Filip Konowal, VC

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration that can be awarded within the British Empire. During the First World War, seventy-three members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were awarded the Victoria Cross, one of them was Filip Konowal.

Born March 25, 1887 in a small Ukrainian village near the Austrian border, Filip was the third of six children. At the age of thirteen, Filip left school to help support his family and married his wife Anna at the age of twenty. The couple had their only child, a daughter, Maria, in 1909. From 1908-1912, Konowal served in the Imperial Russian Army and was awarded a good conduct medal, which he kept with him his whole life.

In 1913, Filip Konowal immigrated to Canada, with the hope of being able to bring his wife and daughter over soon after. Anna and Maria however, would never make it to Canada. In July 1915, Konowal enlisted in the CEF with the 77th Battalion. A year later, he was transferred to the 47th Battalion and promoted to the rank of Corporal. During two days of heavy fighting near Lens in August 1917, Corporal Konowal demonstrated “conspicuous bravery and leadership” while leading a section attack against numerous German machine gun nests, craters and cellars. On the first day of fighting, Konowal killed ten enemy soldiers and captured a machine gun that would be used in the attack the following day. On the second day, he destroyed another machine gun nest, increasing the number of enemy he had killed to sixteen. He continued to thrive in his leadership role over the coming days until he suffered a gunshot wound to his face and neck. In November 1917, Corporal Konowal was awarded the Victoria Cross for these actions. While other Ukrainian-Canadians were being interned in remote locations, Filip Konowal had not only been allowed to fight, but was awarded the highest honour the Empire could bestow upon him.

This award did not mean the end of his military service however. In 1918 he served as an interpreter with the military attaché to the Russian Embassy in London. Later that year, he would return to Russia with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, where he acted as an interpreter in Omsk and Vladivostok until returning to Canada where he was discharged in July 1919.

Two weeks after his discharge, Konowal’s life would forever change in a quiet neighbourhood of Hull, Quebec. On the afternoon of July 20, 1919 witnesses heard shouting coming from the home of William Artick, an Austrian-born man, living with his family in Canada. Two men left the house and returned five minutes later with Konowal, who was armed with a butcher knife. Konowal was seen kicking in the door, and Artick was later found dead as a result of stab wounds.[1] Konowal was arrested on murder charges and spent the next two years undergoing psychiatric evaluation by federal officials. In June 1921, Filip Konowal was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and sent to St. Jean de Dieu Hospital in Montreal.

During the time leading up to the trial, and the trial itself, Konowal’s pension had been suspended. Following the verdict however, the suspension was lifted and Konowal was awarded a pension of fifteen dollars per month, to be distributed by the doctors at the hospital. Konowal remained at St. Jean de Dieu until 1927, when he was transferred to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bordeaux, Quebec. In August 1930, he was declared cured of his condition, and released from hospital and returned to the Ottawa area. His pension was reduced to 7.50 dollars per month for minor facial paralysis as a result of his gunshot wound.

Despite numerous appeals and requests for deportation, Filip Konowal never returned to Russia to his wife and daughter. Konowal died in 1959 and was buried in Ottawa at Notre Dame Cemetery.

The life of Filip Konowal is relatively unknown outside of his Victoria Cross citation. His pension file sheds new light on his post-war life. Despite being the recipient of the Empire’s highest honour, he was still a Ukrainian immigrant and a killer. He had left home with the hope of a better life in Canada, only to spend most of his time in asylums, never to see his wife and daughter again.

Click here to access Filip Konowal’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada

Citations

[1] Witness statements were published in the Globe & Mail, April 14, 1921.

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