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Turning women into soldiers .. first step, shaving of their heads, ridding the women of one of their most ?impractical? and outwardly feminine features.

Meet Russia’s All-Women Battalion of Death

This WWI Battalion of Women was Tough as Nails

The ‘Women’s Battalions of Death’, as they were known, were all-female combat units formed after the February Revolution in 1917 by the Russian Provisional Government in a last-ditch effort to inspire the mass of war-weary soldiers of the Russian Army to continue fighting in World War I.

They were created from pools of enthusiastic volunteers to lead the way in battle. Already some women had successfully petitioned to join regular military units, and now a number began pressing the new Provisional Government to create special women’s battalions. These women, along with a number of high-ranking members of the Russian government and military administration, believed that female soldiers would have significant propaganda value and that their example would revitalize the weary, demoralized men of the Russian army. Simultaneously, they hoped the presence of women would shame hesitant male soldiers into resuming their combat duties.

WWI is regarded as the world?s first ?total? war, not only because of the enormity of its destruction and the sheer loss of human life but also because so many non-combatants on the home front were tapped to help in their nation?s war efforts. As men left for combat, women could increasingly be found working in and managing such traditionally male-dominated fields as transportation and industry, and many women departed for the dangers of the front as nurses, laundresses, cooks, and drivers?often for the purpose of freeing more men up for the actual fighting.

While much of this is well-known to the typical First World War buff, what many do not know is that Russia?and Russia alone?created?all-female combat units?to actively fight alongside men on the front.? The most famous of these units was known as The First Women?s Battalion of Death, and it?s estimated that approximately 6,000 Russian women served in such battalions throughout the war.

To understand how these battalions came about, one must first understand some basics of the Russian domestic situation at this time.

In March of 1917, Tsar Nicholas, submitting to the fact that he could no longer fight the tides of revolution, abdicated the throne to an incredibly precarious?albeit democratic?new government. The following months saw a flood of liberal and egalitarian policies instituted throughout Russia, with women getting the vote, as well as legal entitlement to equal pay.

Meanwhile, the new government also believed that victory in the World War was vital to the country?s self-interest. This meant newly appointed Minister of War Alexandra Kerensky was now faced with the mammoth task of breathing life into a war effort of which the majority of Russians?especially Russian soldiers?wanted no more part. Insubordination rates and violence against officers (especially officers with aristocratic backgrounds) were at an all-time high, and after three years at the front in often horrific day-to-day conditions, most of Russia?s soldiers simply wanted to go home.

Kerensky?s answer to low morale was the creation of what he called ?shock battalions,? or ?battalions of death,? which he envisioned as brigades of the most disciplined, exemplary Russian fighters. They would theoretically be deployed to various places along the front to awe and inspire war-weary soldiers.

Kerensky?s vision of these shock battalions coincided almost exactly with an idea brought forward by a peasant-woman-turned-soldier named?Maria Bochkareva?(while by no means common, there were a number of known incidents of individual women serving in otherwise all-male units throughout Europe during this time). Bochkareva asserted that a disciplined, exemplary battalion of Russian women could serve to ?shame? the weary and unmotivated soldiers at the front.

While Bochkareva earnestly believed in a woman?s ability to fight, The Ministry of War mostly saw her proposal as the perfect propaganda tool to compliment their shock battalions?if even?women, they reasoned, were answering their country?s call to arms, then surely men would feel obliged to follow suit. Thus, Kerensky gave his permission for the First Women?s Battalion of Death to be formed, led under Bochkareva?s command.

The Petrograd unit at Camp, 1917.

The 1st Russian Women?s Battalion of Death inspired many women around Russia who flooded the Ministry of War with letters petitioning for the?establishment of more all-female units. Even before the disbandment of the first one, Kerensky approved the creation of an additional women?s combat unit in Petrograd, the 1st Petrograd Women?s Battalion. This one included 1,400 women whose training regimen consisted of not only parade drill, riflery, and night manoeuvres, but also reading classes for the illiterate.

