Ukrainian recipient of the Victoria Cross: The only Ukrainian recipient of a Victoria Cross: unusual story of war hero

20:12 Sep. 14, 2016

The only Ukrainian recipient of a Victoria Cross: unusual story of war hero

Pylyp Konoval (Wiki)

The Anabasis of Filip Konowal: Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko tells the unusual story of the only Ukrainian recipient of the highest award of the British Empire

Among many means one may employ for telling Ukraine's history, the genre of individual biography, at least in some instances, proves to be the most advantageous. In line with its rules, we can delve into the life of a randomly chosen Ukrainian to see how intricately intertwined the world's affairs are. A retrospective inspection of this sort will inevitably reveal a personal drama, in which nations, states, conflicts and years of peace play their earth-shatteringly momentous or decoratively episodic roles. All these ingredients are especially evident in the long and almost epical quest undertaken by Filip Konowal – a decorated noncommissioned officer of WW I, born on this day, the 15th of September,1888, in the land of Ukrainian Podilia.


Pylyp (or, as he himself signed his name, Filip) Konowal (1888-1959) Source: Wikipedia 

In the 1990s, his story was written by Dr. Lubomyr Y.Luciuk and Mr. Ron Sorobey – the researchers, on whose authority we shall confidently rely. Their work, undoubtedly scrupulous and immaculate, brought to light the following facts.

The Konowals, a family of peasant stock, settled in the village of Kutkivtsiin the Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire. They had a son called Pylyp, who was to follow his fathers trade of a stone-mason. Already married, he was conscripted into the Imperial Army of Russia and remained a soldier for the next five years. After the release from military service, the young man did not return home, but chose to work as a lumberjack inSiberia. In 1913, having joined a Canadian felling company, he moved toBritish Columbia. Shortly after his arrival toVancouver, the First World War began, leaving the befogged migrant almost no time to reflect on the future. 


Felling and logging in British Columbia, early 20th century. Source: 

In July 1915, Konowal enlisted in the Canadian Army, and, thirteen months later, went to Francewith the 4th Canadian Division. In November 1917, he received the Victoria Cross – the highest award in the ranking system of theUnited Kingdom and its Dominions.          

According to the London Gazette, a respectable official journal of the British Government, it was Pylyp's ‘most conspicuous bravery and leadership when in charge of a section in attack' that earned him the aforementioned decoration. Having reportedly ‘killed at least sixteen of the enemy', the brave corporal kept on fighting ‘until severely wounded'.

King George V himself awarded the Cross, and the military command commissioned the renowned artist Ambrose McEvoy, officially attached to the Royal Naval Division, to paint Konowal's portrait.       


The Victoria Cross holder Filip Konowal, sergeant of the 47th battalion, the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Portrait by Arthur Ambrose McEvoy, 1918. Source: Wikipedia

Between 1916 and 1918, McEvoy, as an officer of the Royal Naval Division, had a duty of painting distinguished sailors and soldiers. His portrait of Konowal, promoted to sergeant, is now at the Canadian War Museumin Ottawa. 

After honorable discharge, the former sub-officer tried to make a peaceful living inCanada, but the task appeared unattainable. In 1919, an abrupt incident changed his life in the most drastic manner. When his friend, another war veteran of Ukrainian descent, was assaulted in a sporadic fight, Pylyp, while trying to disarm the attacker, stabbed the man with his own knife. The jury at the subsequent trial found him not guilty ‘by reason of insanity' caused by heavy war wounds to the head. On those grounds, between 1921 and 1928, Konowal had to spend seven years at the medical institutions that specialized on the post-war mental traumas.         


Another photograph of Konowal. Source:

The wound to the head (which left the visible scar on his face) proved to be a serious obstacle, when the decorated soldier returned home. Today, many Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the war against pro-Russian separatists and Russian troops operating in the east ofUkrainemay be facing very similar problems. 

Having returned to civilian life after all, Pylyp, as a caretaker for the House of Commons, became an ‘employee of Parliament'. Later, he was reassigned to the personal office ofCanada's Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), and the ex-soldier kept this employment for the rest of his days.

In 1939, King George VI visitedOttawaand met Canadian veterans of the ‘Great War'. Konowal, as a recipient of the highest military decoration, was among them.


King George VI is meeting Canadian veterans,Ottawa, 1939. Source: 

In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Anthony Eden invited all the winners of the Victoria Cross to Londonfor the celebration of the award's 100th anniversary. Despite his financial difficulties, Pylyp Konowal was able to attend the event, having been very touchingly supported by the Ukrainian Diaspora in Canada.  


Pylyp Konowal (in the center) among other holders of the Victoria Cross,London, 1956. Source: 

He died in 1959 and was buried with full military honors at the Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa.

InCanada, Pylyp married Juliette Leduc-Auger, whose two sons he adopted. Prior to this marriage, in the 1930s, he had tried to find his family inUkraine, but the endeavor was unsuccessful. His first wife died in the Holodomor (the artificial famine, which the Soviet regime inflicted upon Ukrainians) and their daughter went missing after her mother's death. Apparently, she survived the Second World War and had a family of her own.

Konowal's Victoria Cross experienced an epic anabasis as well. In 1969, theCanadianWarMuseumbought all the military medals of the famed veteran, including the Cross. The latter, however, was stolen in the 1970s and rediscovered only in 2004 with the assistance of the mentioned Dr. Luciuk. Presently, the decoration is at the Museum once again.   


The Victoria Cross. Source: 

To conclude let us list the phenomena mentioned in this extremely brief biographical note. It started with the life of common Ukrainian people in the Russian Empire, with their trades, their choices, and their social options. We then saw one of the many routes of the early 20th century migration fromUkraine toNorth America. Then, of course, there was the First World War, in which Ukrainians fought for imperialBritain,Russia, and Austro-Hungary. The post-war adaptation, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Ukrainian Diaspora, its connections with those Ukrainians that lived under the Soviets – these are the themes that resonate in Konowal's story too.

This story is a part ofUkraine's past, which, through the lives of individuals born on its soil, is inextricably embedded into the multifaceted biography of the whole world.

Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD (candidate of science), historian, political analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

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