Maria Bochkareva: WWI Founder of the Battalion of Death

by JoHarrington

Sanctioned by the Tsar, Maria Bochkareva was a female soldier during the First World War. She was later selected to head an all-women battalion on the front line.

There were no less than four official female battalions fighting for Russia during World War One. But the first was the Women's Battalion of Death, and it inspired all of the others.

These included the unofficial private volunteer armies, which were never under the auspices of government. They numbered over a dozen and all of them looked to Maria Bochkareva as their role model and icon.

As a peasant woman, she should have been confined to the fields as a laborer. It's a measure of her determination that she achieved all of this. Until she became such a threat to the hierarchy that she was executed on the field.

Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier

Yashka was the pet name used for Maria Bochkareva throughout her life. It was the name that she used for herself.

The Peasant Girl from Novgorod Governorate

Fighting on the Great War battlefields was not how Maria's life was supposed to have played out. But nobody told her that.

When Maria Frolkova was fifteen years old, she got married and went to work with her husband as a laborer in the fields and on a construction site.

The latter involved relocating thousands of miles away to Tomsk. Maria lost her family support network, as she lived so far away from her childhood home.

There was nothing remarkable about any of this. Peasant girls from Novgorod Governorate always married young. They were born to pass from father to husband, then raise their families as best they could. Families had to go where the employment could be found.  She was Maria Frolkova Bochkareva, and the expectation was that she'd bear children for her husband, Afanasi Bochkarev.

But Maria always defied expectations. When her husband beat her, she simply left him. Marriage over. She'd suffered physical violence at the hands of her alcoholic father. She'd promised herself it would never happen to her again.

Eventually the teenager met up with a local man and began a relationship with him. It seems that she held Yakov Buk in some fond regard, so the union must have been based on love. Unfortunately, the path of true love rarely goes smoothly.

At first all was well.  Maria and Yakov set up a butcher's shop in their village. It was well established and provided a reasonable income. But her lover became greedy. When Maria was twenty-three years old, Yakov was arrested for petty theft and found guilty. His sentence was exile.

It's worth noting that, though the charge sheet said 'larceny', Maria was later to write that Yakov was a political agitator. He attempted to stir up the local people to rise against the depredations of Tsarist Russia. He was seeking a revolution.

Whatever the charges, Yakov was conveyed by the authorities to Yakutsk and warned never to come back. Maria followed him, completing the long journey on foot. Once they were reunited, they merely set up shop again.

Just one year later, he was caught stealing again. Once more the sentence was exile. He was sent to Amga - a remote and relatively isolated settlement - in 1913. As loyal as ever, Maria closed her butcher's shop and set out on foot to join him there.

Only this time, Yakov became depressed and angry about his exile. He began drinking to excess. Those bouts led to fighting. Eventually his drunkenness resulted in domestic violence too.

Maria Frolkova Bochkareva would put up with many things.  She was loyal to a fault. But she would not be beaten at home.  On the eve of World War One, she packed her things and began the long walk home alone.

The Homes of Maria Bochkareva

Maria Bochkareva's Appeal to Tsar Nicholas

Russian women did not fight in the military in 1914. At least they didn't until Maria decided that's where she wanted to be.

Image: Tsar NicolasAfter Maria left Yakov, she found work in a factory in Tomsk.  But this was the outbreak of the Great War and all of Russia felt the threat.  Maria was not one to sit back ignoring conflict, even if that's what she was supposed to do.

She decided to enlist in the Russian army. Her trip to the recruitment office didn't go entirely according to plan.  The officer there laughed in her face. He refused to believe that any woman wanted to sign up.  He believed it was a prank set up by his peers.

Gradually he realized that Maria was in earnest, and that was even funnier. There were laws to stop females entering the military. (Though some had already sneaked in dressed as men. Bribes or other means allowed their commanding officers to turn a blind eye.)

Maria was most definitely female. Didn't anyone see the joke?

Finally exasperated beyond measure by this determined woman, the enlistment officer quipped, "Tell you what, why don't you write to Tsar Nicholas and see if he'll let you in?"

So she did. 

Maria Bochkareva was not literate. She could not write her own letter to the Tsar, but she could dictate one.  Her petition was so heart-felt and passionate in its patriotism that Tsar Nicholas was moved to award the permission that she sought.

