UKRAINIAN CATHOLIC VICTORIA CROSS WAR HERO REMEMBERED
April 5, 2017
FROM ONE OF CANADA’S GREATEST WAR HEROES – TO JANITOR
NEW BOOK BRINGS TO LIGHT AN AMAZING LIFE
Articles by Roy MacGregor for The Globe and Mail - Apr. 05, 2017
On the battlefields of France, the Ukrainian-Canadian soldier became one of only six of his countrymen to win the Victoria Cross for bravery – but when he returned home, his honour was put to the test.
Many would say there is no honour higher; some might suggest – but never to the face of Filip Konowal – there can be no job lower.
The high honour was the Victoria Cross, granted to then-acting corporal Konowal for his incredible bravery during the Battle for Hill 70 in August, 1917. This ferocious little Ukrainian Canadian killed at least 16 German soldiers – he claimed to have killed as many as 52 in a newspaper interview later in life – in hand-to-hand combat as he took out machine-gun nests and rooted out hidden pockets of the enemy, mostly using his bayonet and the butt end of his rifle.
Tired of the muck and the shelling, impatient by being held down by enemy fire, the corporal had stormed alone out of the trench, his captain so convinced Sergeant Konowal was deserting that he actually took a shot at the Canadian soldier – fortunately missing. A day later, with Sgt. Konowal now dragged away from the battle lines unconscious, a rifle bullet having disfigured much of the left side of his face, any thoughts of a court martial were gone. Instead, he was recommended for the highest military honour in the British Empire: the Victoria Cross.
The citation reads:
For most conspicuous bravery and leadership when 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 16 of the enemy, and during the two days’ actual fighting carried on continuously his good work until severely wounded.
The medal was presented by King George V himself, who said Sgt. Konowal’s “exploit is one of the most daring and heroic” in the army’s history.
According to A Canadian Hero: Corporal Filip Konowal, VC, and the Battle of Hill 70, a slim new book, in English, French and Ukrainian, the aftermath of these heroics was very hard on the little soldier. According to author Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Sgt. Konowal is the only Ukrainian Canadian to receive such high military honours. He was in many of the most pivotal battles – the Somme and Vimy as well as Hill 70 – and even returned from his wounds to join the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, which headed into Russia at the end of the war to fight the rising Bolsheviks.
He returned to Canada with his face disfigured and his mind deeply troubled. On July 20, 1919, he stepped into a fight in Hull, Que., to protect a fellow veteran, Leonti Diedek, who was having a heated disagreement with Valyl Artich, a bicycle salesman and small-time bootlegger. Sgt. Konowal wrestled a knife away from Mr. Artich and stabbed the man. Charged with murder, there were calls to have the VC rescinded, forcing the King to say, through a note from his secretary, that, “Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear the VC on the scaffold.”
But there would be no scaffold for Sgt. Konowal. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, he spent seven years in a mental hospital until finally released. Impoverished, he was the only VC winner not to join the Vimy Ridge Pilgrimage of 1936.
Hearing of his plight, another VC winner, Milton Fowler Gregg, then serving as Sergeant-at-Arms for the House of Commons, was able to get Sgt. Konowal hired on as a floor washer. Mackenzie King later appointed him a “special custodian” in the prime minister’s office, where he continued his janitorial duties.
“I mopped up overseas with a rifle,” the Victoria Cross winner said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in the 1950s, “and here I just mop up with a mop.”
A new documentary on his amazing life – Filip Konowal, The Man Behind the Medal – has been produced by Guerrilla Films with funding from the Ukrainian Canadian Veterans Fund.
The hero-janitor died on June 3, 1959, at the age of 72, the final entry in his government record rather appropriately, “died in service.”
A decade later, his widow, Juliette Leduc-Auger – his first wife, Anna, had died in Russia – sold his medal to the Canadian War Museum, and some time in the early 1970s it went missing after being removed from its case for a photo.
Three decades later, the stolen medal turned up at an auction house in London, Ont. Prof. Luciuk and the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association were tipped off by a military buff in England and the RCMP were able to seize the medal and return it to its proper place.
Sgt. Konowal’s VC is today on permanent display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
As Prof. Luciuk told The Globe and Mail at the time, “It’s a medal that belongs to all Canadians.”
Filip Konowal received a full military funeral from St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ottawa in June of 1959.
ANOTHER STORY OF A YOUNG SOLDIER FROM WINNIPEG WHO COULD NO LONGER BEAR THE HORROR
The Battle of Hill 70 also carried a sad footnote – the shooting of a soldier for “cowardice.” As recorded in Lubomyr Luciuk’s book on Sergeant Filip Konowal, the soldier’s name was Dimitro Sinicky, who in the final days of the terrible battle simply refused to carry on. He had barely turned 20 when he volunteered to join the Winnipeg Rifles (144th Battalion). Once in England he was deployed to France as reinforcement for the 52nd Battalion and soon found himself on the Western Front.
The official report from the Hill 70 battle reads:
“Refused to put on equipment and move to the front. Next night, while the accused was being marched to the front under escort, he sat down and refused to move. Accused said he was afraid and feared being wounded.”
Less than a month later, he was tried and found guilty of cowardice. On Oct. 9, 1917, at 11 minutes after 6 a.m., the 22 year old was executed by firing squad. He is buried in a military cemetery just northwest of Arras, France.
Eighty-four years later, the Government of Canada delivered a posthumous apology to the 23 Canadian soldiers who had been executed during the First World War.
“While we cannot relive those awful years of a nation in peril in total war, and thought the culture of that time is subsequently too distant for us to comprehend fully,” then minister of veterans affairs Ron Duhamel told the House of Commons, “we can give these 23 soldiers a dignity that is their due and provide closure to their families.”
Dmitro Sinicky, also a Ukrainian Catholic, was buried at ECOIVRES MILITARY CEMETERY at Mont-St. Eloi, Pas de Calais, France. Vichn yomu pamyat'!
The original articles with more information by Roy MacGregor in The Globe and Mail can be reached by clicking [HERE]