George McLean, pictured here during World War I, was one of many men from the Okanagan Indian Band who fought in the Great War. According to the band, every male between the ages of 20 and 35 enlisted.

Date: Circa 1914-1916

Author: Unknown

Source: Photo courtesy of Okanagan Indian Band

More than 4,000 Indigenous people volunteered to fight for Canada during the First World War. At least 50 received medals for their bravery on the battlefield. George McLean, a self-proclaimed cowboy from the Okanagan, was one of them.

Born in 1875 to a notorious Scottish outlaw and the daughter of a local First Nations chief, McLean was already a veteran when he signed up to serve Canada during the Great War  — although not one with scars to show. McLean had enlisted to fight for the British Empire in the Second Boer War nearly 15 years earlier. But by the time his unit had reached South Africa, the war was over. 

Events unfolded quite differently after the 41-year-old, known for his horseback riding ability and “fair shot,” arrived in France in late 1916. April 11, 1917 — the third day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge —  was especially memorable. On that day, McLean carried a wounded officer to safety before returning to the battlefield to keep fighting alongside another comrade. Soon after, a sniper killed that soldier as well, leaving McLean alone, yards from a trench, 60 Germans huddled inside. Armed with small grenades known as “pineapples,” McLean began furiously hurling them at the enemy dugout. As the story goes, the onslaught forced a German sergeant major to throw up his hands in desperation. “Do not throw the bomb!” he pleaded. 

When asked how many were out there, McLean convinced his German counterpart that 150 soldiers accompanied him. The German surrendered and handed McLean his gun, which the Kamloops-born rancher used to single-handedly march the 19 German survivors to British territory. A sniper hit McLean twice along the way, but he trudged on. For these heroics, the British military awarded McLean the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second-highest honour a soldier fighting for the Empire could receive. Out of approximately 600,000 Canadians who served during World War I, only 2,000 were bestowed this recognition. 

McLean’s bravery earned him significant praise, but it also took him out of the war. He soon returned to life as a rancher in B.C.’s Interior before moving to Vancouver to work as a firefighter. In 1934, he died from unknown causes. The Royal Canadian Legion offered to arrange a traditional military burial for McLean, but his family instead buried him on the Upper Nicola Indian Reserve with only a wooden cross to mark his grave. For years, the exact location of McLean’s gravesite went unknown. After his descendants tracked it down, a tombstone was erected in 2015. It features a single phrase: “Lest We Forget.”


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