Thus the twenty-four year old peasant woman became the first officially sanctioned woman in the Russian infantry.

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A Female Soldier on Russia's Front Line in WWI

Maria wasn't entirely made welcome by the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army. But she stuck it out.

Image: Maria BochkarevaFor the war-weary men, the appearance of Maria Bochkareva on Russia's Western Front must have seemed like a sick joke.

They were barely surviving the intensity of battle.  Desperate for supplies, which rarely got through, and subject to the horrors of the world's first industrial war, many simply wanted to go home. Suddenly they were confronted with a woman in uniform. If the Tsar had dressed a donkey in their colors, it couldn't have been more insulting.

Maria was met with bullying and ridicule. Though she was never actually raped, the sexual harassment was endemic.

When encountering abuse before, she had not stood for it. She'd married to escape the attentions of her violent father. She'd extracted herself from her marriage to Bochkarev, and she'd left Buk in Amga. But this was a different situation entirely. Maria could not simply walk away, however great the backlash against her presence.

She did the only thing that she could do.  She proved herself on the field. She didn't back down from any maneuver. She applied herself bravely and relentlessly in the push forward. In short, she fought twice as hard as the men around her, in order simply to gain acceptance.

During her three years with the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army, Maria saw plenty of action. She was wounded twice, but returned each time to the front line. On three occasions, she was decorated for bravery.  One time that was for personally bayoneting to death a German soldier.

Then, in 1917, everything changed for Russia and for Maria Bochkareva. The Tsar was deposed and revolution was raging in the streets.

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The ruling Romanov family, and their enigmatic advisor Rasputin, were overwhelmed in the Russian Revolution. The Tsar, his wife and children were executed.

Maria Bochkareva's Radical Idea

An all female military battalion in World War One sounds incredible. But it actually happened and Bochkareva made it so.

Image: Maria BochkarevaAfter the fall of the royal family, it seemed that anything could and would happen in Russia. While the Provisional Government rushed to secure power, many radical ideas were taking shape in reality.

Maria Bochkareva had one of her own. Also no-one had ever told her that, as a peasant woman, she wasn't supposed to approach world leaders to air her notions. After all, it had worked out precisely as planned, when she'd petitioned Tsar Nicholas II.

In March 1917, Maria went to the Minister of War Alexander Kerensky with her bid to form an all woman military corps. He was an important man. Within three months, he would be prime minister.

Moreover, he was an individual known for defending and promoting revolutionaries, and their revolutionary ideals. Never in Russia's history would there be a man more likely to agree to Maria's proposal, in a position to grant permission.

Circumstances were also in her favor. The Russian people all believed that revolution would mean the end of their country's participation in this unpopular conflict. That hadn't actually occurred. Kerensky had recognized that Russia depended greatly upon aid from France and Britain. Staying in the Great War was the price of that aid.

Nevertheless, over a million Russian deserters had made their way home since the revolution; and the Bolsheviks were promising peace and bread, if they took power. 

Alexander Kerensky saw in Maria's military women a means by which male soldiers could be shamed into staying in the trenches. In addition, enlisting women could be a way to replenish the troops after mass desertions. He gave the go-ahead.

The Battalion of Death

Maria herself was the model for this poster, which depicts Russian female soldiers marching into the First World War.
Russian 'Battalion of Death' Composed of Female Soldiers

Russia's All Female Battalion of Death

For the first time in a major conflict, a corps made up entirely of women was sent into battle. Russia did it in June 1917.

Image: 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death 1917Within weeks, over 2000 women had answered Maria Bochkareva's rallying call. They heard her speeches, wherein she asked for the 'tigeresses' of Russia to defend their homeland and families.

However, that didn't mean that the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death retained that many. Maria knew very well what awaited them on the front line and she wasn't about to take anyone who wouldn't cope. Her strict discipline and relentless training soon whittled down those serious about staying.

In the end, just three hundred women marched onto Russia's Western Front. Maria Bochkareva was at their helm, as their commanding officer. They arrived in time for the June Offensive of 1917 around the town of Smorgon.

