Women of the Great War: The Russian Women’s Battalion of Death

Despite the creepy moniker, the Russian Women’s Battalion of Death is not really the stuff from which Halloween stories are made. Instead it is a tale of patriotism, courage, and political idealism

When World War I began, Russian law prohibited women from joining the army. Nonetheless, Russian women found ways to fight. Some women took the “traditional” route and disguised themselves as men. Others applied directly to unit commanders for the chance to enlist.

In 1917, the February Revolution brought with it the possibility of change. The Provisional Government proclaimed all subjects of the empire free and equal citizens, with the rights and duties that went with citizenship. Many women assumed their new status included their right as citizens to bear arms in their country’s defense(1) By the spring of 1917, the idea of an all-female military unit was in the air. Individual women proclaimed their desire to serve. Women’s groups sent petitions to the government asking for permission to form all-female military units.

At the same time that women were eager to join the army, men on the front were desperate for the war to stop. For two and a half years, the army had suffered shortages of food and materiel, heavy casualties, and brutal defeats at the hands of the Germans. From the perspective of the front line, the February Revolution had done nothing to improve their lot. The Provisional Government was no more effective at running the war than the imperial government it replaced. The introduction of democracy to the military decision-making process in the form of soldiers’ committees resulted in endless wrangling about every action and made it difficult for officers to enforce orders. In fact, many units voted to remove their officers, and then followed up the vote with force. Morale was low and the desertion rate was high. In May, units at the front experienced mass mutinies. It was not clear that Russia could continue to fight.  Many people thought an all-female battalion was the solution, believing the presence of women in the trenches would raise morale, or at least shame male soldiers into fighting.

In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers

Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.

The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.

On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit,(2) the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders.

Two days later, Bochkareva and her soldiers left for the Russian western front. Kerensky sent the unit to an area that suffered from dangerously low morale. A few days before the women arrived, a regiment had been forced to disband due to massive desertions. Their posting was deliberate—a test as to whether the presence of women would affect the morale of male soldiers.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death experienced its first taste of battle on July 9 as part of an offensive against a German position. When the order came to attack, nothing happened. Three regiments of the male infantry division to which they were attached convened their soldiers’ committees and debated whether or not to fight. After several hours, the women, anxious to prove their worth, decided they would advance without the support of the other regiments. Joined by a few hundred male soldiers, they advanced with few casualties. Eventually, more than half the soldiers in the division joined them in the advance. Together they took the first and second lines of the German trenches.

The women and a few male soldiers held off six German counterattacks on their position. They retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Before retreating, they captured two machine guns and a number of Germans, including two officers, who were not happy about being taken prisoner by women. One officer was so distraught with the shame of being captured by women that the Russian women tied him down for fear he would commit suicide from the shame of it all.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death inspired the creation of similar units throughout Russia. Between five thousand and six thousand women volunteered for combat. The Provisional Government established fifteen more official units; grassroots women’s groups organized at least ten others. Several of these units saw active duty.

Despite the success of the First Women’s Battalion of Death at the front, military authorities believed the units were more trouble than they were worth. The units were formed as a means of improving morale among male troops. Instead, male soldiers became increasingly hostile to the presence of women soldiers over the course of the summer. By September, the military had stopped enlisting women and was discussing proposals to disband existing women’s combat units.

In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a relatively bloodless coup. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and began demobilizing the army, including the all-female units. Because the great experiment of women soldiers was publicly linked with the Provisional Government, many women soldiers were branded as counterrevolutionaries during the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule and suffered violence at the hands of their countrymen. Some joined anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Others enlisted in the Red Army, which welcomed women during the civil war—though most of them were placed in noncombat positions.

Russia’s women soldiers were celebrated during the First World War, but they were conspicuously absent from Soviet histories of the war and the revolution that followed it because of their connection to the failed Provisional Government. Nonetheless, they would serve as a precedent when Soviet Russia once again faced an external enemy in the form of Nazi Germany. But that’s a story for another day.

(1)The tangled relationship between the right/duty to bear arms and the right to vote is a story for another time.
(2) The Russian army did not have the resources to produce women’s uniforms. The women received standard uniforms designed for male soldiers. Boots were a particular problem.

Women of the Great War: The Hello Girls

The Hello Girls of WWI

As I’ve mentioned before here in the Margins, now and then a bit of history begins to track me down. A name, event, or idea piques my interest and suddenly I stumble across it everywhere. Or at least in the footnotes to books on tangentially related subjects.

Lately the “Hello Girls” of the first World War have been dogging my heels.

