The organization, war record, and short-lived history of the battalions of the Russian Women’s Legion of Death that fought in World War One and the Russian Revolution.
The 1st Battalion of the Russian Women’s Legion of Death was organised from hundreds of volunteers in May 1917. Led by Colonel Maria “Yashka” Bochkareva, they were established at the Torgvay Street barracks in St Petersburg and drilled fourteen hours daily on fields of the Engineer Palace. Attached to the force was a group of nineteen male soldiers from the Volinsky Guards Regiment who served as drill sergeants. The women were shaved bald, given slightly modified men’s uniforms, ate at the mess of the Marine Guards and were issued cavalry carbine variants of the Mosin rifle (although often photographed with the longer M.91 rifle). Sworn to never surrender (hence the term “Legion of Death) it was published in the press that each woman soldier carried a ration of potassium cyanide to be used to commit suicide in the event of capture. This grim fact was also reflected in their shoulder straps, which were trimmed in black with a skull and crossbones insignia. British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst was at the blessing of their colors at St. Isaac’s Cathedral on June 21st just before they left for the front. The 300 women and twenty-five men (including six officers listed as battle adjutants and men who crewed machine guns) of the 1st Battalion were assigned to support the 525th Kuriag-Daryjuski Regiment of the 10th Army on the northwestern front. After five weeks of training they went into the lines on July 8, 1917 during the so-called Kerensky Offensive and were launched into combat against the Germans near Smorgon on July 25. In the attack they forced the Germans to retreat briefly and captured a wood and two hundred prisoners. For this battle the battalion paid the price in some fifty dead, missing and wounded. American reporter Rheta Child Dorr was with the battalion for this affair and widely reported on her experiences. This battalion fell back to the Russian lines and remained at the front until being disbanded in December 1917.
In August, inspired by new reports of the 1st Battalion at the front a second unit was formed to take in new female volunteers. To differentiate this unit from the 1st Battalion that was still at the front this new unit was named the Petrograd Women’s Battalion. It carried twelve hundred names on its rolls including women who had washed out of the original unit while it was in training, new volunteers, and wounded women soldiers (including Colonel “Yashka” Bochkareva) who were recovering in the city’s military hospitals. The Petrograd Battalion, quartered at Levashovo, was a favorite of the international media and pictures of the women in drill appeared around the world. Most photographs in circulation are of this unit. Still in training in October, the Petrograd Battalion was called to the Winter Palace by Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government to review. Lacking reliable forces to guard his government, Kerensky asked for three platoons (about 140 soldiers) to remain as part of the Winter Palace’s garrison. It was these women soldiers who defended the palace along with a group of cossacks and military academy cadets during the October Revolution. When the revolution started the cossacks, along with most of the cadets rode off into the night to leave the women largely alone as the last protectors of the government. Some sources state that the colors of the unit were saved from capture by an attached male officer who wore them wrapped around his body under his uniform and promised to protect them.
When the Bolsheviks captured the Winter Palace on the night of October 25/26 the women surrendered last after exchanging a few bloodless rounds with the Red Guards. For years various factions for various reasons described how the women were raped and many were even killed and tortured after they surrendered. Modern military scholars have largely disproved this and no evidence of murder after surrender was ever produced although at least one young woman committed suicide. They were paroled and along with the rest of their unit disbanded. The 2nd Battalion had sent two companies (some 400 soldiers) to the front at the end of September 1917 where they were attached to the 27th Infantry Division. However they, like the women of the 3rd Battalion never saw combat and were disbanded at their garrisons by the Bolsheviks as they were seen as being counter-revolutionary. It is known that many of the women went on to serve with the White cause during the Russian Civil War.
Bochkareva, after being released from jail by the Reds, made her way to America briefly before returning to Russia. During the Russian Civil War she attempted to raise a unit of women to fight with Admiral Kolchak’s White Army in Siberia. When Kolchak’s forces collapsed at the end of 1919 Bochkareva was captured by the Reds and executed. She has often been referred to as the Russian Joan D’Arc and was declared to be “Martyr Maria the Soldier” by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1994.