Fifteen formations in total were created in 1917, including the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, a separate unit called the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion formed a few weeks later in Petrograd, the 2nd Moscow Women’s Battalion of Death created in Moscow, and the 3rd Kuban Women’s Shock Battalion organized in Ekaterinodar. Four communications detachments were created in Moscow and Petrograd. Seven additional communications units were created in Kiev and Saratov, again employing privately organised women’s units already existing in those cities. Additional unsanctioned battalions sprang in cities across Russia. An all-female naval unit was created in Oranienbaum, the 1st Women’s Naval Detachment, as part of the Naval Infantry Training Detachment.

In June 1917, the 2nd Moscow Women?s Battalion of Death was created, and two separate communications detachments were also founded. They had enlisted over 1,000 women by the end of the summer. However, they faced a lack of support, and after a few months, the battalion disbanded, with?500 women requesting to be assigned to the front. Hence, they were given transfers of which the General Staff weren?t informed. The 2nd Women?s Battalion of Death, led by its founder Maria Bochkareva, were the last army unit that stood in defence of the Winter Palace on 25th October 1917.

These battalions encouraged women from various Russian cities to require the authorization for the establishment of quasi-military women units by private women?s organisations. The demand became popular, and the Ministry of War had to satisfy these requirements, so the women?s military formations were?expanded further. There was a fourth combat unit created in Ekaterinodar called the 3rd Kuban Women?s Shock Battalion, which was founded by a pre-existing grass-roots unit. Unfortunately, it soon?faced the same destiny as the other battalions due to organisational and supply issues.

Enlistment was open to women aged eighteen and older, with women under the age of twenty-one required to have permission from their parents to join. The recruits were also made to swear an oath in which they promised everything from ?courage and valour? to ?cheerfulness, happiness, kindness, hospitality, chastity, and fastidiousness.? After these initial requirements were met, as well as the passing of a health evaluation, the women were marched off to training grounds to begin the process that would turn them from ?women to soldiers.?

New women recruits in Petrograd in 1917

This process first entailed the shaving of their heads, ridding the women of one of their most ?impractical? and outwardly feminine features. As no uniforms for women existed, the recruits were administered clothes designed for men that were often ill-fitting on the female frame; this proved especially problematic in regards to footwear, as their boots were often impossibly over-sized. To further enforce their new identities, Bochkareva discouraged and punished excessive smiling and giggling?behavior she considered overly-feminine?and instead encouraged spitting, smoking, and cursing among her recruits.

Along with these physical transformations, the women also began a gruelling daily training process designed to prepare them for battle. The recruits rose at five o? clock each morning and drilled until nine o? clock at night, at which point they slept on bare boards covered by thin bed sheets. Their training consisted of strenuous exercises, marching drills, lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and rifle handling.

Any behaviour deemed ?flirtatious? or at all feminine was strictly prohibited, and Bochkareva was known to punish even minor transgressions with corporal punishment. She stomped out any signs of traditional femininity not only in an attempt to make ?warriors of the weaker sex,? but also in order to curb government anxiety that female soldiers at the front would result in illicit sexual relations. As one official stated, ?Who will guarantee that the presence of women soldiers at the front will not yield their little soldiers?? Bochkareva thus deemed the sexlessness of her soldiers as a mark of her own professional dedication and triumph.

While?on the home front these female soldiers were publicly celebrated, their reception in combat was decidedly less welcome. Upon arriving at the front, the Battalion was met with boos, jeers, and an overall sense of resentment by male soldiers. Not only did the deep-rooted misogyny of the military complex and culture at large shine through, but in general, the exhausted men were antagonistic to anything that they perceived as an attempt by their leaders to prolong the fighting.

Even when the Women?s Battalion proved itself both disciplined and courageous under fire, male soldiers remained angered and insulted by their presence. Within just a few months, Bochkareva was forced to disband the unit, allowing her women to join groups elsewhere wherever they saw fit.

In her memoir,?Yashka, My Life As A Peasant, Exile, and Soldier,?Bochkareva,?wrote:

?They could not stand it much longer where they were. They were prepared to fight the Germans, to be tortured by them, to die at their hands or in prison camps. But they were not prepared for the torments and humiliations that they were made to suffer by our own men. That had never entered into our calculations at the time that the Battalion was formed.?

