Remembering unlikely war hero George McLean, his battle at Vimy Ridge and his infamous roots | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Remembering unlikely war hero George McLean, his battle at Vimy Ridge and his infamous roots

First World War hero George McLean
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Kelowna Museums

Vernon resident and Okanagan Indian Band member Freda McLean never knew her grandfather but thinks it’s an honour that the First World War veteran is still gathering interest 86 years after his death.

George McLean fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War and was honoured with the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the battle. It was the second-highest award for gallantry in action for all army ranks below commissioned officers, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.

READ MORE: Remembrance Day planners scrambling as COVID-19 upends traditional ceremonies

George single-handedly caught 19 prisoners and was able, despite being wounded, to take out five other Germans who attempted to reach a machine gun during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, according to Mel Rothenburger’s book, The Wild McLeans.

George was an “unlikely hero” and an “unlikely soldier,” according to Rothenburger. He was five-foot-seven, a little over 150 pounds and was 44 years old when he fought with the 172nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

He was the son of notorious gang member Allan McLean and Angele, the daughter of Douglas Lake First Nation Chief Johnny Chillihatza, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Allan, along with his two brothers Charlie and Archie, terrorized pioneers in the Kamloops area, stealing horses and lived as wild bandits back in the late 1800s before they were hanged. They were notoriously known as the Wild McLeans during that time and in more recent times, have even had a song written about them.

After the First World War, George became a rancher at Douglas Lake. Sixteen years after Vimy Ridge, he was found curled up behind a Merritt farmer’s barn in a bush in 1934, dead.

For Freda, there’s an air of mystery around George and who he was.

“(George) and my grandmother separated and I’m not sure what year that happened. My dad didn’t speak of him and I didn’t know of the wild Mcleans until I was 15,” Freda said. “Any time I asked questions, they didn’t answer. It will remain a mystery.”

Through her research, she’s heard both good and bad stories around George, who was born in 1875 in Douglas Lake. She's heard that he wasn’t kind to her grandmother, Theresa Ashton. She’s also heard he donated his wealth to people in the Merritt community and that he used to garden.

“I’ve had to do research to find and look for another side of him,” she said.

Freda’s proud to be his descendant, she said.

“He’s a very interesting man, kind of elusive,” said Lynne Jorgeson, cultural resources heritage manager with the Upper Nicola Lake Indian Band.

Jorgeson, along with Rothenburger, found his grave in an Upper Nicola Indian Band cemetery back in 2014.

“It’s become a milestone in my professional career,” she said, adding that she was a teenager when she read about the McLeans, not realizing all the interesting history that happened not far from where she lived.

“I think George deserves his rightful place in history and recognition for his achievements. Anything that contributes to keeping his memory alive is a good thing… Maybe the words ‘local legend’ is an exaggeration but he’s kind of in that category.”

You can learn more about George at the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives.

- This story was originally published Nov. 11, 2020.

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