George McLean, DCM, Okanagan (Interior Salish) cowboy, rancher, firefighter, soldier and war hero (born 15 April 1875 in Douglas Lake, BC; died 7 September 1934 in Merritt, BC). McLean was a veteran of both the South African War (see Canada and the South African War) and the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his heroic actions at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
McLean was the son of Allan McLean, a horse breaker of Scottish ancestry and Angele, the daughter of Douglas Lake First Nation Chief Johnny Chillihatza. Angele had other noble family connections. She was the niece of Nicola, grand chief of the Okanagan people (see Interior Salish) and chief of the Nicola Valley First Nations. Angele was also the paternal great-granddaughter of Louis Clexlixgen, hereditary chief of the Kamloops First Nation (or Secwepemc, see Interior Salish). McLean’s father was better known however, as the leader of an infamous outlaw gang, known as the Wild McLean Boys (see McLean Gang). Its four members were hanged at New Westminster, British Columbia on 31 January 1881 for killing a Kamloops policeman and a sheepherder.
George McLean in the South African War (Boer War) era, c. 1902.
Standing: Joe Greaves and George McLean (right).
Sitting: Isaac McQueen and Jimmy Ingram.
South African War
McLean enlisted for the South African War (Boer War) in Kamloops, British Columbia on 24 April 1902 when he was 25 years old (see Canada and the South African War). He joined the 5th Regiment Canadian Mounted Rifles. One of his two references, a local clothier, noted, “He is of good character and just the man for that country” (i.e., South Africa). The other reference, a provincial government barrister, wrote that McLean “is of good character and standing in this community and is well fitted…for enlistment…” Among the requirements to join the mounted rifles was the ability to ride and shoot. McLean was described on his Attestation Paper (enlistment form) as a “very good” rider and a “fair” shot. For the question “What is your Trade or Calling?” he wrote “Cowboy.”
At this stage of the war, the Boers (white Afrikaners, mostly of Dutch ancestry) were near defeat. By the time McLean arrived in South Africa with his unit on 22 June 1902 after a long sea voyage, they had surrendered. With the war over, McLean and his comrades in the 5th Regiment waited in a concentration area, along with the troops of the 3rd, 4th and 6th Regiments. Together, these four units of 2,036 soldiers comprised the 4th Canadian Contingent sent to South Africa. McLean departed South Africa on 3 July. Back in Canada, he became a rancher in the Douglas Lake area.
George McLean during the First World War.
First World War
Every single man between 20 and 35 from the Head of the Lake First Nation volunteered to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War. Even though he was now 41, McLean also volunteered. On 14 October 1916, he joined the 172nd (Rocky Mountain Rangers) Battalion in Vernon (BC). He sailed for Europe on the SS Mauritania on 25 October. In England, the 172nd Battalion was absorbed into a reserve battalion and McLean was transferred to the 54th (Kootenay) Battalion, an infantry unit in 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division. He arrived in France on December 7.
Distinguished Conduct Medal
During the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, McLean’s bravery resulted in a rare honour: the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). During the First World War, the DCM was the second-highest award that could be given to soldiers of the British Empire, topped only by the Victoria Cross (see Medal). Less than 2,000 members of the more than 600,000 that served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force received this medal during the war.
On April 11, the third day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, one of McLean’s officers was wounded. McLean carried him to safety before returning to the fight. After he went back, McLean and another soldier discovered a German dugout that contained several German soldiers. Between them, they had about a dozen Mills bombs — early versions of the hand grenade. McLean was about to throw his first grenade when his fellow soldier was killed.
Spurred on by this, McLean began to throw grenades at the German position. Faced with this onslaught, the German sergeant major in charge of the dugout put up his hands and shouted, “Do not throw the bomb.” McLean hesitated and the German asked him how many men he had with him. When McLean told him that he had 150 men, the German gave up his automatic weapon and ordered his soldiers to come out with their hands up.
McLean then marched 19 prisoners to back to his own lines, covering them with the German gun. On the way back, McLean was wounded twice in his left arm by a German sniper. Shortly afterward, five of the German prisoners tried to disarm McLean, but he was able to successfully fight them off, even though wounded.
McLean’s wound required evacuation from the front lines and by 16 April 1917 he was in a military hospital in London. After moving through a series of other military hospitals, he ended up in a Canadian Military Hospital in Liverpool. He was discharged from the hospital on 14 September and sailed back to Canada on the same day. In Canada, he was treated at a convalescent hospital in Esquimalt, British Columbia. He was honourably discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 17 June 1918, less than five months before the war ended.
After his return to Canada, McLean eventually became a firefighter in the Vancouver area. When he died in 1934 of undetermined causes, the Royal Canadian Legion offered his family a war hero's military burial. His family and friends, however, preferred to bury him on the Upper Nicola Indian Reserve (near Douglas Lake Ranch). His grave was marked only by a simple wooden cross. After several years, the exact location of the grave became lost, but when it was eventually found again the Last Post Fund erected a military headstone on it.
George McLean was one of the most highly decorated First Nations soldiers in the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his courageous actions at Vimy Ridge in 1917. In April 2017, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives in British Columbia opened two exhibits honouring McLean. The first was a permanent exhibit detailing his life and exploits. The second was a temporary one that contained the same exhibits, but which travelled around the province. In July 2017, he was honoured in Scotland at a gathering of the McLean clan. McLean’s name is also engraved on the war memorial outside the Okanagan Indian Band offices near Vernon, BC ( see Interior Salish).