The Woman's Battalion of Death!

The 'Women's Battalions of Death', as they were known, were all-female combat units formed after the February Revolution in 1917 by the Russian Provisional Government in a last-ditch effort to inspire the mass of war-weary soldiers of the Russian Army to continue fighting in World War I.

They were created from pools of enthusiastic volunteers to lead the way in battle. Already some women had successfully petitioned to join regular military units, and now a number began pressing the new Provisional Government to create special women's battalions. These women, along with a number of high-ranking members of the Russian government and military administration, believed that female soldiers would have significant propaganda value and that their example would revitalize the weary, demoralized men of the Russian army. Simultaneously, they hoped the presence of women would shame hesitant male soldiers into resuming their combat duties.

In May 1917, Maria Bochkareva, a peasant woman who had served in the Russian army since November 1914 and had risen to the rank of non-commissioned officer, petitioned the government to establish a battalion of female soldiers under her command. At the end of May, the Minister of War of the Russian Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, authorized the formation of the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death in Petrograd. This first all-female combat unit initially attracted over 2,000 enlistees between the ages of eighteen and forty, but Bochkareva's strict discipline and refusal to allow the formation of soldiers' committees soon drove out all but about 300 volunteers. Their training regimen included not only parade drill, riflery, and night maneuvers, but also reading classes for the illiterate.

Fifteen formations in total were created in 1917, including the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, a separate unit called the 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion formed a few weeks later in Petrograd, the 2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death created in Moscow, and the 3rd Kuban Women's Shock Battalion organized in Ekaterinodar. Four communications detachments were created in Moscow and Petrograd. Seven additional communications units were created in Kiev and Saratov, again employing privately organized women's units already existing in those cities. Additional unsanctioned battalions sprang in cities across Russia. An all-female naval unit was created in Oranienbaum, the 1st Women's Naval Detachment, as part of the Naval Infantry Training Detachment.

American reporter, Bessie Beatty, estimated the total number of women serving in these gender-segregated units at 5,000 in the fall of 1917, but only the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death and the Perm Battalion were deployed to the front. Called into action against the Germans during the Kerensky Offensive, they were assigned to the 525th Kiuruk-Darinski Regiment and occupied a trench near Smorgon. Ordered to go over the top, the soldiers of the war weary men's battalions hesitated. The women, however, decided to go with or without them. Eventually they pushed past three trenches into German territory, where soldiers discovered a stash of vodka, which the women tried to break before they could be drunk. In his report, the commander of the regiment praised the women's battalion's initiative and courage. However, relief units never arrived and they were eventually forced to retreat, losing all the ground gained in the offensive.

The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, commanded by Bochkareva, was still at the front after the October revolution, but disbanded shortly after as a result of increasing hostility from male troops who wanted an end to the war and resented female volunteers for prolonging it. On 30 November 1917, the new Bolshevik government ordered the official dissolution of any remaining women's military formations. However, members of the 1st Petrograd and 3rd Kuban women's battalions lingered in their camps until early 1918. Some women who had served in these units went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.