When Six Canadians Were Awarded the Victoria Cross in a Single Battle in WWI

Fighting was often hand-to-hand and even took place underground in tunnels that had been dug in an abandoned chalk quarry.

Last month, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa put six of the most prestigious military honors in the Western World on display. The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military award bestowed by the British government.

Until 1993, Canada, as a member of the British Commonwealth, received these honors from the British government. In 1993, Canada instituted the Canadian Victoria Cross, but it has not been awarded since its creation, and the British version has not been awarded since the end of World War II.

Ninety-three Canadians have been awarded the VC for valor since the medal was created in 1856. Six of them were awarded for one battle in the First World War: the Battle of Hill 70.

14th Battalion who fought on Hill 70 on way to rest camp. October 1917.
14th Battalion who fought on Hill 70 on way to rest camp. October 1917.

The Battle of Hill 70 which took place in August 1917 was a crucial moment for the Canadian contingent sent to the Western Front in WWI. The battle, the first by Canadian troops under exclusively Canadian command, was vital in keeping attacking German forces from the flanks of the British fighting at Passchendaele, the 3rd Ypres battle, just a few miles away.

The Canadians were also tasked with making the German position at the nearby city strong-point of Lens indefensible in the hope that a later breakthrough could be achieved.

German machine gun emplacement between Hill 70 and Lens. September, 1917. Photo: MIKAN
German machine gun emplacement between Hill 70 and Lens. September, 1917. Photo: MIKAN

Located just under 38 miles south of Ypres, where the British overall commander Douglas Haig had ordered yet another offensive, the German-occupied city of Lens could be observed quite easily from Hill 70, which was named for its height in meters. Haig, who had a reputation for ordering bloody frontal assaults, ordered the Canadians to take Lens in yet another unimaginative attack against the German defenses.

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General Sir Arthur Currie, in command of the Canadian Corps, convinced Haig that rather than waste lives in a frontal attack on Lens, the Canadians should take Hill 70 to the north and install heavy artillery on the summit.

A ruined house west of Lens, used to shelter water tanks.
A ruined house west of Lens, used to shelter water tanks.

This would make German movement in and around Lens almost impossible and would force the Germans to give up the city. This would result in the line being pushed back, taking some of the pressure off the British to the north and perhaps even opening a hole in German lines that could to be exploited.

On August 15, the Canadians began their assault on Hill 70. The attack took the Germans by surprise, and within a few hours, the Canadians had driven them from the hill.

WWII history buffs know that the Germans were famous for their fierce and almost immediate counter-attacks during that conflict. But this strategy started long before, and the Germans in 1917 launched an amazing 21 counter-attacks on the Canadians on Hill 70 over the next four days.

A steel and concrete sniper’s post in ground captured by Canadians in recent push, Hill 70. August, 1917.
A steel and concrete sniper’s post in ground captured by Canadians in recent push, Hill 70. August, 1917.

Fighting was often hand-to-hand and even took place underground in tunnels that had been dug in an abandoned chalk quarry. Some of the soldiers left lasting reminders of having been there, and their carved messages can still be seen today.

Tens of thousands of troops from both sides took part in the battle: the four divisions of the Canadian Corps and a roughly equal number of Germans. Canadian losses amounted to 9,000 killed or wounded. German losses were far greater, approaching 25,000 killed or wounded.

A young Boche officer captured by Canadians on Hill 70. August 1917.
A young Boche officer captured by Canadians on Hill 70. August 1917.

Six Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the battle. All six of these medals are on display in Ottawa (all are originals, except one, which was lost in 1920 and replaced).

The recipients were: Privates Harry Brown and Michael James O’Rourke, Corporal Filip Konowal, Sergeant Major Robert Hill Hanna, Sergeant Frederick Hobson, and Acting Major Okill Massey Learmonth.

Though all of the recipients’ stories are amazing and note-worthy, one in particular stands out – that of Corporal Konowal.

Corporal Konowal was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) at the Battle of Hill 70 in Lens, France for the following actions during 22- 24 August 1917
Corporal Konowal was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) at the Battle of Hill 70 in Lens, France for the following actions during 22- 24 August 1917

Konowal had emigrated to Canada from Kutkivski, Russia (now in Ukraine) after having served in the Russian Imperial Army for five years as a hand-to-hand combat instructor. Arriving in Canada in 1913, he worked for a year as a lumberjack and then in a match factory. In 1915, he joined the Canadian Army.

At one point during the war, he was almost shot for desertion. He had been standing guard duty in waist-deep water when he had had enough and charged German lines single-handedly. He captured three machine gun positions and took three prisoners, but initially, his British captain thought he was deserting. Before he came back to explain his actions, orders were issued for Konowal’s arrest.

Canadians in captured trenches on Hill 70. August, 1917.
Canadians in captured trenches on Hill 70. August, 1917.

The citation for his VC reads:

“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.”

German prisoners captured on Hill 70. August 1917.
German prisoners captured on Hill 70. August 1917.

He attacked until he was shot in the head. He was sent home after a period of recovery in France but had sustained some lasting brain damage. Such a grievous injury came into play later in his life when Konowal was arrested for murder in 1919.

The victim was a man named Bill Artick. Konowal and a veteran friend, Leontiy Diedek, went to see Artick about buying a bicycle, and a dispute arose between Artick and Diedek. According to Konowal, Artick produced a knife, which Konowal seized and shoved into the man’s chest. Others at his trial said the knife belonged to the veteran.

Canadians wounded on Hill 70 being checked before the train leaves a Casualty Clearing Station. August, 1917.
Canadians wounded on Hill 70 being checked before the train leaves a Casualty Clearing Station. August, 1917.

In one of history’s earliest instances, experts testified that both battlefield mental trauma (today referred to as PTSD) and Konowal’s brain injury had caused flashbacks and lack of control. The VC recipient was found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a mental institution for seven years.

Upon his release, Konowal got a job as a janitor at the Canadian Parliament. In 1936, Konowal’s situation came to the attention of Mackenzie King, the prime minister. King arranged for the veteran to be given a job for life at Parliament, becoming a doorman at one of the institution’s meeting rooms.

Filip Konowal’s medal set on permanent exhibition in the Canadian War Museum. From the left: the Victoria Cross, British War Medal (1914–1920), Victory Medal (1914–1919), George VI Coronation Medal (1937), Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953).
Filip Konowal’s medal set on permanent exhibition in the Canadian War Museum. From the left: the Victoria Cross, British War Medal (1914–1920), Victory Medal (1914–1919), George VI Coronation Medal (1937), Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953).

Read another story from us: Canadian Fighter Pilot in WWI Ordered to Go Back to Flight School. He didn’t. Instead, He Went on To Shoot Down 72 Enemy Aircraft

In 1942, Konowal was asked to testify before a committee on orders and decorations. His appearance as a run-down old man in a poor-fitting, shabby suit shocked many of the members, one of whom said: “I think a man awarded the Victoria Cross is entitled to live better than this man, whether he is employed or not.”

Former Corporal Konowal was granted a small pension but continued in his job until his death in 1959. The VC on display in Ottawa today got there the hard way, having been stolen from the museum in 1973 and reacquired after an investigation of the black market in war memorabilia in 2004.