Women's Battalion

Women's Battalion

Women's Battalions were segregated all-female combat units formed after the February Revolution by the Russian Provisional Government in a last ditch effort to inspire the mass of war-weary soldiers to continue fighting in World War I until victory could be achieved. In the spring of 1917 a number of women began pressing the new Provisional Government to expand female participation in the war, and particularly to form combat units of women volunteers. 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 serve to "shame" hesitant male soldiers into resuming their combat duties. Fifteen formations 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. An all-female naval unit was created in Oranienbaum, the 1st Women's Naval Detachment, as part of the Naval Infantry Training Detachment.

The women's battalions were never part of the White Army, Green Army, or Black Army, the other Russian political groups fighting the Bolsheviks.

1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death

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. He placed 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, in command of the unit. This first all-female combat unit initially attracted over 2,000 enlistees between the ages of eighteen and forty, but Bochkareva's strict discipline soon drove out all but about 300 dedicated volunteers.

Called into action against the Germans during the Kerensky Offensive, they were assigned to the 525th Kiuruk-Darinski Regiment and occupied an abandoned trench near Smorgon. The battalion pushed past three trenches into German territory, where the trailing Russian army discovered a hidden stash of vodka and became dangerously drunk. The newly-promoted Lieutenant Bochkareva ordered that any further stashes be destroyed. Outnumbered and unsupported, the battalion met stiff resistance from the Germans and were repelled. They returned to their original lines with two hundred prisoners and minimal casualties, six killed and thirty wounded. Vera Butcharev was the Captain and continued to fight German soldiers while the male soldiers retreated, and was noted for her heroism.cite book|last=Salmonson|first=Jessica Amanda|title=The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era|year=1991|publisher=Paragon House|location=New York|id=ISBN 1-55778-420-5|pages=p. 44]

1st Petrograd Women's Battalion

The creation of the first all-female combat unit under Bochkareva inspired a number of other women in Russia to appeal to the government for inclusion in the armed forces. The Ministry of War was flooded with letters and petitions from individuals and groups of women seeking to serve their nation at the front. In June Kerensky approved the organization of an additional women's combat unit in Petrograd, the 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion with a complement of between 1,100 and 1,400 women and two communications detachments of 100 women volunteers each.

A half-company of this unit (137 soldiers) participated in the defense of the Winter Palace, having been called to the palace square under the false pretense of a review before being sent to the front.

2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death

The 2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death, as well as two separate communications detachments were created in Moscow in June, 1917.

3rd Kuban Women's Shock Battalion

Authorization from the government for the formation of women's military units provided impetus for private women's organizations to form their own quasi-military units, which appeared in numerous cities around Russia. In an attempt to satisfy popular demand and to bring these units under its control the Ministry of War expanded the number of women's military formations. A fourth combat battalion was formed in Ekaterinodar, the 3rd Kuban Women's Shock Battalion, created from a pre-existing grass-roots unit.

1st Russian Women's Naval Detachment

An all-female naval unit was created in Oranienbaum, the 1st Women's Naval Detachment, as part of the Naval Infantry Training Detachment.

Fate of the women's battalions

These extensions failed to end the impromptu organization of quasi-military units of women volunteers, and the government found it impossible to control such formations. Even the official women's units proved problematic. There was no consensus among the military administration as to the potential value of female soldiers, and this, coupled with the severe shortages from which the nation was then suffering, meant that the army made only a half-hearted commitment to the project. Thus, the women's units received inadequate attention and assistance from the military administration. Many among the Russian military authorities were waiting to see how the women fared in battle and whether they would have a positive effect on male soldiers. The only women's combat unit to participate in battle was Bochkareva's 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death. Although the women performed well in combat and suffered few casualties their example was not enough to inspire the mass of war-weary soldiers to continue fighting.

After the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death commanded by Bochkareva failed to have the intended effect of revitalizing the war-weary elements of the Russian army the military authorities began to question the value of the women's units. In particular, the government found it difficult to justify the allocation of badly needed resources to such an unreliable project. By August 1917, there was a growing inclination in the military establishment to discontinue the organization of women for combat purposes. At the end of the summer the authorities ended assistance to the units but allowed them to continue to exist. Facing withdrawal of official support the 2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death began to disintegrate in September and its members began to leave. Just prior to disbanding, however, about 500 volunteers were sent to the front at their own request but without the knowledge or permission of the military authorities.

At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 the other women's battalions were still in existence. The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, commanded by Bochkareva, was still at the front, but disbanded shortly after as a result of increasing hostility from male troops. The 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion remained intact and the Provisional Government summoned it to the Winter Palace in order to provide defense against the Bolsheviks and their supporters on October 25, 1917. Only a small half-company of the women's unit (consisting of 137 women soldiers) remained to take part in the defense, and despite their attempted resistance, the numerically superior pro-Bolshevik forces quickly overwhelmed them. The members of the women's battalion were arrested but released shortly thereafter. The British military attaché in Petrograd, General Alfred Knox, accredited their release to his own intervention. The women of the unit returned to their encampment outside of the city. The new Bolshevik government ordered the official dissolution of any remaining women's military formations on November 30, 1917. However, members of the 1st Petrograd and 3rd Kuban women's battalions lingered in their camps until early 1918, and then finally dispersed. Some women who had served in these units went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.cite book |last=Stoff |first=Laurie |title=They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution. |date=2006-11-15 |publisher=Lawrence: University Press of Kansas |isbn=978-0700614851]


Further reading

*Botchkareva [sic] , Maria (1919). "Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Officer, and Exile." (As told to Isaac Don Levine.) New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
*Griese, Ann Eliot; Richard Stites (1982). “Russia: Revolution and War.” in "Female Soldiers: Combatants or Noncombatants? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives", ed. Nancy Loring Goldman, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
*Ivanova, Iu. N. “Problem khvatalo i bez nikh no . . .” (There were enough problems without them, but…), "Voenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal" (The Military Historical Journal), Vol.6. 1994, 75-77.
*Senin, A. S. “Zhenskie batal’ony i voennye komandy v 1917 godu.” "Voprosy Istorii" (Problems of History,) Vol.10, 1987, 176-82.

External links

* [http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/20th_century_warfare/id30.htm The Petrograd Women's Battalion of Death]
* [http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1401119 Women's Battalion of Death@Everything2.com]

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