GEORGE McKEAN was the dashing captain. With intense machine gunfire raining down on his men in a trench, he realised that the only way their operation could succeed was by someone physically taking out the enemy stronghold.

So – exactly 100 years ago today – he dashed at the “block” which was guarding the gun that was causing so much mayhem.

He dashed out into the open, flung himself over the barbed wire and then, “with utter disregard of danger, leapt over the block head first” and landed on top of the enemy.


He ended up lying on top of a German soldier, and as he struggled violently beneath him, another rushed at him with a fixed bayonet. Capt McKean shot the on-rusher with his revolver, and then turned the gun on the man beneath him.

The block was now in his possession, but he was out of bombs – and the machine gun was still firing. Somehow he held on until more Mills bombs arrived and then, singlehandedly, he dashed at the machine gun post, killing two men, capturing four others and destroying the weapon.

“This officer’s splendid bravery and dash undoubtedly saved many lives,” said his Victoria Cross citation, “for had not this position been captured, the whole of the raiding party would have been exposed to dangerous enfilading fire.”

Today in his hometown of Willington a stone will be unveiled to commemorate his bravery and dash of the night of April 27-28, 1918.

It is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t an isolated episode of bravery and dash – McKean is one of just five soldiers in the First World War to receive the VC and the Military Cross and the Military Medal.

And it is even more remarkable because before the war, his health was so poor that he was turned down three times before he was finally allowed to join the Army.

McKean was born at 102, High Street, Willington, in 1888, an “extremely delicate” baby. His father was a furniture dealer who died when he was young and he moved with his mother and sister into Bishop Auckland. He attended Bishop Barrington School until he was 13 when he became an apprentice cabinet maker, to T Thompson, in Newgate Street.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the next phase of his life, but his mother died and in September 1902, when he was just 14, he sailed from Liverpool to Montreal on the SS Tunisia, probably with a view to joining his elder brother on a cattle ranch.

When war broke out he was 26, and he’d probably completed an arts course at Alberta University. He applied to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force but was turned him down three times on the grounds of poor physique – he was 5ft 6ins and weighed nine stone.

Fourth time lucky, he enlisted with the Royal Montreal Regiment, and in June 1916 he made it to the Western Front. In April 1917, near the northern French town of Lens, he won the Military Medal, and was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

A year later, at Gavrelle, near Arras, on that overnight 100 years ago, he won the Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s trenches”.

And still he wasn’t done. In September 1918, he was in the German-held French village of Cagnicourt, with two other Canadian scouts – the rest of their advance party was lost, McKean himself was suffering shrapnel wounds, and the rest of the troop was several minutes behind.

And 150 Germans were watching him. So he exhibited his dash once more. With great bravado, he began waving his arms and his guns, and bellowing out orders to what anyone watching would have thought was a large number of troops.

The Germans fell for it. "I was dumbfounded, expecting the Huns to open on us for we were frightfully outnumbered," he said later. "For a few seconds we stood staring at one another until we three Canadian scouts found ourselves in the middle of a mob of fleeing Germans."

They took about 100 prisoners, and McKean was awarded with a Military Cross to complete his set.

He left the Army in July 1919 with the rank of captain, married Constance Hilton in Brighton, and got a job running a sawmill in Hertfordshire. It was there, in November 1926, when he was aged 38, that tragedy struck the Victoria Cross winner.

"Capt McKean was sawing some logs at his mills at Cuffley when the blade broke and his head came into contact with the revolving saw,” said the Echo. “Terrible injuries were inflicted and he died a few hours later."

Two days later, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.

His military funeral in Brighton was attended by two representatives of the Bishop Auckland branch of the British Legion - WH Stephenson and WJ Thwaites.

The Canadians felt they had lost one of their great war heroes. They named a 9,000ft mountain in the Rockies – Mount McKean – after him and his name is still revered in Canadian military circles.

He is also remembered in Cagnicourt, a farming village of about 400 residents that was almost wholly rebuilt after the ravages of the First World War. In 2003, the mayor unveiled a memorial to McKean in the newly renamed La Place du George Burdon McKean which had previously been the church square.

And today starting at 11am, he will be remembered in his birthplace of Willington. Fittingly, his memorial stone is being place outside the library in High Street, and inside is an exhibition about the dashing captain by local historian Olive Linge.