History Thread: The Women’s Battalion of Death

Maria Bochkareva came from the most hardscrabble background a Russian could imagine. Born to peasants in Tomsk, Siberia, she endured an abusive father who regularly beat her and her siblings. She married at age 15 to escape her wretched home life, only to find her husband (an alcoholic criminal who was frequently imprisoned for theft) treating her no better than her father. By 1914, Bochkareva decided to leave her husband and strike out on her own. This decision coincided with the beginning of World War I, which would have disastrous consequences for her homeland.

Russia entered the war on the side of the Allies, but its ill-equipped and poorly led armies were overwhelmed by the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey) at Tannenberg, Masurian Lakes and other disastrous battles across Eastern Europe. No matter: Bochkareva wanted very much to do her part for her homeland (escaping her abusive marriage, it seems, was a bonus). “My heart yearned to be there, in the boiling cauldron of war, to be baptized in its fire and scorched in its lava,” she wrote. “The spirit of sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me.”

Maria Bochkareva

Predictably, Bochkareva was initially rejected for military service. But after petitioning Tsar Nicholas II, she was allowed to enlist in the 28th Regiment. Her military experience was odious at first: besides the usual hardships of military service, she was singled out for abuse and harassment by her colleagues throughout training. After a lifetime of such treatment by her husband and father, Bochkareva decided to fight back. “All night long my nerves were taut and my fists busy,” she wrote. “I continued to rain blows til the bell rang at five o’clock.”

Bochkareva served with gallantry on the front lines. She took part in several major campaigns and was wounded in action, winning several decorations, a promotion to corporal and the respect of her colleagues, who nicknamed her Yashka. In one engagement in the winter of 1915, she was separated from her unit and cornered by a German infantryman in a trench. “Life or death hung in the balance,” she realized, so “I rushed at the German before he had time to move and ran him through the stomach with the bayonet.” She then fled through the snow from a German patrol, scattering her pursuers with a shower of hand grenades. She entertained mixed feelings about taking human life, but took pride in her bravery.

Russian trenches

Bessie Beatty, an American reporter, encountered Bochkareva during this time and was impressed by her tough-mindedness. This stocky, swaggering peasant woman took to military life like a duck to water, impressing those who’d previously dismissed and ridiculed her. “After the first few days of grumbling protest, her comrades seldom remembered she was a woman,” Beatty wrote. For her part, Beatty hoped that Bochkareva would serve as an example; she proved that “women have the courage, the endurance, even the strength for fighting.”

Given the massive casualties of World War I, it’s not surprising that the belligerent nations experimented with recruiting female soldiers. Both the British and German armies created Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC), which performed headquarters and garrison duties allowing men to serve at the front. The American Expeditionary Force under General John J. Pershing created the famous “Hello Girls,” a company of switchboard operators which oversaw communications at Pershing’s headquarters. But the era’s gender strictures prevented these units from seeing combat.

America’s Hello Girls

This proved even more the case in Tsarist Russia, which (per historian Laurie Stoff) fostered a “patriarchal and hierarchical” sociopolitical system in which “a benevolent but authoritarian father figure dominated obedient and subservient women and children.” While thousands of women (including Tsarina Alexandra) served as nurses and ambulance drivers, few imagined them in military roles, even the limited ones envisioned by Britain, Germany and the United States. Observations by feminist A.K. Iakovleva that the war had turned “everyone into fighters” fell on deaf ears; the Russian Army remained, for most of the war, the sole province of men.

Women who wanted to fight instead followed the time-honored practice of disguising themselves as men. Historian Melissa Stockdale records 49 confirmed cases of women serving in the Russian Army, though the number may be as high as 1,000. Many were well-connected figures: Kati Dadeshkilian, from a family of Georgian nobles, disguised herself as “Prince Djamal” and served in the trenches of Galicia, where she won the St. George’s Cross. Wounded during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, she suffered from shell shock and reenlisted in the Ambulance Corps from the remainder of the war. Princess Evgeniia Shakhovskaya, a cousin of the Tsar, didn’t bother donning men’s clothes when she became the first woman to serve as a military pilot.

