Maria Bochareva was a determined, skilled and brave Shero who formed and led the very first women’s battalion in the First World War. Emmeline Pankhurst called her ‘The greatest woman of the century’!
Maria was born in Russia in 1889. The start of her story is not a happy one: She came from a poor family and had an abusive father. Determined to escape this life she got married when she was only 15. Unfortunately things didn’t get much better for Maria, as her first husband was also abusive towards her. Maria left him and soon re-married. Her second husband turned out to be not much better than the first, he was a thief and after sticking with him for so long she eventually left him when he too became violent towards her.
In 1914 when the First World War broke out Maria decided she wanted to fight for her country. In her autobiography she wrote that a voice with her called “Go to war to help save the country!”
Now women were not ordinarily allowed to join the Russian Army (nor any European army at that time!) Maria had already been told that she wasn’t allowed to join, so she sent a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II asking his personal permission! At his say so she joined the 25th Reserve Battalion.
Initially the men teased her as she was the only woman, but she soon proved herself a worthy soldier and eventually earned their respect.
Over the next three years she was wounded many times, including one instance when she was paralysed by a piece of shrapnel in her spine. This didn’t stop her though, within six months she had learned to walk again and was back on the battlefield.
She was given several medals, some for her bravery in retrieving wounded and dead men from No Man’s Land. She gradually crept up through the ranks, receiving promotions along with her medals.
By 1917 she was a Sergeant and it was at this point that she formed and led the very first all-female battalion. She convinced the new leader of Russia, Alexander Kerensky that she should be allowed to recruit for an all woman unit.
In a speech she gave to recruit women to the battalion she said:
“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.”
Initially 2000 women volunteered to join her ‘1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death’, but by the time she had put them through their paces in training she had whittled it down to a fearsome 300, who were swiftly sent to the front.
The Battalion were known for their bravery and willingness to fight. By this point in the war many of the men had grown weary, but the newly formed women’s unit fought with gusto. On one mission they managed to cross three trench lines and returned with 200 prisoners!
After this several other women’s battalions were formed but Bochkareva’s was the only one that actually went to the front. While leading her battalion Maria was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain. She was given a revolver and a sabre that had gold handles!
The Bolsheviks captured Maria more than once. On the first occasion she was sentenced to be executed, but was rescued by a soldier she had fought with in earlier years and was able to leave Russia.
Maria had become really well known all around the world for her courage, bravery and her famous women’s battalion. She travelled first to America, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson. She pleaded with him on behalf of her country, and asked that America intervened in the war. While in the US she dictated her memoirs Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier.
From there she travelled to Britain and had an audience with the King! It was the British War Office that paid for her to return to her homeland.
When she returned to Russia she tried to put together a women’s medical unit, but she was captured again. Sadly this time there was no negotiated release, and on 16th May 1920 she was executed by firing squad.
Find out more…
You could read Maria Bochkareva’s autobiography Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier
Another book, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War 1 and the Revolution tells you more about women’s involvement in the war.
Here is film footage of the Women’s Battallion of Death:
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