World War 1 History: Maria Bochkareva—Commander of 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death
War Is Not For the Fairer Sex
Throughout the history of war, there have been stories of women posing as men in order to fight the enemy. War was a man's domain and women, considered the weaker sex, had duties at home. They needed to be protected and had no business participating in the bestiality of war. However, when the very scale of the First World War forced millions of men to leave their homes and jobs to fight, industry begrudgingly allowed women to work men's jobs in their factories. Very little mention was made that some manufacturing conditions were almost as vile as those at the front, minus the shooting and shelling, of course. Women who wanted to serve in the armed forces basically had one recourse at the time: become nurses. Even then, their arrival near the front was viewed as “improper female interference in army life.” That changed when the casualty lists grew, and statistics (there were plenty of statistics) showed that speedy medical attention could make the difference between life and death and, more importantly, a shorter recuperation period, allowing wounded soldiers to return more quickly to the trenches. Toward the end of the war, women were even allowed to join military units in administrative positions to free up more men to go down into the trenches. But women were absolutely not allowed to fight— except in Russia.
An Exemption For Maria
Now, even Russia had rules forbidding women joining the army, but some did fight. For the first few years of the war, the few women who actually fought in the front lines required the complicity of military officials-- except one. When Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889 - 1920) wanted to join the army in 1914, the government, for unknown reasons, issued her an exemption. She was allowed to join and fight in a combat unit as a woman. Having endured life as a peasant in Siberia, first with an abusive father and then with two successive abusive husbands, she channeled her hatred into a desire to defend her country against the Germans. She sent a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II "Emperor of All the Russias" asking for permission to enlist and, to everyone's amazement, her request was approved.
Wounds and Medals
Initially, her fellow soldiers were rough on her, but she was already hardened and a quick learner. She soon established “proper relations with the men” and they even came to respect her. After training, her unit was sent to the front in 1915. During their first battle, she slipped into No Man's land and retrieved dozens of wounded men for which she was awarded a medal. She was also wounded in the leg. After recuperating, she went back to the front lines and was wounded in the hand and arm. Again she was put up for a medal, but this time it was denied simply because she was a woman.
Promotions, More Wounds, and More Medals
In the winter of 1915, she was put in charge of 12 stretcher-bearers and, after a terrible battle, worked two weeks to extract 500 corpses from the battlefield. For this, she was awarded another medal and promoted to Corporal. She then volunteered to lead a thirty-man scouting team and, during one of her patrols, bayoneted a German.
In March 1916, Bochkareva's right leg was shattered by a bullet. After recuperating and once again returning to her unit, she was paralyzed three months later when a piece of shrapnel struck the base of her spine. Miraculously, she recovered the use of her legs, learned to walk again and returned to the front six months later with a new medal and a promotion to the equivalent of sergeant.
In another battle, she was captured with 500 other soldiers but escaped when reinforcements came to their rescue. During her escape, she killed ten Germans with grenades. She received another medal.
Women's Battalion of Death
Maria Forms the Women's Battalion of Death
After the Tsar abdicated in March 1917, Bochkareva was asked to form an all-female combat unit by the Provisional Government. Maria had already proved a woman could fight and the government wanted to shame the men at the front into fighting by seeing women fight. Her 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death attracted 2,000 female volunteers, but Bochkareva's strict harsh discipline reduced this to 300. After the women were trained, she was promoted to Lieutenant and given a revolver and saber with handles of gold. They were then sent to the front to fight in the June Offensive of 1917. While waiting for orders at the front, Bochkareva was promoted to captain. When their time came, the Women's Battalion of Death went over the top as a unit while many other battalions hung back or only mustered some of their men. It appears, however, that seeing women crossing No Man's Land did galvanize many men to action and soon most of the troops advanced. The women managed to cross three German trench lines before being repelled. Many men trailing behind found stashes of vodka and got drunk and were of little help. Finally pushed back, the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death returned to their original postions with 200 prisoners and minimal casualties. Bochkareva was wounded once again and sent to Petrograd to recuperate.
1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death's Officers
Bochkareva was involved, though only marginally, with setting up three more Women's Battalions during 1917. She was back at the front when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in October 1917. Shortly thereafter, her unit was disbanded as the Reds (Bolsheviks) and the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) fought for control of Russia. She was arrested by the Bolsheviks for supporting the Provisional Government and sentenced to execution, but an old comrade intervened and she was allowed to leave the country.
By this time, Bochkareva was famous. She went to the United States where she was sponsored by wealthy socialites and met with President Woodrow Wilson. She dictated her memoirs Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier (“Yashka” was her nickname). She then went to Great Britain where she had an audience with King George V and the British War Office funded her return to Russia. She had come a long way-- from an illiterate peasant girl to meeting with generals, presidents and kings.
Captured Again, Executed
While trying to form a women's medical unit for the White Army in 1919, she was again captured by the Bolsheviks. She was interrogated for four months before being found guilty as an enemy of the people. She was executed by firing squad on May 16, 1920.
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© 2012 David Hunt