b. 15/09/1886 Kutkivtsi, Ukraine. d. 03/06/1959 Hull, Quebec, Canada.
Filip Konowal (1886-1959) was born on 15th September 1886 at Kutkivtsi, Province of Podolia, Guberny, Ukraine, which was then part of Russia. His father, Miron, was a stonecutter. He married Eudkice, who sadly died in 1915, when Filip was 29. Filip was educated in Kutkivtsi and worked on the family farm and in his father’s stone quarry.
Filip married Anna Stanka on 25th July 1909 and they had a daughter, Maria. He was conscripted into the Imperial Russian Army in 1909 and became a bayonet instructor in the Russian Imperial Guards. After four years he finished his service in eastern Siberia and was selected as a lumberjack by a Canadian lumber company. He emigrated to Canada via Vladivostok, arriving at Vancouver in April 1913. Filip had to leave Anna and Maria behind when he went in search of work. He was unable to contact them after the war and he was informed incorrectly that they had died in the 1930s.
Filip became a stonecutter and then a lumberjack in Western Canada for four months before moving to Eastern Ontario to work in the Ottawa Valley and l’Outaouis Regions, where there was a shortage of manpower for lumbering. However, the good times did not last long and he was soon working part-time. On 12th July 1915 Filip enlisted in the Canadian Army. As he was born east of the Zhruch river, he was a Russian citizen and was regarded as an ally in the war against the Central Powers. He was assigned to 77th Battalion, serving under Lt Colonel Church.
After 10 months training at Ottawa and Valcartier, Quebec, he embarked on RMS Missanabie at Halifax, Nova Scotia on 19th June 1916, arriving in Liverpool on the night of 28th-29th June. He was stationed at Bramshott Camp, Aldershot, where he transferred to 47th Battalion. On 22nd July, he was promoted to Lance Corporal and sailed for France on 10th August. He was wounded on the Somme on 16th September when a tendon in his right hand was severed. He was soon back in action though, and was attached to 10th Canadian Field Company from 26th January 1917, but spent the early months of that year in hospitals suffering with illness. He was appointed Acting Corporal on 6th April, and took part in the attack on Vimy Ridge on 9th April, during which he led a group of Canadian Japanese soldiers.
On the 22nd-24th August 1917, at Hill 70, near Lens, France, he was in charge of a section in attack. His section had the difficult task of mopping up cellars, craters and machine-gun emplacements. Under his able direction all resistance was overcome successfully, and heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy. In one cellar he himself bayonetted three enemy and attacked single-handed seven others in a crater, killing them all. On reaching the objective, a machine-gun was holding up the right flank, causing many casualties. Cpl. Konowal rushed forward and entered the emplacement, killed the crew, and brought the gun back to our lines. The next day he again attacked single-handed another machine-gun emplacement, killed three of the crew, and destroyed the gun and emplacement with explosives. This non-commissioned officer alone killed at least sixteen of the enemy, and during the two days’ actual fighting carried on continuously his good work until severely wounded.
He was evacuated to Britain due to his wounds, and admitted to Beaufort War Hospital, Bristol on 30th August. He was transferred the following month to Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Bearwood, Wokingham, Surrey, where his head wound was examined by Dr CK Wallace, a neuro-specialist. The wound had left a jagged scar from just below his right eye down the cheekbone to his upper jaw. He was discharged in September and sent on sick leave until 2nd October.
The VC was presented to him on 5th December 1917 at Buckingham Palace by King George V. The following day he was appointed to the Military Attache at the Russian Embassy, London and on 30th December was appointed acting Sergeant without pay and allowances. From the 15th February 1918 he was on the strength of 1st Reserve Battalion and completed his tour of duty at the Russian Embassy on 8th July, when he reverted to Acting Corporal. On 1st August he transferred to the Base Depot, Canadian Forestry Corps at Sunningdale, but on 10th September he returned to Canada and was taken on the strength of the Base Headquarters Unit of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force on 18th September. The main function was to help guard the Trans-Siberian Railway. He volunteered to serve as an interpreter and translator.
On 1st October, he was appointed Acting Sergeant and sailed from Vancouver for Vladivostok. He served with a small liaison group at Omsk, the main Allied base about 2,700 miles west of Vladivostok, from 28th March to 1st June 1919. He returned to Canada later that month and was discharged on 4th July. He left the service with a number of medical problems including a partial paralysis of the left side of his face, a partly crippled left hand and heart flutters.