Maria Bochkareva was a Russian soldier who fought in World War I and the founder of the Women?s Battalion of Death. A peasant girl from Novgorod, Bochkareva suffered two abusive romantic relationships until the beginning of the World War 1 when she left her partner to join the army. While initially rejected she made a personal petition to Tsar Nicholas II who granted her request.

Maria Bochareva was a determined, skilled and brave hero who formed and led the very first women?s battalion in the First World War. Emmeline Pankhurst called her ?The greatest woman of the century?!?She?d been in the workforce since the age of eight and had passed almost continuously through abusive male relationships (violently drunken father, marriages to two wife-batterers).

Maria was born in Russia in 1889. The start of her story is not a happy one:?She came from a poor family and had an abusive father. Determined to escape this life she got married when she was only 15.

She married Afanasy Bochkarev. They moved to Tomsk, Siberia, where they worked as labourers. When her husband started to abuse her, she left him and began a love affair with Yakov Buk, a local man. They opened a butcher shop together, but in May 1912, Buk was arrested for theft and sent to Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in Russia. She followed him there, mostly on foot, and they started another butcher shop. In 1913 he was caught stealing again, and they sent him to Amga. Bochkareva followed him again. There, Buk began to drink and to abuse Bochkareva.

Her second husband turned out to be not much better than the first, he was a thief and after sticking with him for so long she eventually left him when he too became violent towards her.

In 1914 when the First World War broke out Maria decided she wanted to fight for her country. In her autobiography, she wrote that a voice with her called??Go to war to help save the country!?

Now women were not ordinarily allowed to join the Russian Army (nor any European army at that time!) Maria had already been told that she wasn?t allowed?to join, so she sent a telegram to?Tsar Nicholas II?asking his personal permission! At his say so she joined the 25th Reserve Battalion.

Maria Bochkareva, Emmeline Pankhurst and women of the Battalion of Death.

Bochkareva endured ridicule and sexual harassment within her regiment but also won many of her fellow soldier?s respect. In her first battle, following an ill-fated attack by her unit, Bochkareva crept out into No Man?s Land and dragged over 50 wounded men to safety before she was herself wounded in the leg. Bochkareva participated in at least 100 more excursions into No Man?s Land over the course of the war, during which she was wounded twice more and decorated three times for bravery.

Over the next three years, she was wounded many times, including one instance when she was paralysed by a piece of shrapnel in her spine. This didn?t stop her though, within six months she had learned to walk again and was back on the battlefield.

She was given several medals, some for her bravery in retrieving wounded and dead men from No Man?s Land. She gradually crept up through the ranks, receiving promotions along with her medals.

By 1917 she was a Sergeant and it was at this point that she formed and led the very first all-female battalion.? She convinced the new leader of Russia, Alexander Kerensky that she should be allowed to recruit for an all-woman unit.

In a speech she gave to recruit women to the battalion she said:

?Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with your lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke ? to protect the freedom of our country.?

Initially, 2000 women volunteered to join her ?1st Russian Women?s Battalion of Death?, but by the time she had put them through their paces in training she had whittled it down to a fearsome 300, who were swiftly sent to the front.

During the Kerensky Offensive, the Women?s Battalion of Death were assigned to the 525th Kiuruk-Darinski Regiment and occupied a trench near Smorgon. When they were ordered to go over the top, the soldiers of the other battalions refused to do so, but?under the command of Bochkareva, all the women did as they were ordered. Even though they managed to enter into German territory, the women were forced to retreat as the relief units never arrived. After the revolution, Bochkareva?s Battalion of Death was still at the front but was demobilized soon after because of increasing hostility from the male troops.

After the February Revolution, the Russian Provisional Government established special all-female units of the army known as Women’s Battalions.

The Battalion were known for their bravery and willingness to fight. By this point in the war, many of the men had grown weary, but the newly formed women?s unit fought with gusto. On one mission they managed to cross three trench lines and returned with 200 prisoners!

After this several other women?s battalions were formed but Bochkareva?s was the only one that actually went to the front. While leading her battalion Maria was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain. She was given a revolver and a sabre that had gold handles!

The?Bolsheviks?captured Maria more than once.?On the first occasion, she was sentenced to be executed but was rescued by a soldier she had fought with in earlier years and was able to leave Russia.