Princess Kati as “Prince Djamal”

More humble, though equally celebrated combatants were 12 students from Moscow, all high school classmates, enlisting the same regiment together with help from male friends. These teenage women took part in the war’s heaviest fighting in Poland and Galicia, where they served courageously. “It was a bit terrible at first,” one recalled, “but the desire to see the war and ourselves kill the Germans overcame all other sentiments.” This squadron’s identity was uncovered but, due to their stellar combat record, they were allowed to remain in service. Following the Army’s reverses, even the most misogynist officer couldn’t reject able soldiers.

By January 1917, however, Maria Bockhareva had enough. She watched her beloved platoon commander, who steadfastly supported her service, killed in combat along with many enlisted comrades. She suffered repeated illnesses while wounds left her “resembling a log more than a human body.” Then the February Revolution swept the Tsar from power on the back of war-weariness and general exhaustion. The Provisional Government which succeeded Nicholas decided to continue the war, thereby dooming their regime to extinction. But it allowed Bochkareva another chance to serve, this time as an officer.

Alexander Kerensky (left) reviewing Russian troops

With Russia’s military exhausted and few volunteers forthcoming, Alexander Kerensky’s Government authorized the creation of a Women’s Battalion in Petrograd; Bochkareva, commissioned a captain, took command. She received 2,000 eager volunteers, although only 300 lasted through Bochkareva’s tough basic training. Laurie Stoff describes Bochkareva as “convinced the only way to turn them into soldiers [was] to divorce them from any hint of femininity,” ordering the women to shave their heads and affect male styles of speech, dress and habit. Bochkareva herself liked to scandalize her comrades by attending all-male establishments in Petrograd, daring men to throw her out.

An American reporter who surveyed the Women’s Battalion found that many already had some level of military experience. Many had served as nurses, clerks or secretaries; a few had already fought in men’s units in disguise. Their ethnic make-up varied: Bochkareva claimed that among their ranks were Georgians from the Caucasus, Estonians, Cossacks, several Romani women and Siberian peasants like herself. Most of the recruits, however, appear to have been working class women from cities like Petrograd and Moscow.

The women’s motivations for enlisting varied. Bessie Beatty interviewed a recruit of Japanese descent, who told her “my reasons are so many that I would rather not tell them.” A Cossack woman added that her father and brothers had died at the front, while her mother had been killed by a German bomb; “what else is left for me?” Beatty befriended a young woman named Nina, whose striking blue eyes and playful humor reminded her of a movie star. The American was struck when Nina, abandoning comedy for earnest patriotism, told her that “I love my gun…I love my bayonet…I love all things that carry death to my country’s enemies.”

Recruits in Petrograd

Russian women who took seriously the Provisional Government’s promises of equality viewed the Battalion as a triumph. Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein of the All-Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights proclaimed that “Woman, having proved again her social consciousness and maturity” could now lay claim to being “a citizen of her fatherland.” Bochkareva, while hardy a traditional feminist, herself echoed these sentiments. “The men won’t fight,” she told Bessie Beatty, acknowledging the parlous state of Russia’s military. But “women – women will fight!”

That willingness to fight, indeed, sapped support from leftists who viewed the Battalion as a tool of imperialism. Hoping to allay these criticisms, the women’s regimental colors sported a Red band “for a Revolution that must not die!” and a black band “for a death that is preferable to dishonor for Russia!” For Leftists campaigning against the war, this combination of gender equality, socialism and patriotism seemed odious. Their skepticism even spread to some of Bochkareva’s soldiers, who in June attempted a mini-mutiny which left their commander shaken.