On 20th July 1919, Filip and Leonti Diedek, a fellow veteran, went to inspct some bicycles at the house of William Artich, a salesman and small-time bootlegger. A fight broke out, and Artich punched Diedek, who tried to flee, but Artich stunned him with a stone. Filip heard the struggle and intervened. He was struck by Artich on the head with the stone, and then slashed on the hand and wrist by a butcher’s knife. In the ensuing struggle, Filip gained control of the knife and killed Artich. Filip admitted he killed Artich in self-defence. He and Diedek were arrested for murder. Diedek was released with a suspended sentence while Filip was formally charged.
Between July 1919 and April 1921, the trial was postponed three times. Veterans and friends raised $8,000 to have him released on bail on 18th October. He was suffering from recurring problems from his gunshot wound to the head and underwent a series of X-rays and other tests. He was examined again by Dr Wallace, who had seen him in 1917. It was found a fracture of the skull had not healed and was putting pressure on his brain. Colonel Church and other veterans paid for a top defence counsel (George C Wright KC) for Filip, and added a noted Montreal defence lawyer (Alban Germain KC) to the team.
The trial began on 15th April and the defence did not contest that Filip had killed Artich. Diedek and another witness confirmed that Artich had hit Filip on the head and stabbed him in the arm. Specialist witnesses such as Dr Wallace, confirmed that his skull fracture had made him mentally unstable and not responsible for his actions. Artich’s blow had triggered the incident that led to Filip killing him. Summing up, the Judge Cousineau instructed the jury that justice would be served if he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury complied. However, medical experts advised that Filip was a danger to himself and others potentially, and as a result, the judge ordered him to be detained until he could be placed in an asylum. Although found not guilty, he was confined to Saint Jean de Dieu Hospital in Montreal. From 1927 he had moved to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bordeaux, Quebec.
Filip was released in 1928 and found it difficult to find work, but secured employment on the maintenance staff of the Ottawa Electrical Company building. The Depression of the mid 1930s led to staff reductions and he was unemployed until offered a job as a junior caretaker in the Canadian House of Commons in 1936 by Milton Gregg VC MC, the Sergeant-at-Arms. The Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie-King, spotted his crimson VC ribbon on his uniform and had him assigned as a special custodian in the Prime Minister’s Office. He worked there until his death.
In 1934, he married a French-Canadian widow, Juliette Leduc-Auger, who had two children from her first marriage. She was also caring for an invalid brother. They lived in Hull, Ontario during the 1930s and 1940s before moving to Ottawa in 1956. They had no children of their own. Filip shook hands with King George VI on his Royal Visit to Canada in 1939 at the dedication of the National War Memorial, Ottawa. Filip enlisted briefly in Le Regiment de Hull at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was considered too old for active service. He joined the Legion de Hull, Royal Canadian Legion on 20th December 1945. In 1956, he was invited to the VC Centenary Celebrations in London, and the cost of travel was paid by the Government, but he didn’t have enough money for clothing and living expenses. The Royal Canadian Legion raised $400 to help. He was one of nine Canadian VCs to fly to England for the celebrations. Filip’s health soon deteriorated, and he became seriously ill in April 1959. He was admitted to the Veterans Pavilion, Ottawa Civic Hospital, where he died on 3rd June 1959. His military funeral was followed by burial in the Notre Dame de Lourdes Cemetery, Ottawa. His original headstone was replaced by a CWGC style headstone in 1996.
In addition to the VC, he was also awarded the British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 and the Russian Cross of St George 4th Class. When he died his medals passed to his widow and it is possible she sold them to a medal collector/dealer in the Ottawa/Hull area before or in 1969. The medals were acquired by the Canadian War Museum in 1969 for $3,750. The VC went missing four years later. The medals appeared in an auction catalogue in London, Ontario in 2004. The Canadian War Museum were alerted and with the help of the Royal Canadian Legion and Metropolitan Ottawa Police helped to get the medals removed from sale and returned to the Canadian War Museum, where they are now displayed.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: NOTRE DAME DE LOURDES CEMETERY, OTTAWA. SECTION A, LOT 502
Bill Mullen – Image of the Konowal VC gravestone in Ottawa, Canada.
Canadian War Museum – Images of the Konowal VC medal group and VC medal.