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."
THEIR FINEST HOUR
Six Victoria Crosses – including the one awarded to Sergeant Filip Konowal – were given to Canadian soldiers for their bravery and heroism during the Battle of Hill 70, which began on Aug. 15, 1917. Four months earlier, at the pivotal and far-better-remembered Battle of Vimy Ridge, Canadian soldiers were awarded four such medals
Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, later wrote, it "was altogether the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated. It was a great and wonderful victory. GHQ [General Headquarters] regard it as one of the finest performances of the war."
The other five Victoria Cross recipients from the all-but-forgotten Battle for Hill 70 were:
Private Harry W. Brown
He was barely 19 years old, a native of Gananoque, Ont., who grew up on a farm and went to work at a munitions factory in London, Ont., before enlisting. He was assigned to the 10th Battalion and was killed during the battle. Somehow, his name was listed as "Harry W. Brown" on his grave and in his citation, as he had been christened "John Henry Brown" and should have been recognized as such. The citation reads:
For most conspicuous bravery, courage and devotion to duty. After the capture of a position, the enemy massed in force and counter-attacked. The situation became very critical, all wires being cut. It was of the utmost importance to get word back to Headquarters. This soldier and one other were given the message with orders to deliver the same at all costs. The other messenger was killed. Private Brown had his arm shattered but continued on through an intense barrage until he arrived at the close support lines and found an officer. He was so spent that he fell down the dug-out steps, but retained consciousness long enough to hand over his message, saying ‘Important message.’ He then became unconscious and died in the dressing station a few hours later. His devotion to duty was of the highest possible degree imaginable, and his successful delivery of the message undoubtedly saved the loss of the position for the time and prevented many casualties.”
Sergeant-Major Robert H. Hanna
The Irish-born Canadian soldier was not quite 30 when he found himself and his men under severe machine-gun fire. The London Gazette of Nov. 8, 1917, published the citation for the awarding of the Victoria Cross:
For most conspicuous bravery in attack, when his company met with most severe enemy resistance and all the company officers became casualties. A strong point, heavily protected by wire and held by a machine gun, had beaten off three assaults of the company with heavy casualties. This Warrant Officer under heavy machine gun and rifle fire, coolly collected a party of men, and leading them against this strong point, rushed through the wire and personally bayonetted three of the enemy and brained the fourth, capturing the position and silencing the machine gun. This most courageous action, displayed courage and personal bravery of the highest order at this most critical moment of the attack, was responsible for the capture of a most important tactical point, and but for his daring action and determined handling of a desperate situation the attack would not have succeeded.
Sgt. Maj. Hanna survived the war and died at the age of 80 in Mount Lehman, B.C.
Major Okill Massey Learmonth
Only 23 years old, the Quebec City-born officer was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation reads :
For most conspicuous bravery and exceptional devotion to duty. During a determined counter-attack on our new positions, this officer, when his company was momentarily surprised, instantly charged and personally disposed of the attackers. Later, he carried on a tremendous fight with the advancing enemy. Although under intense barrage fire and mortally wounded, he stood on the parapet of the trench, bombed the enemy continuously and directed the defence in such a manner as to infuse a spirit of utmost resistance into his men. On several occasions this very brave officer actually caught bombs thrown at him by the enemy and threw them back. When he was unable by reason of his wounds to carry on the fight he still refused to be carried out of the line, and continued to give instructions and invaluable advice to his junior officers, finally handing over all his duties before he was evacuated from the front line to the hospital where he died.
Sergeant Frederick Hobson
A veteran of the Boer War, the London-born Sgt. Hobson immigrated to Canada and settled in present-day Cambridge, Ont. He lied about his age to enlist – but not the usual lie. He lopped two years off his actual age, 41, when he turned up at the recruiting office, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force was happy to enlist the "39 year old" and assign him to the 20th Infantry Battalion. His citation reads:
During a strong enemy counter-attack a Lewis gun in a forward post in a communication trench leading to the enemy lines, was buried by a shell, and the crew, with the exception of one man, killed. Sgt. Hobson, though not a gunner, grasping the great importance of the post, rushed from his trench, dug out the gun, and got it into action against the enemy who were now advancing down the trench and across the open. A jam caused the gun to stop firing. Though wounded, he left the gunner to correct the stoppage, rushed forward at the advancing enemy and, with bayonet and clubbed rifle, single handed, held them back until he himself was killed by a rifle shot. By this time however, the Lewis gun was again in action and reinforcements shortly afterwards arriving, the enemy were beaten off. The valour and devotion to duty displayed by this non-commissioned Officer gave the gunner the time required to again get the gun into action, and saved a most serious situation.
Private Michael O'Rourke
The Irish-born stretcher-bearer with the 7 th Battalion was 39 years old when he found himself at the Battle of Hill 70. His citation reads:
For three days and nights Pte. O’Rourke, who is a stretcher-bearer, worked unceasingly in bringing the wounded into safety, dressing them and getting them food and water. During the whole of this period the area in which he worked was subjected to very severe shelling and swept by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. On several occasions he was knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. Again he went forward about 50 yards in front of our barrage under very heavy and accurate fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, and brought in a comrade. On a subsequent occasion, when the line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated, he went forward under very heavy enemy fire of every description and brought back a wounded man who had been left behind.
Uncannily, Pte. O'Rourke made it through the battle and the war without as much as a scratch. At least not a physical wound. He ended up in Vancouver, living on "skid row" and finding occasional work on the docks to augment his $10-a-month disability pension. He once led a protest parade of striking longshoremen, proudly wearing his medals while carrying the union flag. He lived to the age of 79.
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."
CANADA AT WAR: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL