered to arrange a funeral service, but some indigenous friends claimed the body and took it to Douglas Lake for burial instead.
George McLean had never again achieved the incredible strength of character that emerged from nowhere during those few hours at Vimy, for that was impossible, and maybe he’d lived in the past ever since, but the bravery of his actions on the slopes of an ignominious ridge near the coast of France would never be forgotten.
This article is based on excerpts from The Wild McLeans by Mel Rothenburger, Orca Book Publishers, 1993. The excerpts were part of a story, Looking for Pvt. George McLean, originally posted on ArmchairMayor.ca in 2014. George McLean was one of many indigenous soldiers who served in the way; he was my ancestral cousin.