Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean

In May 2019, a research report was received suggesting that an unknown grave at Courcelette British Cemetery in the Somme, France could be identified. The Canadian Armed Forces have confirmed that the gravesite in question is that of Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean.

Alexander McVean was born on 28 March 1889 in Shettleston, Lanarkshire, Scotland to Malcolm and Mary McVean (née Cameron). One of nine children, Alexander served in The Queen’s Own Royal Glasgow Yeomanry before emigrating to Canada in August of 1911. Prior to enlisting with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), Alexander served in the 9th Mississauga Horse, a regiment of the Active Militia, and worked as a chauffeur and electric motorman. He was unmarried. Alexander’s brother, Bombardier Malcolm McVean, also fell while serving with the British Royal Field Artillery.

On 15 July 1915, Alexander McVean enlisted for overseas service with the 75th Infantry Battalion, CEF in Toronto, Ontario. On 29 March 1916, McVean sailed for England onboard the SS Empress arriving on 9 April. After training in England, McVean and his unit proceeded to France on 12 August. Likely because of his previous military experience, McVean was promoted to the rank of Company Sergeant-Major (CSM) on 18 October 1916.

The 75th Battalion, CEF was created on 10 July 1915 and arrived in France on 12 August 1916. The unit fought as part of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division until the end of the war. The Battles of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. On 10 October 1916, the 4th Canadian Division arrived in the area near the village of Courcelette to relieve the 3rd and 1st Canadian Divisions which had been fighting there since September. The 4th Division was tasked with finally capturing the important objectives of Regina and Desire Trenches, the last of a series of trenches located between Thiepval and Courcelette which had been Canadian Corps objectives since September. The Battle of the Ancre Heights from 1 October to 11 November 1916 was a series of assaults by the 4th Canadian Division with the 25th and 39th Divisions of the British Army to attack and secure Regina Trench. Following the successful capture of Regina Trench on 11 November, the 4th Canadian Division was then ordered to turn their attention to Desire Trench, about 500 to 800 yards north.

Referred to as the Battle of the Ancre , the 4th Canadian Division fought hard to capture and hold Desire Trench as part of the larger push by the British Fifth Army against the German 1st Army. At 6:10 am on 18 November 1916, the 75th Battalion, CEF began their attack on Desire Trench despite snow, sleet, rain, and freezing mud in the hopes of capturing the trench and pushing as far forward as possible. The men of the 11th Brigade advanced in four waves at intervals of 50 yards behind a creeping barrage of artillery fire which pounded the German positions. Soon after the attack began, German prisoners started coming back in big groups. By 8:00 am, the Canadians had reached Desire Trench and moved beyond it to dig in and try to hold the position. The German forces started a counter-attack but it ended shortly after when many German soldiers surrendered, allowing the Canadians to push forward even further to reach Grandcourt Trench and set up machine gun posts there. The next day the Canadians were ordered to pull back to Desire Trench in anticipation of another German counter-attack that never came. The Battle of the Ancre ended on 18 November 1916 and marks the end of the five months of the Battles of the Somme.

Ultimately, Desire Trench was captured and held but at a steep cost. On 18 November 1916, the 4th Canadian Division took a total of 17 German officers and 608 other ranks as prisoner but suffered 1,250 casualties. Of the 248 casualties from the 75th Battalion, CEF, 104 men died, 71 of whom have no known grave, including CSM Alexander McVean who was reported wounded, then later Killed in Action.

After the battle, a body was partially identified as “A Company Sergeant-Major of the Great War, 75th Battalion, Canadian Infantry” and buried at Plot 8, Row C, Grave 4, in Courcelette British Cemetery in the Somme, France, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The partial identification was likely based on the rank and unit insignia on the uniform.

After the war, Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean’s name was engraved on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, erected in memory of the Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War and who have no known grave.

In May 2019, The Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH) received a research report from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission detailing the potential identification of Plot 8, Row C, Grave 4 in the Courcelette British Cemetery, in the Somme, France. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had received a report from independent researchers raising the possibility that this grave was that of Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean. Extensive Research undertaken by both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the DHH concluded that this grave could only be that of CSM McVean. No other candidate matched the details of the partial identification. Historical research was conducted using numerous archival sources, including War Diaries, Service Records, Casualty Registers, and Grave Exhumation and Concentration reports.

In December 2020, the Casualty Identification Program’s Review Board confirmed the identification of Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean of the 75th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF. The Casualty Identification Program’s Review Board is made up of members from the DHH, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team, and the Canadian Museum of History.

A headstone rededication ceremony will take place at the earliest opportunity in France, at the Courcelette British Cemetery, in the Somme, France managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

For more information on Company Sergeant-Major Alexander McVean, you can consult his personnel File held by Library and Archives Canada.

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