The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.
There was in fact precedence from the First World War. Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death. The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.
She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two. He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west. Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit.
It seems not to have occurred to her that she would not be allowed to fight, and the officers who could have sent her home were bemused enough to agree to let her give it a shot. In the event, she fought bravely and well, keeping up with the men folk and several times rescuing wounded from the battle field. She somehow managed to survive three years of that maelstrom, learning to read and totting up a number of medals to her credit.
When the Tsar resigned in 1917, she petitioned the Kerensky government for the opportunity to raise a battalion of her own, the above mentioned First Women’s Battalion of Death. 2000 women volunteered, only 300 of whom could make their way through her rigorous training. Off to the front again, where she and hers were over the top before anyone else, and encouraged the men folk to get out of the trenches. (In fairness, we are talking about highly demoralized veterans or sad-sack conscripts who saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to die in a lost cause.
Back in Petersburg, the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalian (a copy cat crew) guarded the Winter Palace against the Reds, which did nothing to endear her to the would-be new order. Her own battalion was dismantled, and the city was in some turmoil. The Bolsheviks arrested her once, released her, re-arrested her, and would have shot her but for the intervention of an old comrade (now a Red) whom she had rescued from the battlefields.
She was allowed to live, but that was about it. Ever resourceful, and recognized by the Whites as a possible PR weapon, she somehow convinced the British Consul to deck her up as a British national and ship out on an American ship from Vladivostok in April 1918. She arrived in San Francisco with the surprising news that she was a a celebrity. Florence Harriman took Maria under her wing and brought her to Washington and New York.
She it was who told Wilson horrifying stories of White Russians being ill treated by the Reds, as a result of which that emotional man (tears in his eyes as she described the awful things happening in Russia) dispatched the failed American Expeditionary Force to Siberia – which unprovoked attack Russia has not forgotten even if America has. In NY she was enjoined to co-work her memoirs, again with a view to bolstering sympathy for the Whites.
From America to Great Britain where Emmeline Pankhurst called her “the greatest woman of the century. And finally, an audience with King George V himself. Heady company, and it was probably her bad fortune to have this kind of high influence friends. The British War Office had her shipped back to Russia where she organized a medical unit for Admiral Kolchak’s White Army. This time when she was captured, there was no deus ex machina.
After four months of interrogation, the Cheka determined that she was an enemy of the people and had her shot in May, 1920.