WWI is regarded as the world's first "total" war, not only because of the enormity of its destruction and the sheer loss of human life, but also because so many non-combatants on the home front were tapped to help in their nation's war efforts. As men left for combat, women could increasingly be found working in and managing such traditionally male-dominated fields as transportation and industry, and many women departed for the dangers of the front as nurses, laundresses, cooks, and drivers—often for the purpose of freeing more men up for the actual fighting.
While much of this is well-known to the typical First World War buff, what many do not know is that Russia—and Russia alone—created all-female combat units to actively fight alongside men on the front. According to Melissa Stockdale's article "'My Death for the Motherland Is Happiness': Women, Patriotism, and Soldiering in Russia's Great War," the most famous of these units was known as The First Women's Battalion of Death, and it's estimated that approximately 6,000 Russian women served in such battalions throughout the war.
To understand how these battalions came about, one must first understand some basics of the Russian domestic situation at this time.
In March of 1917, Tsar Nicholas, submitting to the fact that he could no longer fight the tides of revolution, abdicated the throne to an incredibly precarious—albeit democratic—new government. The following months saw a flood of liberal and egalitarian policies instituted throughout Russia, with women getting the vote, as well as legal entitlement to equal pay.
Meanwhile, the new government also believed that victory in the World War was vital to the country's self-interest. Laurie Stoff, author of They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in WWI and the Revolution, writes that this meant newly appointed Minister of War Alexandra Kerensky was now faced with the mammoth task of breathing life into a war effort of which the majority of Russians—especially Russian soldiers—wanted no more part. Insubordination rates and violence against officers (especially officers with aristocratic backgrounds) were at an all-time high, and after three years at the front in often horrific day-to-day conditions, most of Russia's soldiers simply wanted to go home.
Kerensky's answer to low morale was the creation of what he called "shock battalions," or "battalions of death," which he envisioned as brigades of the most disciplined, exemplary Russian fighters. They would theoretically be deployed to various places along the front to awe and inspire war-weary soldiers.
Kerensky's vision of these shock battalions coincided almost exactly with an idea brought forward by a peasant-woman-turned-soldier named Maria Bochkareva (while by no means common, there were a number of known incidents of individual women serving in otherwise all-male units throughout Europe during this time). Bochkareva asserted that a disciplined, exemplary battalion of Russian women could serve to "shame" the weary and unmotivated soldiers at the front.
While Bochkareva earnestly believed in a woman's ability to fight, The Ministry of War mostly saw her proposal as the perfect propaganda tool to compliment their shock battalions—if even women, they reasoned, were answering their country's call to arms, then surely men would feel obliged to follow suit. Thus, Kerensky gave his permission for the First Women's Battalion of Death to be formed, led under Bochkareva's command.
According to historian Richard Abraham, The First Women's Battalion of Death was made public in late May with a major publicity campaign throughout St. Petersburg, and within a matter of weeks the Battalion had over 2,000 female recruits from a diverse range of backgrounds and education levels.
Enlistment was open to women aged eighteen and older, with women under the age of twenty-one required to have permission from their parents to join. According to Stockdale, the recruits were also made to swear an oath in which they promised everything from "courage and valor" to "cheerfulness, happiness, kindness, hospitality, chastity, and fastidiousness." After these initial requirements were met, as well as the passing of a health evaluation, the women were marched off to training grounds to begin the process that would turn them from "women to soldiers."
This process first entailed the shaving of their heads, ridding the women of one of their most "impractical" and outwardly feminine features. As no uniforms for women existed, the recruits were administered clothes designed for men that were often ill-fitting on the female frame; this proved especially problematic in regards to footwear, as their boots were often impossibly over-sized. To further enforce their new identities, Bochkareva discouraged and punished excessive smiling and giggling—behavior she considered overly-feminine—and instead encouraged spitting, smoking, and cursing among her recruits.
Along with these physical transformations, the women also began a grueling daily training process designed to prepare them for battle. The recruits rose at five o' clock each morning and drilled until nine o' clock at night, at which point they slept on bare boards covered by thin bed sheets. Their training consisted of strenuous exercises, marching drills, lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and rifle handling.
Any behavior deemed "flirtatious" or at all feminine was strictly prohibited, and Bochkareva was known to punish even minor transgressions with corporal punishment. She stomped out any signs of traditional femininity not only in an attempt to make "warriors of the weaker sex," but also in order to curb government anxiety that female soldiers at the front would result in illicit sexual relations. As one official stated, "Who will guarantee that the presence of women soldiers at the front will not yield there little soldiers?" Bochkareva thus deemed the sexlessness of her soldiers as a mark of her own professional dedication and triumph.
Stockdale states that while on the home front these female soldiers were publicly celebrated, their reception in combat was decidedly less welcome. Upon arriving at the front, the Battalion was met with boos, jeers, and an overall sense of resentment by male soldiers. Not only did the deep-rooted misogyny of the military complex and culture at large shine through, but in general, the exhausted men were antagonistic to anything that they perceived as an attempt by their leaders to prolong the fighting.
Even when the Women's Battalion proved itself both disciplined and courageous under fire, male soldiers remained angered and insulted by their presence. Within just a few months, Bochkareva was forced to disband the unit, allowing her women to join groups elsewhere wherever they saw fit. In her memoir, Yashka, My Life As A Peasant, Exile, and Soldier, Bochkareva, wrote:
"They could not stand it much longer where they were. They were prepared to fight the Germans, to be tortured by them, to die at their hands or in prison camps. But they were not prepared for the torments and humiliations that they were made to suffer by our own men. That had never entered into our calculations at the time that the Battalion was formed."
Upon the ultimate Bolshevik takeover in the fall, Russia withdrew from the war altogether, and the ill-fated women's battalions faded into practically less than a footnote in Russian history. Some scholars speculate that this is because the battalions were so closely associated with the military propaganda of the old regime, whereas others assert that it had more to do with the Russian people's desperate desire to return to some sense of normalcy after years of international and internal warfare.
Stockdale writes that the women soldiers themselves had an extremely difficult time readjusting after their return home. Their close-shaven heads made them instantly recognizable as former members of female battalions, and they were easy targets in the mist of the Bolshevik fervor taking hold of the country; there are eye-witness accounts of former battalion members getting beaten, sexually assaulted, and even thrown off moving trains during this period.
Remarkably, many of the former battalion members continued in their desire to fight, with a large number joining both the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary armies on individual bases in the years to come.