Nonetheless, Bochkareva’s experiment received promotion by the Russian Government to raise morale; it also earned the attention, if not always the respect of international observers. English suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst visited Russia and reviewed the Battalion (nicknamed “the Battalion of Death,” perhaps mockingly, though the Russians embraced it), which she considered a triumph for female equality. Theodore Roosevelt invited Bochkareva to visit him in the United States and donated $1,000 to provide arms and uniforms for her unit. Not all were impressed, though; a visiting American military officer dismissed the Battalion as “very useless and absurd.”

Bockhareva and Emmeline Pankhurst Review the Battalion

Despite such condescension, the Women’s Battalion entered the front lines of Kerensky’s July Offensive, the final attempt by the Provisional Government to keep Russia in the war. On July 9th the Battalion advanced to Smorgon-Krevo, in modern Belarus, where they took part in an assault against a well-entrenched German regiment. Even now, they faced ridicule from their male colleagues, who sneered that “they are pretending!” and “just watch those women run!” The Battalion ignored the jeers “through gritted teeth” as they received the signal to advance.

“We crossed ourselves and, hugging our rifles, leaped out of the trenches,” Bockhareva recalled. The women charged through artillery and machine gun fire, which inflicted gruesome casualties; Bockhareva found one private eviscerated by shrapnel, calmly assuring her commander that “My dear, it’s no matter” before dying. Despite these losses, the Battalion overran the German positions and beat off a counterattack in fierce, hand-to-hand combat. They took three lines of trenches in total and over 200 prisoners, advancing to the edge of a forest where they could see the enemy in disorganized retreat.

But, to their dismay, the same male battalions who’d been jeering them moments earlier refused to advance; they remained isolated, 300 women with only rifles and light machine guns against an entire division. “How can you leave your comrades and those brave women to their destruction?” a Russian colonel demanded, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. As German reinforcements massed to their front, the Women’s Battalion was forced to withdraw. In their first major engagement, they’d lost thirty-six soldiers killed or wounded.

Women’s Battalion at the Front

The Russian press treated the Battalion’s performance as a victory, saying it had “won historic fame for the name of women.” Unfortunately, their impact on the campaign proved negligible; stiff German resistance caused Kerensky’s offensive to collapse, with hundreds of thousands killed, wounded or captured, and others deserting en masse. The Russian Army, in its death throes, vented its rage on those who continued fighting. Which included the Women’s Battalion; its soldiers were subject to ridicule and harassment by male soldiers who mocked both their gender and their “reactionary” patriotism.

These criticisms took hold. Botchkareva was accused of Tsarist sympathies, even though she staunchly supported the Provisional Government. She was attacked and beaten by a mob of male soldiers, angry at her role as a symbol for the war. Worse, she expressed support for General Lavr Kornilov’s abortive coup in September. Botchkareva explained that, while skeptical of Kornilov’s intentions, she felt that Russia’s Provisional Government needed a stronger leader than the vacillating Kerensky. Such distinctions were lost with a woman already suspect for refusing to allow soldiers’ committees in her regiment; rumors about her sexual orientation undermined her further.

This outcry led to the Battalion’s disbandment. But its example, at the very least, inspired Russian women who continued to enlist; at least 5,000 were accepted for active service. One Women’s Battalion was created in Moscow and sent to the front, though it never saw combat. Another organized in the Kuban but disbanded before leaving its home region. A contingent of women sailors mustered in Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland, hoping to see naval service; they were still training when the October Revolution erupted.

The Petrograd Women’s Battalion

The second consequential Women’s Battalion organized in Petrograd that fall. Numbering 1,400 recruits, among its rank were dozens of veterans of Bockhareva’s original Battalion of Death (Bockhareva, however, was denied command). Fully expecting to see combat, they were instead stationed at the Winter Palace, guarding Kerensky’s offices against an insurrection by the Bolsheviks. They held a military parade in Petrograd on October 24th before Kerensky’s cabinet and foreign observers, who were impressed by their efficiency. Sir Alfred Knox, Britain’s military liaison to the Russian government, recalled “receiving a lump in the throat to see them, and the utter swine of “men” soldiers jeering at them.”

