By Sarbi Jagpal
While struggling to simultaneously cope with a national revolution and the First World War, the Russian army was in a sad state, in 1917. With a lack of proper supplies and weapons technology, the army was crippled by mass desertion and heavy losses in battle. Thousands of men simply refused to fight. Although European women did not enjoy equal rights, it was an army of women who cme forward to defend their country.
One of the best-known volunteer units was formed by Maria Bochkareva. In 1914, Bochkareva, a factory foreman, made a personal appeal to the Tsar to be allowed to enlist in the army. After spending two years in the trenches she became a sergeant and received both medals and several wounds.
A year later, hoping to shame her countrymen into fighting, Bochkareva organized a battalion of women fighters. The women shaved their heads and wore standard army uniforms. One woman went into battle in a skirt. Unfortunately the women didn’t inspire the men. The men were insulted and refused to fight alongside of Bochkareva’s “Battalion of Death” as it was called.
But when the time came to make a last ditch attempt at an offensive strike, the Women’s Battalion of Death did better than most. Amidst the chaos, even the shock troops stood little chance of success. The women broke through two German lines with only a few male conscripts following sheepishly behind. But when the Germans began returning heavy fire, the offensive collapsed and the male soldiers stayed put in German trenches. Bochkareva’s battalion fought valiantly. With most her volunteers either dead or wounded she finally retreated.