July 23, 1917. The so-called “Kerensky Offensive”, ordered by Russian President Alexander Kerensky, falls apart in the plains of Ukraine. Among the defeated soldiers is a unique unit – the 300-strong 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. They are the first female infantry unit in modern history, but their future is bleak as Russia staggers out of World War I and into Revolution.
Pretty much every country had a bad World War I, but believe me when I say Russia had a BAD World War I. It was so bad that by 1917, the entire system of government and society was crumbling at its foundations. The Tsar and his family were overthrown in the “February Revolution” and replaced with a Provisional Government of liberal nobles and middle-class leaders. This Government chose the charismatic, naïve young socialist leader Alexander Kerensky as its President.
Russia had started World War I with a nearly catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg, and it just went downhill from there. Throughout 1914 and 1915, the Russian military was hacked to pieces and back by the Germans with occasional help from the Austrians. By winter 1915, they had lost most of their western territories, and the Germans held a frontline deep inside Russia. In 1916, Russian General Alexei Brusilov had launched a successful attack in the south, scoring a major victory – but at the cost of almost a million casualties. The military situation in 1917 was *fragile*. The only reason Germany hadn’t pushed through the Russian lines somewhere was because most of their troops were holding off the British and French to the west.
These military problems did not go away when the Provisional Government took power. In fact, they got worse. War-weariness had been hitting the Russians hard, and desertion was climbing. Soldiers had sworn an oath to the Tsar upon enlistment, but now the Tsar was gone and so was much of the focus to their motivation. Part of the Provisional Government’s new plan for Russia was abolition of the harsh disciplinary measures, such as whipping and capital punishment, that had been used for centuries to brutalize the Tsar’s soldiers into compliance. While it was certainly a progressive and humane move on the part of the Provisional Government, it did nothing to keep the Army together. Fairly soon, the Russian Army’s discipline was in the gutter and sinking.
The Russian soldiers had, to put it bluntly, had enough. After three years of defeat, miserable conditions, mistreatment by their officers and generals, and the lack of anything to really fight for besides their already oppressive lives back on the lord’s manor or in the factory, the Russian soldier had lost any “give-a-shit” he might have had. Multiple officers and sergeants reported that morale had bottomed out. Even General Brusilov, the victorious general newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army, got boos and hisses as he rode by the men on horseback.
Besides the absolute destruction of morale after three years of pointless war, new ideas were in the air. The creed of the Provisional Government was equality, which translated to the Russian soldiery as “disobey your officers.” Riots, mutiny, and downright “fragging” of officers became a serious issue.
With all this in mind, it seems astonishing that after a brief conference, the Provisional Government decided to continue the war rather than suing for peace. With anti-war sentiment at a fever pitch, this was a terrible political decision, but the Provisional Government felt that Russia had to fulfill its obligations to its allies Britain and France.
Nevertheless, this allowed enemies of the Provisional Government to take up the antiwar slogan – “end the war” was a cause without a rebel until Vladimir Lenin came along.
Lenin and his Bolsheviks formed the radical wing of the Revolution, hardcore communists compared to the liberals and moderate socialists of the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks spread antiwar propaganda amongst the troops, and soon many of the Russian Army’s rank and file identified themselves as Bolsheviks. This didn’t mean they were Communists; the logic went something like “I want the war to end, and the Bolsheviks want the war to end, so I guess I’m a Bolshevik.” Soon communist agitation was fanning the flames of unrest in the Army, and even as the situation grew grim, Kerensky’s government prepared to launch a new attack. And they had a new unit to spearhead the assault.
The egalitarian sentiments of the Provisional Government didn’t just touch people already in the army. The messaging of the Revolution began to reach the ears of a group that had long been forbidden from serving. In March, the Provisional Government had proclaimed universal suffrage for the first time in Russian history – three years before the United States – and begun to remove gender-exclusive laws of all kinds. Within a matter of months, Russia went from one of the most backwards states in the world to one of the most gender-inclusive. The ideas of citizenship and military service are closely tied in Western history, and soon women were pushing for the right to serve.
