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George Burdon McKean (1888-1926)

Willington’s Victoria Cross hero

George McKean was born in 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. He left school in 1901 to become an apprenticed cabinet maker for the firm of Messrs T Thompson’s Executors in Newgate Street, Willington. According to various accounts, George emigrated in either 1902, 1907 or 1909. Available passenger lists of voyages to Canada record the passage of George McKean, of the right age, in both 1907 and 1909. It is possible that George visited Canada, came back to England and then returned to his adopted country. What is clear is that he left Willington as a young man in order to work on his elder brother’s cattle ranch in Canada. 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 won 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, in November 1926, he was fatally wounded in a horrific accident at a saw mill. Members of Bishop Auckland’s British Legion branch attended his military funeral in Brighton.

Victoria Cross citation for Lieutenant George McKean, London Gazette, 28 June 1918. “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. Lt. McKean’s party, which was operating on the right flank, was held up at a block in the communication trench by most intense fire from hand grenades and machine guns. This block, which was too close to our trenches to have been engaged by the preliminary bombardment, was well protected by wire and covered by a well-protected machine gun 30 yards behind it. Realising that if this block were not destroyed, the success of the whole operation might be marred, he ran into the open to the right flank of the block, and with utter disregard of danger, leaper over the block head first on top of the enemy. Whilst lying on the ground on top of one of the enemy, another rushed at him with fixed bayonet; Lt. McKean shot him through the body and then shot the enemy underneath him, who was struggling violently. This very gallant action enabled the position to be captured. Lt. McKean’s supply of bombs ran out at this time, and he sent back to our front line for a fresh supply. Whilst waiting for them he engaged the enemy single-handed. When the bombs arrived, he fearlessly rushed the second block, killing two of the enemy, capturing four others and drove the remaining garrison, including a hostile machine-gun section, into a dug-out. The dug-out, with its occupants and machine gun, was destroyed. 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.”

George Burdon McKean VC Stone, published 28 April 2018 – courtesy of Lonely Tower Film and Media

Where to look for more information about this person:
Imperial War Museum, London:

London Gazette, 28 June 1918:

Canadian Defence Forces:

Dictionary of Canadian Biography: James Ernest Nix, “McKEAN, GEORGE BURDON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval;

The Northern Echo, 12 June 2008:

The Victoria Cross mountain range on “Retroactive: blogging Alberta’s Historic Places”:

Summit Search the website of Mountain Nerd (Eric Coulthard) who climbs and photographs Mount McKean:

“Webmatters: Carte de Route”, page on the memorial for McKean in Cagnicourt, France

Dominion Geordies in World War One

Dominion Geordies of WW1 short documentary film includes a piece on George McKean at 00:10:23

Civil Parish: Willington

Birth date: 4-Jul-1888

Death date: 28-Nov-1926

Armed force/civilian: Army

Residence: 102 High Street, Willington, County Durham

Religion: Presbyterian

Family: Father – James McKean. Mother – Jane Ann Henderson
Wife (Canada) – Isabel Hall McKean (nee McKay)
Wife (Brighton) – Constance Hilton McKean (nee Slaughter)
Daughter (Brighton) – Constance Patricia McKean (born 1920)

Military service:

Enlisted, as a Private, 23 January 1915, in the 51st Infantry Battalion, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Posted to France, June 1916, to the 14th Infantry Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), Canadian Expeditionary Force
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, April 1917, 14th Infantry Battalion
Retired, as an acting Captain, July 1919.

Medal(s): George McKean’s Victoria Cross, Military Cross, Military Medal and campaign medals are in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

Memorial(s): Brighton Extra-Mural Cemetery

Gender: Male

Contributed by Durham County Record Office

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