An all-female combat unit formed in 1917 after the February Revolution in Russia. First deployed in the calamitous June offensive, the battalion was last used to help guard the Winter Palace on the night of the Bolshevik takeover, and its women were among the last defenders of the Provisional Government.

Enfants de la Patrie

The battalion was founded by Maria Bochkareva, a peasant woman who had escaped a violent husband and managed to enlist in the Russian army in her own right. She recruited women between the ages of 18 and 35 at a series of public meetings during the early summer, and by the time of their first parade in barracks on May 26, around 2,000 had enrolled. A few other battalions, not connected to her, were formed during the summer.

These numbers reflected the revolutionary enthusiasm which had come over middle-class Russians during the February Revolution. They consciously modelled themselves on their French forebears, and renditions of La Marseillaise became commonly heard.

Under attack by Austria and Prussia in 1792, the French people had rallied around their nation in an unprecedented levée en masse; the initiative of General Alexei Brusilov to create volunteer battalions was an attempt to recreate the patriotic spirit in a country where national unity was far more ephemeral. Aleksandr Kerensky, the politician emblematic of the inter-revolutionary months, fancied himself as a second Napoleon, and sanctioned the new units with gusto.

While Bochkareva seemed to have hoped that her unit would shame male soldiers into fighting, liberal feminists in Russia and abroad hoped that the battalion would help women prove their equality with men, and the excitement of Louise Bryant, who accompanied the journalist John Reed around Russia, was palpable. The British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, visiting Russia that summer, sent home glowing reports to her movement's magazine Britannia.

The Women's Battalion is normally thought of as purely middle-class, but also included perhaps a hundred peasants, not least Bochkareva herself, and a small number of working-class women, often former domestic servants. Some had previously served at the front as nurses, and the battalion also included a few grieving widows. The women promoted to command positions tended to have had military fathers themselves.

Into Action

On arrival at the barracks in Petrograd, the women were put into uniform, had their hair cropped and had all their personal property confiscated with the exception of a bra. Several hundred women took exception to the conditions in the battalion, and walked out before the unit even left for the front after a disagreement about whether the committee system, instituted by the Soviet as one of its first acts in the February Revolution, should apply in their unit.

Order No. 1 issued by the Petrograd Soviet had allowed every unit from company size upwards to form its own committee of soldiers, who took over many disciplinary functions from their officers. These provisions had only been intended to apply to the Petrograd garrison, keeping insurgent soldiers satisfied, but were circulated to the rest of the army and, understandably, gratefully taken up.

Just as understandably, officers resented the Order, which had also given the Soviet, rather than the Provisional Government, effective authority over the army. Bochkareva was of this opinion herself, and defied official orders - to which Kerensky turned a blind eye - by banning committees in her own battalion.

The remaining women were assigned to Russia's Western Front during the June offensive, also known as the Kerensky Offensive thanks to his energetic championing of it, which would backfire on him after the attack degenerated into a disorderly retreat. The battalion went into action near Smorgon on July 9, alongside reluctant regular units who quickly discovered the stash of alcohol behind German lines: some 350 men broke off from their own formations to join Bochkareva's push.

In her autobiography, Bochkareva relates that she discovered one of her women making out with a male comrade in a shell hole, so took out her bayonet and ran the girl through. One is almost reminded of the tale of the nymph Callisto, an attendant of Artemis whom the huntress killed after she had broken her vow of chastity.

Something of a martinet on the parade-ground, Bochkareva became a supporter of the hard-line General Lavr Kornilov, who promised to restore discipline to the army and order to society and was an attractive strongman to the Russian right. He discredited himself after attempting a coup, known as the Kornilov Affair, in late August, and the battalion was officially disbanded after suffering abuse from pacifist soldiers at the front.

Red October

However, many of its members re-assembled into the First Petrograd Women's Battalion, on guard outside the Winter Palace on 25 October, the night of the Bolshevik takeover, alongside a cadet detachment and a bicycle battalion commanded, as legend has it, by an officer with one leg. Such a list of forces is often used to argue Kerensky's carelessness, or over-confidence, in defending against the threat from the revolutionary left.

All the same, the women appear to have resisted bravely until the cruiser Aurora fired its shots at the Palace, and accounts claiming otherwise have tended to have a Bolshevik axe to grind. Accounts of gang rapes by the Bolsheviks who entered the palace thereafter cannot be confirmed, although individual assaults are very likely to have taken place. Forty women captured and taken to the Baltic Fleet base at Kronstadt, whose soldiers had been consistent Bolshevik supporters, disappeared without trace.

Although Russian women had fought in combat as individuals before, from the medieval heroine Vasilissa onwards, the Women's Battalion was the first time they had taken part in battle in an organised way. During World War II, around 550,000 Soviet women fought at the front, including three all-female aviation regiments.

Read more:
Richard Abraham, 'Mariia L. Bochkareva and the Russian Amazons of 1917', in Linda Edmondson ed., Women and Society in Russia and the Soviet Union
Maria Bochkareva's autobiography with Isaac Don Levine, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier
A K Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Road to Soviet Power and Peace

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