Remembrance Day special: Corporal Filip Konowal (VC)

    “Konowal Walk” display at Hill 70, France. All photos by Gord Yakimow

    Gord Yakimow for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

    It was August of 1917.

    Over a two-day period, Filip Konowal twice attacked German machine-gun emplacements.

    The second attack he undertook unaccompanied.

    Furious at the German machine-gun nest that was keeping him and his fellow soldiers pinned down, he sprang from his spot in the trenches and charged recklessly towards the enemy.

    His commander, thinking he was deserting, ordered him to stop … then took a shot at him when the command was not obeyed.

    Fortunately, the shot missed.

    But the shot from a German soldier which tore through his jaw and neck and which ripped away a portion of his face did not miss.

    By then (according to his VC Citation), 16 German soldiers lay dead or dying – bayonetted or clubbed or killed by explosives or shot by Filip Konowal.

    Konowal portrait and medals at the National War Museum in Ottawa

    When his fellow soldiers reached him, the machine-gun nest which he had single-handedly attacked was destroyed. Filip Konowal himself was in a crazed, other-worldly state. They had to wrestle him to subdue him, and despite his resistance, drag him back to the Canadian lines, and then back further to a field hospital where his wounds could be treated. By then he was unconscious.

    He was then sent to England to recuperate. While there, he was promoted to sergeant.

    Filip Konowal was one of six Canadian soldiers who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism at Hill 70.

    The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry given to British or Commonwealth soldiers.

    Konowal is the only ethnic Eastern European recipient of the Victoria Cross. Because he had been born in Tzarist-controlled Podillia, not far from the Austro-Hungarian border, he was considered “Russian” (a nation allied to Britain – and, by default, Canada – during WW I), and therefore he was able to enrol in the Canadian Commonwealth forces. [Podillia is in central south-west Ukraine, located in a triangle between Ivano-Frankivsk to the west, Kyiv to the north-east, and Odessa to the south-east. Today it borders on Moldova.]

    Many of Konowal’s fellow Ukrainian male immigrants in Canada were denied the opportunity to join the Canadian forces. Because they were from an area in Ukraine controlled by Austria-Hungary (a nation which, along with the Kaiser’e Germany, was an enemy to Britain), they instead were rounded up, declared “enemy-aliens,” and sent to internment camps for the duration of the war.

    Monument at Hill 70, France

    AFTER THE WAR

    The time period immediately after the First World War was not kind to Konowal, likely because of what now is known as post-traumatic disorder.

    “I’ve killed fifty-two of them,” he told police when they arrived at the crime scene in the summer of 1919, “and he makes fifty-three.”

    Konowal had come to the aid of a friend in a rough area of Hull, Quebec, (today known as Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa). An assailant lay dead, a knife in his chest. Konowal had calmly awaited the arrival of the police.

    Konowal headstone (Notre Dame de Lourdes Cemetery, Ottawa)

    At his trial, he was found not guilty of murder largely because of his war-wound induced condition. Konowal was nonetheless institutionalized for seven years.

    After his release in 1928, through a series of fortunate incidents he eventually found employment as a janitor in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

    When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King became aware there was a VC recipient washing floors on Parliament Hill, the PM made Konowal his special assistant. [”There I mopped up with a rifle,” said Konowal in an interview. “Here I mop up with a mop.”]

    By then he had married a French-Canadian widow, and had adopted her two sons as his own. [He had previously learned that his wife in Ukraine had died in the Holodomor. A daughter had survived, but he was unable to locate her.]

    In 1956 Filip Konowal traveled to London in order to join other Victoria Cross recipients to celebrate the centennial of the Commonwealth’s highest honour for bravery.

    The event was hosted by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and a very young Queen Elizabeth II.

    In a group photo, Konowal was placed in the centre seat in the first row. The caption on an article about Konowal read: “A Hero Among Heroes.”

    Konowal died in 1959 at the age of 70. He is buried in Ottawa next to the family plot of his wife, Juliette Leduc-Auger, and his two adopted sons, Roland and Albert.

    Konowal’s simple headstone is modelled on those found in Commonwealth War Commission cemeteries. On it is etched the Victoria Cross.

    Konowal lies with good company. Not far away are the graves of Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s second Prime Minister; Yousuf Karsh, renowned portrait photographer; Aurele Joliat, who in 1934 won the Hart Trophy as the MVP in the National Hockey League.

    Konowal’s simple headstone next to that of his wife’s family

    Addendum:

    Filip Konowal continues to be recognized in several ways and locations for his heroism in fighting for his adopted country. There are plaques or markers in Ottawa, Toronto, Dauphin, New Westminster, and in his birth-village of Kutkivtsi in Podillia, Ukraine.

    In the National War Museum in Ottawa, Konowal’s photo and medals are on display. He is in a section with the five other VC recipients from Hill 70.

    And at the Monument to Hill 70 in the area of the Western Front in France (not far from Vimy Ridge), the walkway is called “The Filip Konowal Walk.”