For the already demoralized men stationed there, their arrival was about as welcome as Maria's own had been in 1914. The Battalion of Death were quickly subject to verbal abuse. Rumors began to spread that women amongst them had been raped, but no evidence was found. Maria herself later wrote that her soldiers suffered a lot of sexual harassment.

Nevertheless, when the call came to go over the top, the Battalion of Death were at the forefront. They pushed so enthusiastically and courageously, that they soon left the male troops far behind. While very heroic, it also rendered them in a very vulnerable position.

Stories were soon relayed back to government about the conduct of the women. They'd overwhelmed a German dug-out and, upon finding a cache of vodka there, smashed the bottles. Maria was determined that the male soldiers in their wake would not arrive drunk. Then they secured and held ground far further forward than was deemed possible.

Unfortunately, those following were not prepared to relieve their position. Supplies quickly dried up and no-one followed.

The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death were forced to surrender their ground and return to the safety of the Russian front line. 

Worse still, Maria herself had been badly injured. She was shipped back to Petrograd to receive medical attention and to recuperate.  Only Petrograd wasn't all that safe during the autumn of 1917.

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Bochkareva and the Bolsheviks

The October Revolution may have passed Maria by, but it was about to catch up with deadly intent.

Image: Maria BochkarevaThe 1st Russian Woman's Battalion of Death had missed the October Revolution. They were at the front line at the time, and Maria Bochkareva was with them.

However, the 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion - which had been inspired into being by Maria's troops - had guarded the Winter Palace during the uprising. It did not predispose the Bolsheviks into an automatic acceptance of female soldiers.

When Maria Bochkareva - wounded and in need of assistance - arrived in Petrograd, she was immediately arrested.

With her war record behind her, and a brilliant alibi for the time of the revolution, there was little that the Bolsheviks could hold against Maria. She asked for leave to return to her family in Tomsk and this was granted. But she was still regarded with much suspicion.

Such distrust appeared justified, when Commander Bochkareva suddenly reappeared in Petrograd, in the spring of 1918. Now fully recovered, she was spotted leaving the headquarters of General Lavr Kornilov, a leader of the White Army.

Maria was arrested again and asked what her business had been there. She claimed to have received a telegram at her home in Tomsk, which ordered her to come. The general was hiding out in the Caucasus. She was to find him and deliver a message.

This naturally did not sit well with her Bolshevik interrogators. Sentence was quickly passed. Commander Maria Leontievna Frolkova Bochkareva was to be summarily executed by firing squad.

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of the firing squad or gunman as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

Escape to the USA

It turns out that Maria Bochkareva wasn't an easy woman to kill.

Image: Maria BochkarevaA fellow soldier saved Maria's life.  He had served with her in the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army, during 1915.

Now a Bolshevik, the unnamed man spoke out about her courage and worth to the revolutionary army. He must have been persuasive, as he was able to escort her from the death cell and lead her away from the Red headquarters.

Nevertheless, it was obvious that Maria's life was in danger for as long as she remained in Russia. Together with her advocate, she petitioned for an external passport, which was actually granted. She then fled to Vladivostok, where she was able to board a steamship destined for the United States of America.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Maria saw her course clearly ahead of her. She needed to speak with the President, as soon as possible. Most Americans would be forgiven for chuckling at the very thought, but they hadn't met Maria Bochkareva before. If this peasant woman could correspond with Tsar Nicholas II, and persuade Alexander Kerensky to allow a female war battalion, then knocking on the door of the White House was nothing.

She soon made her way to Washington D.C., whereupon her attempts to gain an audience with Woodrow Wilson came to nothing.

However, she did make the acquaintance of a wealthy socialite named Florence Harriman, who was quite charmed by the remarkable Russian female commander. (It will probably come as no surprise to learn that Florence was a leading Suffragist.)  Through her connections, another bid was placed for Maria to meet with the president.

On July 10th 1918, President Woodrow Wilson found himself welcoming Commander Maria Bochkareva into the Oval Office.  He ended up promising her that he would do what he could to intervene with the situation in Russia.

She then traveled to New York, where an exiled Russian journalist named Isaac Don Levine had her dictate her life story.  This became the foundation of her autobiography. But Maria wasn't prepared to hang about. She had another world leader in her sights.

