Women's Battalions were 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.
In the spring of 1917, male shock units and battalions of death 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.
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. 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.
Although some who had served in these units went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War, 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
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.
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 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.
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. Their training regimen included not only parade drill, riflery, and night maneuvers, but also reading classes for the illiterate.
On October 25, 1917, the battalion was called to the Palace Square for a review before being sent to the front. After the parade, the battalion was instead ordered to defend the Provisional Government at the Winter Palace. The commander refused. Instead a subdivision of 2nd company, 137 soldiers, were dispatched to guard some nearby fuel trucks, but soon found themselves defending the palace alongside units of Cossacks and cadets. These were overwhelmed by the numerically superior pro-Bolshevik forces and ultimately surrendered. Rumors of mass rape circulated in the city after their capture, though interviews of the women found only three cases of rape but many instances of verbal abuse, physical violence, and threats of sexual violence. The wife of the British ambassador to Russia requested that the British military attaché in Petrograd, General Alfred Knox, intervene to secure their release, which was accomplished on October 26. Those who did not disband returned to the battalion's encampment outside of the city and were rearmed.
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. The battalion numbered at least 1,000 women by the end of the summer. By the end of the fall, facing a lack of support from the government, the leadership of the battalion decided to disband. Five hundred women requested assignment to the front instead, and were issued transfers without the knowledge of the General Staff.
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. This battalion suffered from organizational and supply issues and never saw combat.
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 difficult. 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. 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 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. Facing withdrawal of official support the 2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death began to disintegrate in September. 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.
Faced with the decision of what to do with their women's units, the military at first decided to shift them into auxiliary roles away from the front, such as guarding railroads, but this faced opposition from men in those positions who would in turn be sent to the front. Instead, 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.
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