According to her memoirs, her ?tigresses? continued fighting while the rest of the front was fraternising, and enraged her male comrades by drawing artillery fire. She had to flee male soldiers intent on lynching her when she was still fighting after peace was announced. She had a hard time getting used to the idea of the new Soviet government, and the feeling was mutual: her battalion was soon disbanded and it wasn?t long before she took a steamship into exile.

Maria had become really well known all around the world for her courage, bravery and her famous women?s battalion. She travelled first to America, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson. She pleaded with him on behalf of her country and asked that America intervened in the war. While in the US she dictated her memoirs?Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier.

In the USA, she visited both Washington D.C. and New York City, receiving funding from the wealthy socialite Florence Harriman.

After that, she travelled to Great Britain, where she had an audience with George V, King of England. They gave her funding to return to Russia. She returned in the August of 1918, where she tried to create another unit, but failed. In April of 1919, she went back to Tomsk, where she made efforts to organise a women?s medical detachment under the head of the White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. She was captured by Bolsheviks and brought to Krasnoiarks, where she was interrogated for four months. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.

On May 16, 1920, she was executed.

On 25th October, Bochkareva and the few remaining members of the Women’s Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. John Reed, an American journalist in Petrograd during the revolution reported that “all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women’s Battalion defending the Palace.

Alfred Knox, the British Military Attach? in Petrograd, intervened in order to help free members of the Women’s Battalion who had been captured during the attack on the Winter Palace. This involved him negotiating with Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: “I borrowed the Ambassador’s car and drove to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. This big building, formerly a school for the daughters of the nobility, is now thick with the dirt of revolution. Sentries and others tried to put me off, but I at length penetrated to the third floor, where I saw the Secretary of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko) and demanded that the women should be set free at once. He tried to procrastinate, but I told him that if they were not liberated at once I would set the opinion of the civilised world against the Bolsheviks.”

The Winter Palace, from Palace Embankment. Following the Revolution of 1917, the palace was for a short time the seat of the Russian Provisional Government, led by Alexander Kerensky. Later that same year, the palace was stormed by a detachment of Red Army soldiers and sailors? a defining moment in the birth of the Soviet state. On a less glorious note, the month-long looting of the palace’s wine cellars during this troubled period led to what has been described as “the greatest hangover in history”.

Immediately following the taking of the Winter Palace all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women’s Battalion defending the Palace. It was said that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through.

The City Duma appointed a commission to investigate the matter. On 16th November the commission returned from Levashovo, headquarters of the Women’s Battalion. Madame Tyrkova reported that the girls had been taken to the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment and that there some of them had been badly treated; but that at present most of them were at Levashovo, and the rest scattered about the city in private houses. Dr Mandelbaum, another of the commission, testified dryly that none of the women had been thrown out of the windows of the Winter Palace, that none were wounded, that three had been violated, and that one had committed suicide, leaving a note which said that she had been “disappointed in her ideals.”

Upon the ultimate Bolshevik takeover in the fall, Russia withdrew from the war altogether, and the ill-fated women?s battalions faded into practically less than a footnote in Russian history. Some scholars speculate that this is because the battalions were so closely associated with the military propaganda of the old regime, whereas others assert that it had more to do with the Russian people?s desperate desire to return to some sense of normalcy after years of international and internal warfare.

Women soldiers themselves had an extremely difficult time readjusting after their return home. Their close-shaven heads made them instantly recognisable as former members of female battalions, and they were easy targets in the midst of the Bolshevik fervour taking hold of the country; there are eye-witness accounts of former battalion members getting beaten, sexually assaulted, and even thrown off moving trains during this period.

Remarkably, many of the former battalion members continued in their desire to fight, with a large number joining both the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary armies on an individual basis in the years to come.

Even though the Ministry of War authorised the battalions, they didn?t receive ?moral? support. Women were confronted with hostility by men who despised the female battalions and insulted women on the front. Women saw hostility even when the military decided to give them positions away from the front, such as guarding the railroads. This meant that they would have taken men?s places who instead would have been shifted to positions on the front. A final decision was made?by the new Bolshevik government in November 1917, ordering the dissolution of any remaining women?s military formations at the request of the girls themselves, who returned to civilian clothes.

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