The Women's Legion of Death

Discussion in 'Imperial Russian Empire' started by Dan Morton, Dec 10, 2015.

  1. Dan Morton A Fixture

    From the web site:

    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.
    A second unit was formed in August 1917 to take in new female volunteers. To differentiate this unit from the 1st Battalion 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.
    In October, although still being trained, Alexander Kerensky, leading the Provisional Government, 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.

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