As I was browsing through the archive, I came across an article in The Tatler that immediately caught my attention. The role of women in the First World War, including nursing, driving and in factory work, has received considerable attention over the last few decades. However, an area that seems to have been more or less overlooked is the history of female combatants in the war. On the Eastern Front in 1917, the “Battalion of Death”, composed entirely of women, fought for Russia.
At the start of the First World War, Imperial Russian law, like that of her allies, did not permit women to enlist in the army. However, this did not stop many from fighting, with or without formal approval. Sometimes they disguised themselves as men or took advantage of the lax bureaucratic and recruitment procedures to enter the military undetected. Many were the daughters or wives of officers, probably because this connection helped them get in to the armed forces. A few were even openly accepted — enlistment often depended on the prerogative of the commanding officer. Russian women, like men, fought for many different reasons including patriotism and, after the February Revolution of 1917, a new sense of the rights of citizenship. Some of the women were very young — Marina Yurolova, a Cossack, joined the Russian army at the age of 14.
Europe’s first war had already led to the mobilisation of women for the war effort. By 1917-18, women’s roles were changing as Britain and Germany put them into more active military roles to help fill the need for able-bodied fighting men. Britain authorised the creation of auxiliary corps that put women at or near the front lines, while Germany established the Women’s Home Army to act as a subsidiary police force. Russia had similarly mobilised its human resources and was beginning to put women on more dangerous military duties. By May 1917, Russia and its provisional government were suffering heavily and General Aleksei Brusilov, Commander-in-Chief of the South-Western Front, proposed the formation of “revolutionary” units.
It was the Siberian peasant and combat veteran Maria Bochkareva who got permission to create the first women’s battalion on the Eastern Front, which became known as the “Battalion of Death”. Soon after, the Russian Minister of Munitions, Alexander Kerensky, authorised the creation of two more all-female battalions along with four other communications detachments.
Bochkareva’s “Battalion of Death” received considerable attention in the British press, particularly in The Illustrated London News and the Great Eight Publications. One Illustrated London News article described the origin of the battalion:
“Mme. Bochkareva…formed a battalion of 260 women, sworn to conquer or die… these women fought behind the famous Siberian Ironsides, took German prisoners and lost many killed and wounded.”
The Tatler article I found is particularly striking in its report of the battalion’s bravery. While their male counterparts fell back during the Russian Great Retreat at Galicia in 1917, the Battalion of Death stayed behind and fought magnificently. The article also reported that each woman carried a dose of cyanide for use in the event that they were captured.
Though women’s battalions played a significant role in Russia’s First World War history, including defending the Winter Palace during the October Revolution, they have largely been overlooked by the historiography. This is probably because they ended up on the losing side and, even in Russia itself, the new Bolshevik regime made every effort to expunge records of popular patriotism in what soon became known as “The First Imperialist War”. However, it is undeniably a fascinating and important piece of her-story and brings new light to women’s contribution to the Great War.