From the outset of World War I, a very small number of women had made their way into frontline units, usually through connections, a personal appeal to the Tsar, or disguise. Russia didn’t exactly have a military tradition of female service, to be sure; the Army was still a masculine preserve in Russia as in every country. The demands of total war, though, had forced Russia to accept women factory workers, streetcar drivers, porters, and concierges for the first time. With gender roles clearly weakening, it looked a lot less absurd for another step to be taken.
The idea belonged to Maria Bochkareva, a semi-literate peasant from Siberia who fled from her abusive husband and petitioned the Tsar to allow her to join the army. She had fought with distinction since 1915, being wounded twice and awarded the St. George’s Cross. Maria was accepted by her male comrades as “Yashka.” Nevertheless, she was there to see the Revolution and the subsequent decline of the Russian Army. Maria first grew alarmed, then indignant, an sometime in May she had an idea to reverse the army’s deterioration. She proposed forming a unit of some 300 women and taking them into combat to “serve as an example to the army and lead the men into battle.”
The purpose of the Women’s Battalion, then, was a backhanded compliment. The unit as proposed by Yashka was explicitly intended to embarrass male soldiers into doing their duty. Her proposal caught the imagination of several people in the government, and finally made its way up to General Brusilov, who liked it and brought it to Kerensky. Within a few days, the formation of the first “Russian Women’s Battalion of Death” was approved. The vaguely ridiculous title “Battalion of Death” was not unique to the women’s unit; many “revolutionary” battalions were formed by that title. They were all intended as radical, ideologically motivated units that would be the spearheads of the Army’s advance, and were given permission to sew skull-and-crossbones to their banners.
On May 21, 1917, Yashka began her circuit, publicly recruiting for women volunteers. She called on women “whose hearts are crystal, whose souls are pure” to set an example and save Mother Russia from the invader. More than 6,500 women ended up responding to this drive, far exceeding expectations, and multiple battalions were soon in the process of formation – though only Yashka’s would ever serve in combat. Nevertheless, for a brief window of time in 1917, women of all social backgrounds and classes were in uniform, and a woman soldier on the streets was no longer an unusual sight.
Under Yashka’s regulations, the Russian Women’s Battalion began its training. Yashka’s policy was not just de-individualization, but almost defeminization. The new recruits were marched to barbershops to have their heads shaved, then given loose-fitting male uniforms. Yashka forbade giggling and flirting, encouraged smoking, and “swore like a cabdriver” at her recruits. On their first day, she told her recruits that they were “no longer women, but soldiers.” One soldier recalled that when rowdy soldiers asked “where the girls were,” they responded “There are no girls here, only soldiers.” Most women appear to have accepted these norms as a way of fitting in, of levelling off the gender playing field. If it seems a little extreme, keep in mind that Russia had treated women as equals for all of three months, and they were still working out how exactly this was going to go.
On June 21, 1917, the Russian Women’s Battalion of Death was ordered to the front. Yashka and her soldiers paraded through Petrograd, reviewed by several generals and Kerensky himself. Two bishops and twelve priests blessed their banners and Orthodox icons, and the soldiers lifted Yashka up on their shoulders as the crowd cheered and the Marseillaise played in the background. It was an exciting moment: the first female combat unit in modern history had taken up its arms and had, on the surface at least, been acclaimed by the cross-section of Russian society.
Unfortunately, the inspirational notion of the Women’s Battalions worked better for civilians in the rear than for soldiers at the front. The “valiant heroines” got a great amount of press coverage and endorsement, but the regular soldiers at the front were much less enthusiastic. When the 300-strong Women’s Battalion arrived at the front in July 1917, ready to take part in the year’s great offensive, they were booed and harassed by their male comrades. “Why did you come here? You want to fight? We want peace! We have had enough fighting.”
The Russian soldiers could hardly have missed the obvious message that women were coming to the front to shame them into fighting. The effort to shame the troops backfired, since it caused resentment and was viewed as an insult. On the whole, the notion of recruiting women units just to shame men into fighting caused them to be rejected by the mass of soldiers. (If the Provisional Government had just raised women’s battalions without such a patronizing and backhanded motivation, perhaps things would have been different.)
