Women's Death Battalion

In May 1917, Maria Bochkareva, persuaded Alexander Kerensky, Russia's new leader, to allow her to form a Women's Battalion. In a speech given in June, she argued: "Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke - to protect the freedom of our country."

Maria Bochkareva managed to persuade over 2,000 women to join the Women's Battalion. The American journalist, Bessie Beatty, went to see the women on the Eastern Front: She wrote: "Women can fight. Women have the courage, the endurance and even the strength for fighting. The Russians have demonstrated that and, if necessary, all the other women in the world can demonstrate it."

Florence Farmborough commented on 13th August, 1917: "At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bochkareva had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go 'over the top'. But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear."

Members of the Women's Death Battalion
Members of the Women's Death Battalion

On 25th October, Bochkareva and the few remaining members of the Women's Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. John Reed, an American journalist in Petrograd during the revolution reported that "all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women's Battalion defending the Palace. It was said that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through."

Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché in Petrograd, intervened in order to help free members of the Women's Battalion who had been captured during the attack on the Winter Palace. This involved him negotiating with Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: "I borrowed the Ambassador's car and drove to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. This big building, formerly a school for the daughters of the nobility, is now thick with the dirt of revolution. Sentries and others tried to put me off, but I at length penetrated to the third floor, where I saw the Secretary of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko) and demanded that the women should be set free at once. He tried to procrastinate, but I told him that if they were not liberated at once I would set the opinion of the civilized world against the Bolsheviks."

The Duma appointed a commission to investigate the claims of ill-treatment and on 16th November, Dr Mandelbaum, reported that three had been violated, and that one had committed suicide. However, he claimed that none had been "thrown out of the windows of the Winter Palace." On 21 November, 1917, the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion.

After her release Maria Bochkareva fled to the United States. Funded by Florence Harriman she lived in San Francisco before travelling to New York City and Washington to meet leading politicians. This included President Woodrow Wilson, who promised to do all he could to defeat the Bolshevik government. While in America, Bochkareva dictated her memoirs, Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier to Isaac Don Levine.

Primary Sources

(1) Stephen Graham, Russia and the World (1915)

There is scarcely a town or school in Russia from which boys have not run away to the war. Hundreds of girls have gone off in boys' clothes and tried to pass themselves off as boys and enlist as volunteers, and several have got through, since the medical examination is only a negligible formality required in one place, forgotten in another; the Russians are so fit as a whole. So among the wounded in the battle of the Nieman was a broad-shouldered, vigorous girl from Zlato-Ust, only sixteen years old, and nobody had dreamed that she was other than the man whom she was passing herself off. But not only boys and girls of sixteen and seventeen, but children of eleven and twelve have contrived to have a hand either in the fighting or in the nursing.

(2) The Literary Digest (19th June, 1915)

There appears to be no sex-antagonism in Russia. Indeed the line of sex cleavage is of the very faintest. Men and women do not lead separate lives. They work side by side normally, whether in the fields or as students of medicine, politics and the like in universities. And, as every one knows, there are (or were before the war changed everything) as many women Anarchists as men. It is only natural that the iron-hearted and adventurous should desire to share in the great adventure.

(3) Speech made by Yasha Bochkareva to the Women's Death Battalion on the steps of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Petrograd in June 1917.

Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke - to protect the freedom of our country.

(4) Bessie Beatty, a journalist from San Francisco, spent several days with the Women's Death Battalion. She wrote about it in her book The Red Heart of Russia, that was published in 1918.

Women can fight. Women have the courage, the endurance and even the strength for fighting. The Russians have demonstrated that and, if necessary, all the other women in the world can demonstrate it.

(5) In her diary, Florence Farmborough records hearing about Yasha Bochkareva, the founder of the Women's Death Battalion.

26th July, 1917: Yasha Bochkareva, a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour. When she knew the soldiers were deserting in large numbers, she made her way to Moscow and Petrograd to start recruiting for a Woman's Battalion. It is reported that she had said, "If the men refuse to fight for their country, we will show them what the women can do!" So this woman warrior, Yasha Bochkareva, began her campaign; it was said that it had met with singular success. Young women, some of aristocratic families, rallied to her side; they were given rifles and uniforms and drilled and marched vigorously. We Sisters were of course thrilled to the core.

9th August, 1917: Last Monday, an ambulance-van drove up with three wounded women soldiers. We were told that they belonged to the Bochkareva Women's Death Battalion. We had not heard the full name before, but we instantly guessed that it was the small army of women recruited in Russia by the Siberian women soldier, Yasha Bochkareva. Naturally we were all very impatient to have news of this remarkable battalion, but the women were sadly shocked and we refrained from questioning them until they had rested. The van driver was not very helpful but he did know that the battalion had been cut up by the enemy and had retreated.

13th August, 1917: At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bochkareva had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go "over the top". But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear.

(6) The journalist, John Reed, was in Russia when the Women's Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks.

Immediately following the taking of the Winter Palace all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women's Battalion defending the Palace. It was said that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through.

The City Duma appointed a commission to investigate the matter. On 16th November the commission returned from Levashovo, headquarters of the Women's Battalion. Madame Tyrkova reported that the girls had been taken to the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment, and that there some of them had been badly treated; but that at present most of them were at Levashovo, and the rest scattered about the city in private houses. Dr Mandelbaum, another of the commission, testified dryly that none of the women had been thrown out of the windows of the Winter Palace, that none were wounded, that three had been violated, and that one had committed suicide, leaving a note which said that she had been "disappointed in her ideals."

On 21 November the Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion, at the request of the girls themselves, who returned to civilian clothes.

(7) In his memoirs Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché in Petrograd, reported that he helped free the Women's Battalion from the Bolsheviks.

When I returned to the British Embassy I found Lady Georgina in great excitement. Two officer instructors of the Women's Battalion had come with a terrible story to the effect that the 137 women taken in the Winter Palace had been beaten and tortured, and were now being outraged in the Grenadersky barracks.

I borrowed the Ambassador's car and drove to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. This big building, formerly a school for the daughters of the nobility, is now thick with the dirt of revolution. Sentries and others tried to put me off, but I at length penetrated to the third floor, where I saw the Secretary of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko) and demanded that the women should be set free at once. He tried to procrastinate, but I told him that if they were not liberated at once I would set the opinion of the civilized world against the Bolsheviks.

Antonov-Ovseenko tried soothe me and begged me to talk French instead of Russian, as the waiting-room was crowded and we were attracting attention. He himself talked excellent French and was evidently a man of education and culture. Finally, after two visits to the adjoining room, where he said the Council was sitting, he came back to say that the order for the release would be signed at once.

I drove with the officers to the Grenadersky barracks and went to see the Regimental Committee. The commissar, a repulsive individual of Semitic type, refused to release the women without a written order, on the ground that "they had resisted to the last at the Palace, fighting desperately with bombs and revolvers."

The Bolsheviks in this instance were as good as their word. The order arrived at the regiment soon after my departure, and the women were escorted by a large guard to the Finland Station, where they left at 9 p.m. for Levashovo, their battalion headquarters. As far as could be ascertained, though they had been beaten and insulted in every way in the Pavlovsky barracks and on their way to the Grenadersky Regiment, they were not actually hurt in the barracks of the latter. They were, however, only separated from the men's quarter by a barrier extemporized from beds, and blackguards among the soldiery had shouted threats that had made them tremble for the fate that the night might bring.

New women recruits in Petrograd in 1917
New women recruits in Petrograd in 1917