During World War I, women were not only replacing men on the home front but some were replacing them on the battlefield as well. When Russian soldiers no longer wanted to fight the war and their morale and spirits became obsolete “shock battalions” or “battalions of death” were established. These battalions would be deployed to various places along the front to inspire soldiers to get up and fight. The most famous unit was known as the “First Russian Women’s Battalion of Death” led by Maria Bochkareva. Russia’s Ministry of War saw this as the perfect propaganda tool, because they believed that if even women were answering their country’s call to arms, then surely the men on the front would do the same. Bochkareva believed that a disciplined and exemplary battalion of Russian women could “shame” the unmotivated soldiers on the frontlines into action.
This all-female combat unit managed to recruit over two thousand women between the ages of eighteen and forty at the beginning, but due to Bochkareva’s strict discipline and training the number of enlistees was reduced to three hundred fearsome volunteers. Recruits rose at 5:00AM and would train until 9:00PM. Bochkareva believed that suppressing femininity and mimicking masculine behaviors was the key to make good soldiers out of women. To reassure this transformation from sheep to wolf, she insisted that the women shave their heads and taught them to smoke and swear like men. Bochkareva’s training was so serious that giggling and smiling at male instructors were grounds for dismissal.
Bochkareva’s unit would finally be called onto the front during the Kerensky Offensive, where they would occupy a trench near Smorgon. When ordered to go over the top, the male soldiers faltered and hesitated but the women decided to go without them anyway. Eventually they managed to cross three trenches into German territory and returned with two hundred prisoners. While raiding these trenches soldiers discovered a stash of vodka, which the women attempted to destroy before the men could drink them. Although this women’s unit made impeccable progress, relief units never arrived, which forced them to retreat and lose all the ground gained in the offensive. The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death would be disbanded later as a result of increasing hostility from male troops because they prevented them from retreating.
To put it simply, Maria Bochkareva was one hell of a woman and not someone to take lightly. Some of her career highlights include retrieving wounded men from the dangerous No Man’s Lands and bayonetting at least one German soldier to death. Over the next three years she would be wounded many times but that wouldn’t hinder her resolve. In one instance she was paralyzed by a piece of shrapnel in her spine but not even that could stop her. Within six months she had learned to walk again and returned back to the battlefield. Because of her bravery she was awarded many medals and was even given a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and a private audience with King George V.
Post by Arvin Ramdas