Women’s Battalion of Death

Conflict: World War I

1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death

The 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death was the first and most famous of 15 all-female Russian units created during World War I. It was organized by Maria Bochkareva in 1917 under the direction of the Russian minister of war. The idea behind the formation of the battalion was essentially to simultaneously motivate and shame demoralized male soldiers into fighting.

Maria Bochkareva was a natural choice to command the 1st Battalion, since she had already been serving in the all-male army since 1914 (after obtaining special permission from the czar) and had gained the rank of non-commissioned officer. Bochkareva’s battalion started off with around 2,000 volunteers, but that number soon dwindled to a few hundred after the women experienced Bochkareva’s strict brand of discipline and the stringent conditions in the camp.

Maria Bochkareva, commander of the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death

The 1st Battalion most famously saw action in a battle against the Germans near Smorgon, Russia. Apparently, the disillusioned male units found a stash of alcohol abandoned by the Germans and got drunk, leaving the women’s battalion and a greatly diminished number of men to fight.

Female battalions were not well-accepted by the men in the army, and the women were often harassed and even assaulted. Due to this poor treatment, Bochkareva’s unit was eventually disbanded not long after the start of the Bolshevik revolution.

1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, with British suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst (front left) and Maria Bochkareva (front right)

Regarding the dissolution of her unit, Bochkareva remarked:

It was a pitiful finale to an heroic chapter in the history of Russian womanhood. The Battalion had struggled gallantly to stem the tide of destruction and ignorance. But the tide was too mighty. It had swamped all that was good and noble in Russia.

As I kissed my girls good-by, exchanging blessings, my heart quivered with emotions. What had I not hoped from this Battalion! But as I searched my soul I could find little to no regret. I had done my duty by my country.

Although the World War I Russian women’s battalions weren’t successful by typical military standards, they allowed Russian women to fight in an official, organized unit for the first time. The battalions also opened the way for more than half a million women to fight for Russia in World War II.