George Burdon McKean, VC

Captain George Burdon McKean was an Englishman in the CEF and an esteemed recipient of the Victoria Cross during the Great War. He moved to Edmonton, Canada in 1902 at the age of 14 and enlisted in the CEF with the 14th Battalion in 1915. He earned the Victoria Cross for his actions on April 27-28, 1918, when he heroically charged a German trench near Gavrelle, France, killing two German soldiers in the process and leading his unit to victory. McKean survived the war and remained in London, England. He was killed in a sawmill accident in 1926, leaving behind a wife and 7-year old daughter, without insurance or a pension to support them.

Most of Captain McKean’s pension file documents his wife’s struggle after his death. Because her husband had been awarded no pension after the war and he was uninsured, his death left her “practically penniless”. A letter from a Major Arthur notes that there had been a fund raised after the war by the mayor of Edmonton for McKean and his family that amounted to $1000.00, but further correspondence throughout 1927 revealed that this money was never raised because the McKeans had not returned to Edmonton. Mrs. McKean did not demand this money, but only inquired if it existed so it could be put towards a headstone for her husband so that he could be buried as a soldier and a hero of the war. Though his death occurred in London and well after the war, Mrs. McKean wrote to the War Graves Commission and the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment in Ottawa to appeal for a proper soldier’s head-stone for her late husband, but these headstones were of course reserved for soldiers who were killed in the war. Her situation became famous in London, and even made its way back to Canada. Several newspapers in London, Montreal, and Edmonton wrote articles in support of her crusade for her husband’s burial and appealed to the public for aid on her behalf. Much of the correspondence in the file between officers and administrative personnel sought to help the widow, and many took personal interest in her case, petitioning for organizations to donate what they could to her. Through these efforts, by October 1927 she had received £150 in donations and was able to pay off all her debts. Her daughter was granted admission to Blue Coat School for Girls in Hertfordshire at no cost, and Mrs. McKean accepted a position as a house-keeper after receiving many job offers from the public who “endeavoured to assist her in every way possible”.

McKean’s grave.

The War Graves Commission arranged for a headstone for Captain McKean to be made in November of 1927 with a slight alteration from the standard design to respect those who died in combat but to still honour him as a hero of the Great War in his death. Though there is no direct written correspondence from Mrs. McKean in the file, or even a mention of her first name, all discussion surrounding her, either in newspaper articles or letters between officials working her case, held her in high regard and showed a genuine desire to help her. Her husband died tragically, but thanks to the efforts of Mrs. McKean, his family was taken care of in his absence and he was properly commemorated as a Canadian hero. Today, McKean’s Victoria Cross is preserved at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada.

Click here to access George McKean’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada

 

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