I had long known that the U.S. Navy had enlisted young women as yeomen (F) in the war, with the idea that they would “free a man to fight”. I had no idea that the army “enlisted” female telephone operators to serve on the western front.*

The telephone transformed military communications in the first World War, just as the telegraph did in the Crimea War and the American Civil War. For the first time, commanders could be in instant communication with front line officers hundreds of miles away, connected by lightweight wire and the help of an operator.

General John Pershing soon realized that the operators were the weak point in the system. When the United States entered the war, the army’s Signal Corps had 55 officers and 1,570 enlisted men–most of whom were involved in maintaining telegraph cables.** Adding trained operators to the system wasn’t as simple as recruiting men from AT&T.*** Eighty percent of American telephone operators were women. If the army was going to use the telephone, they needed to recruit women.

Pershing placed a request with the US Department of War for one hundred uniformed female telephone operators who spoke fluent French.**** While upper level bureaucrats and military lawyers fussed over whether the women would be the army equivalent of “yeomen-ettes” or civilian contractors, more than 7600 trained women operators applied for the first hundred positions. (Just for the record, the original advertisement, sent out by a Lieutenant responding to Pershing’s request, called for women to serve overseas in the army.)

Called “Hello Girls” by the soldiers, they made army communications possible. Most worked behind the lines, but a few traveled with Pershing. Like the soldiers with whom they worked, they risked their lives. Unlike those soldiers, they did not receive any military benefits and had to fight to be recognized by their country when they returned. *Sigh*

If you’re interested in a more detailed account of the Hello Girls, I recommend Elizabeth Cobb’s The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.

*I put enlisted in quotations because there was a great deal of ambiguity about the relationship between the army and the women who worked for them as switchboard operators. Ambiguity that was not resolved until 1979, when they were finally recognized as World War I veterans–too late to do most of them any good.
**Armies always prepare to fight the last war.
***Though the army did just that. Fourteen Bell Battalions, staffed entirely by AT&T employees with their supervisors as officers, joined the Signal Corps. But they weren’t operators. Their job was installing and maintaining equipment alongside the advancing armies. No small task.
****In addition to being ham-handed at managing the switchboard, hastily trained enlisted men for the most part didn’t speak French, a liability when working with their counterparts in the French telephone system.

Women of the Great War: Yeomanettes

Yeomen (F)

Yeomen (F) being inspected by Rear Admiral Victor Blue. Photograph courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command

On March 17, 1917, United States Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels took what was then the bold—and controversial—step of admitting women into the navy as yeomen.(1) Hundreds of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five headed to recruiting stations to enlist. By the time the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, two thousand women had enlisted as “Yeoman (F).” By 1918, the number of female yeomen had increased to eleven thousand.

Daniels had no intention of creating women warriors. The navy recruited women to “free a man to fight” by taking over clerical positions. Most “Yeomanettes” (2)were indeed assigned to clerical jobs, but the list of jobs the navy considered suitable for women grew as the war went on. Women also worked as radio operators, supervisors for naval shipments, telegraph operators, commissary stewards, fingerprint experts, and camouflage designers.

Once the navy realized that young women in uniform were good publicity, female yeomen were trained to march and perform basic military drills so they could parade in support of war bond drives, troop send-offs, and other official events where goodwill was valuable. Although they were not allowed to serve at sea, female yeomen received the same pay as sailors and marines at the same rank, a uniform allowance, medical care, and war risk insurance. (3)

Daniels is sometimes given credit for being the first to allow women to join the modern military, but both Britain and Russia beat the United States to the punch. Britain recruited women to become “the girl behind the man behind the gun” as part of Queen Mary’s Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1916. Under the supervision of their own noncommissioned female officers, “female Tommies” traveled to the front, drove ambulances, ran printing presses, and dug graves. Bolshevik Russia took things one giant step further: in the short period between the Russia Revolution in February 1917 and the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917, roughly four thousand Russian women served in combat. But that’s another story.

(1) In what many Americans found to be a shocking oversight, regulations in the Naval Act of 1916 did not specify that US citizens had to be male to join the navy. Oops.

(2) Adding a feminine or diminutive suffix to a noun does more than make the noun feminine in a grammatical sense. It also trivializes female accomplishment by presuming that the base noun is masculine: a poet is a more serious creature than a poetess, for example. Daniels, who objected to the nickname, summed up the issue: “I never did like the ‘ette’ business. If a woman does a job, she ought to have the name of the job.” (Can I get an “amen”?)

The official designation, “Yeoman (F),” made it clear women were the institutional equivalent of men who held the same rank. A revolutionary concept that we still haven’t come to terms with as a society.

(3) As we’ll see in a future blog post, the US Army didn’t do as well by the young women it “enlisted” to serve as telephone operators in France. Don’t touch that dial.