The story of the Women’s Death Battalion is so remarkable that some historians denied it had ever existed. However women soldiers in the Russian Army were an established fact even before the First World War. Although not common it was accepted practice for women who could stand the harsh life to join the ranks and serve as ordinary infantrymen, there were even women officers in some regiments. in 1917 one of the these women soldiers petitioned the Czar to be allowed to raise a battalion of women fight at the front.
The Petrograd Women’s Battalion of Death was formed in the Mariynski Theatre, in Petrograd, on the evening of 21st May, 1917 when a Russian sergeant, Maria Bachkarova, appealed to a packed house for women to step forward and enrol in her new battalion. One thousand five hundred women responded to her call that night and a further five hundred came forward in the days that followed. In time three hundred of these women, mostly peasants, served at the front.
The battalion received official recognition the following month and was freighted off to the front after a solemn service of dedication in the Kazan Cathedral in Petrograd. They occupied a section of abandoned Russian trench near Kovno where they went over the top. Assigned to the 525th Kuriag-Daryjuski regiment zero hour came at 3am on 8th July, 1917. As the hour came and went and supporting troops refused to move, tensions mounted. Eventually in fading light the battalion stormed into the attack, accompanied by three hundred Russian men who had been persuaded to join them.
Despite a hail of machine gun and artillery fire the enemy’s first trench line fell, then the second. Russian troops to the rear began to stir. A German counter attack was met and turned by the women and a third trench fell to the battalion. The majority of the accompanying Russian men fell upon a supply of German vodka and became dangerously drunk. The women set about destroying such stores but nothing could change the fact that their overall strength was drastically reduced by the men’s behaviour.
Pushing ahead the battalion was mauled by a force of German troops ensconced in nearby woodland. The remaining Russian men bolted leaving the battalion to struggle on alone. Eventually the women were compelled to fall back. This was done in an ordered fashion, in woodland and in the face of a numerically superior enemy. A final free for all dash across no mans land saw the battalion return to its own lines again. They returned with two hundred prisoners. Their own losses had been six killed and thirty wounded, including their commander, newly promoted Lieutenant Bachkarova, who was knocked unconscious by a shell blast.
Two hundred women soldiers continued to serve at the front and did so in the face of mounting hostility caused by pacifist soldier-agitators. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd and Moscow the radicalised soldiers at the front turned on the battalion. In the teeth of a witch hunt instigated by Bolshevik trouble-makers the battalion was disbanded without mishap. The women managed to slip away and board trains for all quarters of the empire. The battalion’s battle flag was secured upon the person of a volunteer drawn from the units male instructor cadre. Under oath he swore to defend it with his life. Nothing more has been heard of it nor of him.
In December 2016, members of 1914-21 attended a screening of the Russian movie ‘BATTALION’ at the Russian Embassy, followed by a reception at the ambassadors residence.