The following evening saw the long-awaited Bolshevik coup d’etat – the “storming” of the Winter Palace. Despite its prominent place in Soviet mythology (the event was several times restaged, notably for Sergei Eisenstein’s October), the coup was more farce than heroic epic. The veteran regiments defending the Palace largely melted away, some soldiers sneaking away to eat at local restaurants, leaving only 139 soldiers of the Women’s Battalion and a small detachment of cadets to fight some 40,000 communists. The Bolsheviks fumbled their attack, however; many attackers were unarmed, one commander became lost and fell into a bog, and the battle cruiser Aurora fired blanks in lieu of ammunition.

At the Winter Palace

Nonetheless, the Battalion provided the only effective resistance to the coup. At the last moment, the cadets not only abandoned their colleagues but withdrew their cannon, leaving the women virtually defenseless. Virtually, but not quite; stationed behind makeshift fortifications around the Palace, they inflicted casualties on their attackers and held their initial, poorly-coordinated assaults at bay. They also fought off a Bolshevik shock battalion who’d broken into the palace, with stray bullets shattering windows and a glass chandelier in the Palace foyer. Despite later claims by Communist propaganda that the women “hysterically” hid within the palace, eyewitnesses agreed that they offered serious resistance.

Heavily outnumbered and armed only with rifles, however, the Women’s Battalion could only last for a few hours. When the Bolsheviks began shelling them with live cannon, the Battalion was forced to surrender. By this time, other communists had entered the Palace; some arrested Kerensky’s cabinet (Kerensky himself escaped in a borrowed car) while others ransacked the wine cellar, spilling such much alcohol that it ran into the streets. The Battalion was initially imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress, then (after Knox secured their release) relocated to a barracks outside the city awaiting an uncertain fate.

For the next several weeks, the Battalions endured indignity after indignity as the Bolsheviks began to demobilize the Army. Mutinous soldiers continued to harass the women, whom they viewed as a symbol of counterrevolution. And worse: one witness recalled that at least three were sexually assaulted by Red Guards during this period, while others were beaten or murdered. Some were hanged by angry Bolsheviks; others were shot or, in at least one case, thrown in front of a moving train. The unit was finally demobilized in mid-November, just as the Russian Civil War began.

Maria Bochkareva’s fight continued. Ignoring Lenin’s offer to organize women for the Red Army, she fled to the United States, published a memoir and used her fame to leverage an audience with President Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps Bochkareva played a role in Wilson’s decision to dispatch American troops to Russia, though he never mentioned it. Bochkareva returned to Siberia where she attempted to organize another Women’s Battalion for the White Army, only to meet opposition from Admiral Kolchak’s All-Russian Government. In April 1919 she was captured by the Red Army outside Tomsk; the following year, after a long and brutal imprisonment, Bochkareva was executed by the Cheka.

The Women’s Battalions of the First World War achieved a decidedly mixed reputation; certainly, their role in prolonging Russian involvement in the war can be questioned. But their courage presaged the more widespread use of female soldiers by the Red Army in World War II. Compared to the 5,000 who served in the First World War, over 800,000 served in the Second, many in high-profile roles as snipers, tank officers and bomber pilots. All found their path paved by a tough, stubborn peasant from Tomsk who refused to stand on the sidelines.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Bessie Beatty, The Red Heart of Russia (1919), online here; Maria Bochkareva’s memoir, Yashka: My Life As Peasant Exile And Soldier (1919), online here; Melissa K. Stockdale, “My Death for the Motherland Is Happiness”: Women, Patriotism, and Soldiering in Russia’s Great War, 1914-1917″ (The American Historical Review, February 2004), available online here; and Laurie Stoff, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (2006).