OFF THE BEATEN TRACK, in a tiny cemetery in the Nicola Valley — sagebrush and cactus country — one grave marker stands out from the rest. It’s a simple but impressive granite headstone, at the final resting place of a very special man.
After more than 80 years, Pvt. George McLean finally has the recognition he deserves.
To be sure, the Vimy Ridge hero — wounded in action during an astounding feat of bravery at the famous nation-building battle of the First World War — was recognized in 1917 with the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and was the stuff of newspaper headlines when he returned home.
But afterward, he returned to a quiet life as a ranch hand in the Nicola Valley until his untimely death in 1934 after a night on the town in Merritt. He was buried on the Upper Nicola Indian Band Reserve, his grave marked with a simple wooden cross with the words “George McLean, Died 1934” scratched on it.
Time and weather took its toll on that marker, and it eventually rotted and fell over, and neither the gravesite nor even which cemetery he was buried in was known for many decades.
But that’s all been corrected. A couple of weeks ago, an official military marker was installed at Pvt. McLean’s burial site, compliments of the Veterans Affairs Department and its Last Post Fund program.
It’s an appropriate honour for a man who fought so bravely for his country at Vimy, charging Hill 145 in the early morning hours of April 9, 1917 and single-handedly capturing a German-held position.
I know George McLean as an ancestor, the son of Allen McLean, the leader of the infamous outlaw Wild McLean gang, four young men hanged in 1881 for murdering a police constable and a sheep herder. Allen was a brother of my great-grandfather.
George grew up around Douglas Lake and south of the border, cared for by various members of his family. He had an obvious aversion to city living, preferring the open range to city streets, the company of horses and cowboys to a crowd.
The trail to locating Pvt. McLean’s final resting place was a long and twisting one. I wrote two books about the McLean family but was never able to find where he was buried. I knew his body was taken to the Upper Nicola reserve because his mother was the daughter of band chief Chillihitzia, but there are at least half a dozen cemeteries that could have held his remains.
In the early fall of 2013, a reporter from The Kamloops Daily News who was doing a story about him interviewed me, and said there was interest in finding his gravesite for a military marker but that a relative would have to make the application. I was the closest known relative.
That triggered a new search. Working with Lynne Jorgesen, the cultural historian for the Upper Nicola Band, we not only were able to locate the cemetery and plot number, but eventually one of George’s grand-daughters contacted me in response to media coverage.
The following summer, I and several members of the Band searched the cemetery and I had the thrill of finding his old wooden grave marker on the ground on top of his burial plot. This past April, we showed the site to George’s grand-daughter Freda.
With a location confirmed, the application to Veterans Affairs went forward, and that lonely little cemetery now includes an impressive granite military marker — inscribed with DCM for Distinguished Conduct Medal — for its most famous inhabitant.
Last week marked the 98th anniversary of the day George McLean arrived back from France and told a crowd of well-wishers at the CPR station in Kamloops about his exploits. At long last, his life and his bravery are officially recognized where he rests.