History

A WAR SCOUT'S HONOUR

A hero’s forgotten story sheds new light on Canada’s role in ending the First World War

SUE FERGUSON September 8 2003
History

A WAR SCOUT'S HONOUR

A hero’s forgotten story sheds new light on Canada’s role in ending the First World War

SUE FERGUSON September 8 2003

A WAR SCOUT'S HONOUR

History

SUE FERGUSON

A hero’s forgotten story sheds new light on Canada’s role in ending the First World War

IF IT WEREN’T for the heroics, it would have been a comedy of errors.

Just before 8 a.m. on Sept. 2,1918, a Royal Montreal Regiment scout and two escorts scrambled over a collapsed stone wall and entered Cagnicourt in northern France. Only the vestiges of former shops, homes and a church remained. The most recent Allied attack—which had apparently killed or disabled eight of the scout’s original party and lodged a piece of shrapnel in his right leghad just ended. Hundreds of wary Germans peered at him from paneless windows and open doorways. With a unit of the Canadian Corps First Division still 250 m away, the scout waved his arms, barking orders to troops unseen. Duped, the Germans dropped their rifles and started to run. The three Canadians managed to corral more than 150 into captivity.

The scout was Lieut. George McKean, a native of Britain who had settled in Alberta. By war’s end, he would be promoted to captain. With five medals (including a Victoria Cross), he is one of Canada’s most decorated First World War heroes. But the detailed story of the capture of Cagnicourt, for which he earned a Military Cross—and which has inspired the French town’s mayor to rename the main square in McKean’s honour on

Sept. 6—is hardly known. It can’t be found in his medal citations, history books, regimental records or even in McKean family lore. It is, however, in Scouting Thrills, a 1919 book McKean wrote for the Boy Scouts, which he describes in the introduction as a collection of “fairly cheerful war stories.”

Michel Gravel, a Cornwall, Ont., roof salesman and amateur historian, chanced upon Scouting Thrills three years ago while tracing the wartime tracks of his great-uncle, also a soldier with the Montreal Regiment. McKean’s account sparked his interest and fuelled a hunch: the battle of Cagnicourt was a decisive, yet unheralded, turning point in the last 100 days of the war.

On Aug. 26,1918, with his troops deep in German territory, Canadian commander Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie unleashed a major offensive. The battles fought around Cagnicourt on Sept. 2 were critical to its success and a small stone monument in Dury, a neighbouring village, commemorates the breakthrough. But nothing, until now, has specifically acknowledged Cagnicourt where, as Gravel plans to show in a forthcoming book, the Canadians forged a bulge in the offensive line that ultimately enabled the Allies to outflank the Germans, precipitating their withdrawal on the Western Front.

Gravel’s research is “exceptional,” says Norm Christie, an Ottawa-based military historian and author of For King and Empire, a series of books (and later a documentary of the same name) chronicling Canada’s seminal First World War battles. “He’s on fresh territory.” Along with uncovering a little-known story of critical significance, he has dug into the backgrounds of the soldiers who fought under Canadian command, fleshing out the period’s social history. Among his findings: a Metis from Ituna, Sask., François Xavier Cardinal, who is one of the few First World War conscripts awarded a medal for bravery. The unit’s war diary suggests Cardinal got a Military Medal for “going over the top” after refusing to be evacuated for medical treatment. Yet, Gravel says, the Native Veteran’s Association had never heard of him.

So why was Cagnicourt overlooked? “People only know about Vimy Ridge,” says Christie. “Its majestic point makes it the best locale for a monument.” By 1918, he adds, the mounting casualty list and growing domestic opposition to the fighting

made it politically difficult to celebrate the events of the war’s last 100 days. And Gravel says that, although he wrote about them in Scouting Thrills, McKean (who died in 1926 in a sawmill accident in Brighton, England, where he lived after the war) never spoke much about his experiences.

In fact, to McKean’s granddaughter, Susan

Harris, the war hero was a “rather shadowy figure, almost mystical.” Her mother— McKean’s only child—owned a copy of Scouting Thrills that Harris, who lives in Portsmouth, England, read as a girl. But she hadn’t appreciated the full extent of his heroics, she says, until Gravel’s research came to her attention earlier this year.

Similarly, the people of Cagnicourt knew nothing of the story until Gravel began his sleuthing. Now, the village of400 is expecting 2,000 visitors for the dedication ceremony at which the mayor will unveil a masonry monument and bronze plaque to honour the war hero. “George McKean is a folk hero there now,” says Gravel, pointing out that half the people who came to a town meeting about the event last June were teenagers. “They’re eating all this up.” Sounding more than a little overwhelmed by his accomplishment, Gravel adds: “I’m a roof salesman and I’ve got zero dollars and cents. Everything I’ve done has been on a shoestring.” Still, it’s a string that has pulled out a gem of a tale, revealing a small but significant chapter of First World War history. ITU