Corporal Filip Konowal, VC
A Centenary Action

Corporal Filip Konowal, in London prior to receiving his Victoria Cross.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006732.

22-24 August 1917 

Corporal Filip Konowal, photographed in London after receiving the Victoria Cross.
© IWM (Q 69170)

Filip Konowal emmigrated to Canada from Siberia in 1913. Born in present-day Ukraine, Konowal had served as hand-to-hand and bayonet combat instructor in the Imperial Russian Army before working as a feller for a logging company in Siberia. In 1916, he enlisted with the 77th (Ottawa) Battalion but once overseas was transferred to the 47th (British Columbia) Battalion.  

During the fighting at Hill 70 and LensKonowal served on a mopping-up party, moving forward behind the first wave, cleaning out trouble spots of enemy resistance. On numerous occasions Konowal dropped down alone into dark basements and cellars that had been converted into machine-gun posts, taking on entire enemy crews with club and bayonet, each time emerging unscathed. At one point he charged a crew of seven moving out in the open, dispatching them all (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 60). In one of his last actions, he entered a tunnel near Fosse 4, tossing two charges of ammonal in on a garrison, before charging in with the bayonet and eliminating the entire post (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 60). Corporal Konowal was soon after severely wounded by a gunshot wound to the neck and face. He was evacuated, recovered, and even went on to serve with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force late in the war. 

However, like fellow Victoria Cross recipient Private Michael O’Rourke, VC, MM, Corporal Konowal’s life after the war was marred by tragedy. The day after leading the Peace Parade of Veterans through downtown Ottawa on 19 July 1919, Konowal would be charged with the stabbing murder of William (VasylArtich in Hull, Quebec.  Konowal’s friend, Leonti Diedek, had been attacked by Artich and Konowal came to Diedek’s rescue. In a resulting struggle, during which Artich struck Konowal on the head and then slashed and stabbed his arm, Konowal gained control of the knife, stabbing Artich just once, directly in the heart. When the police arrived, Konowal stood calmly at the scene and stated as a matter-of-fact: “I’ve killed 52 of them [in the war], that makes it the 53rd.” (Sorobey “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 6). 

An older Filip Konowal, photographed after the war. The scars and trauma of his wounds became more evident as he aged.
Credit: Vladimir J. Kaye/Library and Archives Canada/C-010023.

Put on trial, Konowal was provided unwavering support by the Great War Veterans Association (a pre-cursor to the Royal Canadian Legion), and money was raised for his defense. It was determined that the wounds and trauma suffered by Konowal during the war had led to brain damage that resulted in hallucinations and dramatic mood swings. (At times he believed he was at Hill 70, and strangers were the enemy, attacking his men). Found not criminally responsible for the murder, Konowal was admitted intMontreal’s Saint Jean de Dieu Hospital (now the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal) on 27 April 1921

Approximately seven years later, after progressive treatment and an astounding recovery, Konowal was released. Gaining employment just as the world slipped into the Great Depression was most difficult, but through a chance encounter Konowal received a position on the cleaning staff at the Parliament Buildings. In yet another chance encounter, then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King spotted the medal ribbons pinned to Konowal’s caretakers tunic, including the crimson ribbon of the Victoria Cross. From that day forward, Konowal was employed as the personal caretaker and messenger of Room No. 16, the Prime Minister’s own office on Parliament Hill. 

In later years, veterans groups and Royal Canadian Legion branches would be named after Filip Konowal and a host of plaques erected across the country. They would also fundraise to help send him to England to meet the Royal family on the centennial of the Victoria Cross’ inception. More recently, Konowal’s hometown of Kutkivtsi (Kudkiv), Ukraine unveiled a large stone and bronze memorial in his name, the city of Lens, France unveiled a plaque and bas relief, and lastly, the new Hill 70 Memorial, unveiled in April 2017, includes a pathway named the “Konowal Walk”. It also appears that, having believed them to have died in Stalin’s purges, Konowal’s wife and daughter in fact survived, and grandchildren remain in Kutkivtsi (Kudkiv), Ukraine. 

Filip Konowal died on 3 June 1959 and is buried in Notre Dame de Lourdes Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario.  

The official medal citation for then-Corporal Filip Konowal, VC (second to last at bottom of left-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 23 November 1917, Supplement: 30400, Page: 12329.

For a more complete story of the life of Corporal Filip Konowal, VC, read Sorobey, Ron (1996) “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 6.  
Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss2/6 

Editor’s Note – There is some discrepancy over the dates upon which Konowal’s actions for the Victoria Cross took place. Numerous sources state it was over a two-day period, from 22 – 24 August 1917. However his Service File records Konowal as having been seriously wounded on 21 August 1917 and admitted to hospital. It is clear that Konowal was gravely wounded at some point during the battle, however if his actions took place during the attack on Lens, then 22 – 24 August 1917 is a more likely time period. The attack on Lens did not begin until the early morning of 21 August 1917. Nonetheless, in the fog of trench warfare, it is possible that Konowal was engaged in fighting around Hill 70, the day prior to the Lens attack officially starting and this may have been taken into consideration as the “two-day period”.