By John Morden
Today in Library and Archives Canada’s blog series on Canadian Victoria Cross recipients, we remember George Burdon McKean, who earned his Victoria Cross one hundred years ago today for his heroic actions on the battlefield.
Born on July 4, 1888, in Willington, England, McKean immigrated to Canada in 1909 and settled in Edmonton, Alberta. Before enlisting on January 23, 1915, McKean was a schoolteacher. McKean joined the 51st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and arrived in England in April 1916. On June 8, 1916, McKean transferred to the 14th Battalion.
Sometime in the night of April 27–28, 1918, while the 14th Battalion was stationed near Gavrelle, France, McKean earned the Victoria Cross, Britain’s most prestigious military decoration. During a scouting mission, the party of men led by McKean ran head-on into a strongly defended German position. While the rest of the unit was pinned down by machine gun fire, McKean charged into the German trench with “conspicuous bravery and devotion.” Upon reaching the position, McKean killed two German soldiers, held his ground and called for more bombs. After resupplying, McKean took another position and single-handedly killed another two German soldiers and captured four more. McKean’s example rallied his men and the mission was successful. As reported in the London Gazette two months later:
“This officer’s splendid bravery and dash undoubtedly saved many lives, for had not this position been captured, the whole of the raiding party would have been exposed to dangerous enfilading fire during the withdrawal. His leadership at all times has been beyond praise.”
Later, McKean was awarded the Military Medal and Military Cross on March 28, 1917 and February 1, 1919, respectively. He would survive the war, though he would be wounded in the right leg on September 2, 1918 during the Hundred Days Offensive. He remained in England for the rest of the conflict. Following his release from hospital, McKean served as acting captain at the Khaki University of Canada in London, England, until his retirement on July 19, 1919.
He chose to remain in England after leaving the army and was killed in an industrial accident on November 28, 1926. McKean’s final resting place is Brighton Extra Mural Cemetery in Sussex, England.
Today his Victoria Cross is kept at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. McKean is honoured with a mountain named after him in the Victoria Cross Ranges in the Canadian Rockies.
Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant George Burdon McKean.
John Morden is an honours history student from Carleton University doing a practicum in the Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.