Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Women Warriors - the Battalion of Death

It can be surprising where a bit of research leads you. While I was looking up the Night Witches, one of the articles I read said something along the lines of "Had the Russians forgotten so quickly what women had done in the revolutionary war?"
I wondered what women had done in the revolutionary war, thinking to find the odd woman fighter here and there - but what I found were entire battalions!
After the February Revolution of 1917, no less than seventeen women's battalions were formed, including the Battalion of Death, the 3rd Kubans Women's Shock Battalion and the 1st Women's Naval Detachment. Over 5,000 women joined up, though only the 1st Battalion of Death and the Perm Battalion served in the front line. About 140 women from one battalion defended the Winter Palace during the October Revolution, along with cossacks and military cadets. Most of the men disappeared when the Bolsheviks attacked, leaving the women as the last defenders of the Kerensky government. They surrendered to the Red Guards and were disbanded shortly thereafter. (And how often is it even mentioned that women were defending the Winter Palace? I'd certainly never heard of it before).
The Battalion of Death was commanded by Maria Bochkareva, who had been serving in the Russian army since 1914, and had risen to become a non-commissioned officer. There were also unofficial women's units. The authorities permitted the formation of the battalions in the hope that women soldiers would encourage the men to continue to fight. They were called the Battalion of Death because they swore never to surrender, and took part in the Kerensky Offensive later that year. Maria Bochkareva fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and was executed by them in 1919. Before this, she had been to America to ask President Woodrow Wilson for his help in defeating the Bolsheviks. In 1994 the Russian Orthodox Church honoured her as "Martyr Maria the Soldier".

Earlier in the war, Colonel Alexandra Koudasheva commanded the 6th Ural Cossacks Regiment, with around a hundred women in the ranks. She was awarded the St George Cross for her bravery, and the 6th Ural Cossacks wasn't the only Cossack regiment to include women soldiers, including officers. Other Russian women entered the army in the traditional way, by disguising themselves as men.

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