After boarding a ship to Great Britain, Maria somehow wrangled a meeting with King George V. The British monarch equally found himself under oath to help save Russia from the Bolsheviks.

But Maria Bochkareva was convinced that Russia needed one more thing to help it. Her.

Posters of Maria Bochkareva in Uniform

The Counter-Revolutionary Activities of Maria Bochkareva

With her politics firmly with the White Army, she returned to Russia to take on the Bolsheviks.

Image: Maria Bochkareva and Emmeline PankhurstTo any independent observer, it must have felt like now that Commander Bochkareva could not fail at anything. If it occurred to her, then it happened, even if there was no precedent. Especially if there was no precedent.

She had left Russia in April 1918.  By August 1918, she landed at Archangel on the western coast of her country. In just four months, she had traveled to the USA and Britain, spoken with two world leaders and dictated her autobiography.

The photograph, by the way, is Maria with another extremely famous figure - Emmeline Pankhurst, one of Britain's leading Votes for Women Suffragettes.

So when Maria landed in Russia, the Red Army must have been wary.  She'd made her political leanings very clear and she acted on them immediately. She attempted to raise a female unit of soldiers for the White Army.

Unexpectedly, she failed.

For the next eight months, Commander Bochkareva slowly made her way across country to the relative safety of Tomsk. Her family there could be relied upon to welcome her, but it was also an area largely sympathetic to the White Army.  During that time, Maria had repeatedly tried to raise an army, and repeatedly failed to do so.

Once in Tomsk, she presented herself to Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who held the convoluted title of Supreme Ruler and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces. At least he did if you were anti-Bolshevik. The Red Army naturally didn't recognize his title at all.

Maria anticipated finally being given command of a battalion here.  She was, but not in the way that she quite had in mind. Admiral Kolchak handed her a role much more socially acceptable for women. She was to head a medical corps of nurses.

It must have stung, but Maria accepted her commission without an argument. Unfortunately, she was never to take her position. As she left his headquarters, she was seized and arrested by the Bolsheviks.

The Execution of Maria Bochkareva

Even in Tsarist times, Krasnoyarsk was the place where the government sent political prisoners. That function hadn't changed under either the White Army or the Red Army.

Commander Maria Bochkareva was conveyed to this Siberian outpost in April 1919, and there interrogated. Her ordeal lasted over a year, before her sentence was finally handed down.  She was an 'enemy of the people' and therefore she had to die.

Maria was killed by firing squad in Krasnoyarsk, on May 16th 1920.

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Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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Giorgio Vitali on 01/26/2016


JoHarrington on 03/27/2014

I'm glad that you found it thought-provoking.

alyssa on 03/25/2014

something to think about

JoHarrington on 07/30/2013

From her point of view, Russia needed her. Plus she couldn't sit 'idly' twiddling her thumbs, while Russia burned. She was very patriotic.

Natural_Skin_Care on 07/29/2013

Seems she was a woman ahead of her time, but not much common sense. Why would she return to Russia! Anyway, she was a patriot.

JoHarrington on 07/24/2013

One thing I read about Maria Bochkareva is that she was incredibly angry by the time she joined the army. All that abuse from her father, and both husband and common law husband, had exploded into actual bitterness.

It's hard to say whether she channeled it into something productive, because is war and violence ever productive?

MaggiePowell on 07/24/2013

Great stuff... I studied a bit of Russian history, and I don't remember coming across Maria B before.
One thing I have noticed... in history, when a woman has served in combat, whether as soldier or guerilla... they seem to be fiercer than men. As if all the rage that they've stored up over the years gets to explode out.

JoHarrington on 07/22/2013

Because in the vast scheme of history, women in combat is still a very new phenomenon. Children in combat is unfortunately not, but it should be banned globally.

cmoneyspinner on 07/22/2013

With all this factual information and history about women serving as soldiers, why do people even debate the topic of women in combat? If I were going to be hopping mad and fiercely passionate about something, I'd yell and scream about using children for war and go after the dirty low-down low bastards that do that!!!

(Not yelling at you, Ms. Jo. :)

JoHarrington on 07/21/2013

You're very welcome. I do enjoy finding out about people I've not heard about before. Though I really can't imagine how Maria Bochkareva skipped my attention!

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