Saying that World War I was really bad for Russia is like saying Hitler was a somewhat unstable veteran of the Great War. While the Tsar fielded the largest army in the world at the time and should have been able to trounce the Germans, years (maybe decades) of neglecting modernization hampered the Russians. Roads were impossible and railways were inadequate. Casualties were heavy and the conditions were deplorable. Even drafting men for the war was difficult. Life in the Russian Empire was so bad, the Tsar would be toppled and replaced by the Soviet Union.
Before the Tsar was forced to abdicate, the Russian Empire tried a last-ditch effort to fill its ranks: hiring women.
Congrats, you’re hired.
When the Great War first began, Russians were only too happy to serve in their country’s military. It was (on paper, at least) one of the most vaunted fighting forces on Earth at the time. But Tsarist Russia’s poor infrastructure, the indecision of the Russian high command, and the lack of adequate food, supplies, and other war resources soon made life miserable. When word got out about the deteriorating conditions on the front, good men suddenly became hard to find. Women, on the other hand, had been trying to join the regular army since day one. These women soon demanded the government form all-women’s military units.
The Tsarist government, facing an increasing manpower shortage, finally gave in. It formed 15 all-women’s battalions in an effort to replace its missing manpower with womanpower. They included communications battalions, a naval unit, and the aptly-named Women’s Battalion of Death. Of the 5,000 women who served in these units, 300 of them would join the Battalion of Death and march to the front in 1914.
Maria Bochkareva was awarded multiple medals after stabbing Germans to death in the trenches.
Led by the peasant fighter-turned military leader Maria Bochkareva, the women were highly-trained and tightly-controlled by Bochkareva. While her harsh (sometimes brutal) leadership kept a majority of potential volunteers from joining, the 300 or so who did stay became some of the most hardcore Russian troops of the First World War. They first saw action in the Kerensky Offensive of 1917. It was a terrible loss for the Russians, who lost 60,000 troops in the fighting. But it was a stunning victory for the Women’s Battalion of Death.
When ordered to go over the top and storm the enemy trenches, the women never hesitated, even when the men at their side did. In one instance, the Russian women made it through three trench systems before the lack of reinforcements necessitated their retreat. Bochkareva, though wounded twice, earned three medals for bravery in combat. With the effectiveness of the women in combat proven on the front, other women were deployed back home.
Back in St. Petersburg, things weren’t going so well for the Tsar and his government. Another women’s battalion had to be deployed to the Winter Palace to defend government ministries and the people who were running them. This is where history could have been made or turned back. When the Bolshevik fighters attempted to take the city, the women weren’t at the Winter Palace, they abandoned the government ministers to their fate and went to guard the supplies. Eventually, they were overcome by the Bolsheviks and forced to surrender. When the Bolsheviks officially took power, these women’s units were disbanded, with varying success.
Women who wanted to fight the Bolsheviks stayed in their units, joining the White Russian forces in the Russian Civil War. Others went home and became Soviet citizens. Many would live long enough to see women conscripted once more when Russia was again threatened from the outside, taking up arms against the Nazis and forming an essential element to the resistance of the Soviet Union – many of whom would go on to earn the title Hero of the Soviet Union.