Russia’s Provisional Government, as it turned out, was not just willing to continue its involvement in World War I. It also intended to attack. Kerensky, naïve and deaf to Brusilov’s concerns about the fragility of the Russian Army, hoped that a major victory in 1917 would strengthen the weak Provisional Government and restore the soldiers’ morale. He believed in what he called the “most democratic army in the world,” and wanted to refute the defeatist agenda of the Bolsheviks. Brusilov was much more pessimistic. He had seen Kerensky’s government flailing and scratching to try and gain stability, and viewed the Kerensky Offensive as a last resort. The Commander-in-Chief saw the collapse of the Russian Army as inevitable.
On July 1, 1917, the Russians launched their great attack in the Lvov area of Ukraine. Three Russian armies launched an enormous artillery bombardment – the largest ever seen on the Russian front – and in some places the attacking forces gained temporary success against the Austrians. Against the Germans, though, the Russian attack was like throwing hamburger at the wall for all the good it did. The stubborn German resistance caused heavy casualties all along the line, and soon the infantry’s morale began to crumble. The Russian Army, after three terrible years, was reaching its breaking point.
Yashka’s Women’s Battalion was assigned to 10th Army, and on July 7 this unit joined in the fighting despite clear warning from its commander about the unreliability of the troops. On the first day of the attack, though, the Russians were able to breach the German line. Near Molodechno, the Women’s Battalion cracked the first German trench line, with the women leading the way and prompting several thousand reluctant male soldiers to follow. Around 200 prisoners were taken, and the attack was a success. Not only was a female combat infantry unit fighting – but fighting well. Contemporary records show that the Women’s Battalion of Death fought with discipline and courage, far outstripping the regular units on its flanks.
Without those regular units, though, it could not advance. Yashka’s gains were short-lived, since other units failed to follow up their success and relieve them. Soon German counterattacks forced the women back. By the end of their first day of combat, the battalion of 300 had suffered 50 casualties, with Yashka among the injured.
As the Kerensky Offensive continued to degenerate, entire battalions, then divisions of men began to mutiny and break for the rear with almost no provocation. Brought to the front to shame men into fighting, the Women’s Battalion provoked more and more hostility as Russian morale collapsed and the male soldiers desired peace. A couple of weeks after the battle, Yashka was brutally beaten by antiwar male soldiers demanding that her women cease fighting.
All the propaganda in the world, all the training and discipline, all the idealism, and even proven combat performance could not bring Russian soldiers to accept female comrades-in-arms in 1917. Their fate was even worse, however, since the Women’s Battalions were explicitly tied to the hated Provisional Government. As Kerensky’s own popularity collapsed, Yashka and her recruits were viewed with increased suspicion and hostility and threatened with death. When Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks launched their own Revolution in 1917 – the “October Revolution”, they stormed the Provisional Government’s headquarters at the Winter Palace. Among the defenders of the Winter Palace were 139 members of one of Yashka’s bald, disciplined battalions, and they offered the only real resistance to the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The Women’s Battalions’ link with the Provisional Government earned them the unending hostility of Lenin and his Bolsheviks. This not only earned them disbandment and official lack of recognition, but also cost them their place in the history books. The Bolsheviks downplayed and concealed the actual record of Yashka’s women at Molodechno; their existence was simply not a convenient fact. The Women’s Battalions were nearly erased from history by the Soviet Union since they did not fit the narrative – and because they had chosen the wrong side.
Yashka chose the wrong side as well. With her battalions disbanded and denigrated by the Reds, she joined the Whites in the Russian Civil War. When the movement fell apart, she returned home to her parents, but the Bolsheviks could not allow an alternate source of history to live in peace. She was tracked down by the Cheka secret police and shot on May 16, 1920, at 30 years old. Many of the other women managed to emigrate to the West; anything to escape the reign of Stalin.
The Kerensky Offensive, far from being the victory Russia needed, proved its last major battle of World War I. The military disaster completely discredited the Kerensky Government and paved the way for Lenin to seize power and start Russia on the road to Communism. Forgotten in all this mayhem was the brief shining moment when women took up arms and proved they could fight. That, and much else, went down the memory hole of the Soviet Union.