'the Legion of Death'
Women Soldiers on the Firing-Line
told by Officers and Eye-Witnesses from the Battlefields

How the Russian, Serbian, and German Women Go to War

a two-page spread from an American illustrated weekly (New York Times Mid-Week Pictorial)


Tales of the Great War bring stories of thousands of women fighting as soldiers in men's uniforms on all the battle-lines — in the trenches, in the artillery and cavalry, and going "over the top" in the bayonet charges. "The Legion of Death" — a battalion of Russian women, under command of Vera Butchkaroff, has fought many hard battles with the Russian Army. They are pledged to take their own lives rather than become prisoners of the Germans, who have ravished and attacked them. Each woman soldier carries a ration of cyanide of potassium to be swallowed in case of capture. Mme. Colonel Koudasheva commands the Sixth Ural Cossacks, of which one-fourth of the soldiers are women. The Serbian, German and Austrian women are in the ranks. Official dispatches mention them for orders of bravery. A few of these stories are told in these pages from the following sources: I — War Correspondent of New York American; II — William G. Shepherd, War Correspondent for United Press; III — War Correspondent for Salt Lake Tribune; IV — War Correspondent for New York World; V — War Correspondent for St. Louis Post-Dispatch; VI — London Daily Telegraph.

(Many are the tales that will be told of these women soldiers in the "New Russia," but this is sufficient to prove that womanhood the world over always rises to the emergency, when home and country are in danger — Editor.)


I - Stories of Madam Colonel Koudasheva

Austrian and Ukrainian female volunteers


It did not seem possible that women could undergo the hardships, the complete reversal of all their habits and the primitive manners that necessarily accompany trench life. Incredulity has, however, given way before actual official reports of women decorated and promoted for bravery on the battlefields. It seems now that in Europe the women actually do put on the uniform of the men, fight not only in trenches, but in the cavalry, and in every way measure up to the standard of a soldier.

Indeed, they are harder to conquer, it seems, than the men. A recent semi-official report from Petrograd mentioned that the Russians were surprised, when they captured a line of trenches along the Bzura River in Poland, to find a number of German women among their captives. These women were found in the very first line, with hot rifles still in their hands.

"There was much more difficulty in making these women prisoners than the men," reported the officer in charge of the victors. "They would not surrender until after all their men comrades had thrown down their arms, and they taunted the men with cowardice. These women were not at all heavy, unsexed peasants. Some of them showed the marks of refinement. Inquiry developed that only a few had donned the uniform because some loved one was in their company. The majority had enlisted because of pure patriotism.

"I was told that the German authorities," said the officer in charge of the victors, "do not openly encourage enlistment by women, but they do wink at it. The men in the trenches, the officers know perfectly well that this and that soldier is a woman, but they pretend not to know it officially."

The Russians could not have been surprised at seeing women soldiers, however, because hundreds of women are apparently fighting in the armies of the Czar.

Mme. Alexandra Koudasheva is the most distinguished woman soldier in the Russian army. She commands the Sixth Ural Cossack Regiment, which has covered itself with honors in many battles in East Prussia. Wounded twice, Mme. Koudasheva bears the Cross of St. George, that is given only for exceptional bravery, and many orders of inferior significance. She is back again to her regiment which consists of many Cossack woman volunteers, though the majority of the soldiers are men. A few more successful battles and Mme. Koudasheva will be promoted to a general.

When the war began Mme. Koudasheva entered the army as a volunteer. She distinguished herself in daring- raids on the German Uhlans, and was made a lieutenant, and soon thereafter a colonel of the same regiment in which her husband had served two years ago. During the two months that she has acted as a commander of the regiment she has given proof of exceptional strategic gifts and courage. She has never stood behind, but always in front, of her men. Naturally, no man likes to be surpassed by a woman, and this has given her company a reputation for unusual bravery.

Colonel Koudasheva is by no means a semi-barbaric adventurer or a Salome who revels in bloodshed. She is a lady of highest culture and refinement. Besides being a talented poet and brilliant writer, she is a fine musician and a passionate lover of sports. She has made twice a trip on horseback from China, through Manchuria, Siberia and European Russia to Petrograd. She made the trip alone, and passed the most dangerous deserts of the two continents without having had any great difficulties.

"I have felt just as safe in the wildest deserts of Siberia, as I do in the streets of Moscow or Petrograd, simply because I have absolute confidence in my ability to command the man, regardless do I meet him in a fashionable society of a big city, or as a highway robber in the wildest wilds. A woman — if she only knows her feminine powers — can conquer any man," thus writes Mme. Koudasheva in her "Diary of a Ride Through Siberia."

This is how she writes in a letter to a friend in New York of one of her adventures while she was still a lieutenant and was out to ascertain the strength of the enemy at night:

"It was a ghastly moonlight night of the Fall. A bleak wind whistled and howled around the ruins of the village, in which there had been so much human joy before and so much misery after. I was riding with a company of twenty-five men to trace the retreating enemy. Though the amphitheatric hills that rose before us seemed dead and bare, yet mysterious flashes of light appeared here and there, like magic signals. They warned us of the hidden batteries of the enemy. As we galloped on, I could see the road strewn with broken boxes, knapsacks, household implements, dead horses and men which the enemy had left behind in his hurried retreat.

" 'Excellency,' whispered my orderly, 'I see there beyond the hill a moving dot. It's probably the head of a "dady"' (as we called, the Germans). As we were in the shadow of the ruins, we could discern distinctly the bare field in the moonlight. Before us was the first line of the trenches of the enemy. I pulled my rifle and aimed. A shot. The dot became a black figure that rose and staggered and fell. It was a distance of 150 steps, and I could see how a gray ribbon of trenches stretched in both directions before us; — a ribbon that always fascinates and yet frightens because it is the home of death.

More black dots were visible, moving in the direction where the one before had fallen.

"Little by little I could see dots in every direction beyond the ribbon. A few figures climbed out and started running toward us. 'One, two, three!' I whispered and then followed a salvo from my men. The figures either fell or ran back behind the ribbon. From behind a hill flashed a light and then the battery of the enemy opened fire at the village where we were. It was the machine guns. 'Nuka, Misha, tickle the dadies, quick!' was the humorous remark of one of my soldiers to me. We must have killed and wounded a hundred or more. Then we turned around and rode away, without having lost a single man and without having any men wounded."

Mme. Koudasheva is a student of soldier psychology on the battlefield, as is shown in another letter.

"When you feel the invisible fingers of fate so close to your life, as on the battlefield, the problems that interest you before and the feelings that you experience in a peaceful feminine activity die out and a new view opens. It is not the feeling of sport, it is not the feeling of being killed, that takes hold of the mind of the battlefield, but it is a queer, dramatic hypnose, like an actor feels before opening a play.

"It all seems a huge cosmic play — a stern tragic panorama of life — but still a play. The whole human organism seems to work against all laws of nature, for, though you stay in the cold and rain day and night, yet you catch no cold, no ailments that are usual in everyday life."

Mme. Colonel Koudasheva may require a strict discipline of her inferiors, but she never applies any punitive measures. She commands with the most polite words. "Gentlemen, please, would you do me the favor" is her usual command to the soldiers. "My boys and girls go to any fire without any forcible measures," she writes. "I just need to hint at an instruction, and already it is carried out. I have taught them not to shoot with hate, but to love the man they shoot. And they do love, which is proven by an incident when once we chased the enemy into river and when we saw that they would be drowned we all went to pull them out, and thus saved a whole company."

Another Russian heroine is Natalie Tychnini, a high school girl of Kiev, who has received the decoration of the Order of St. George for distinguished service at the front. She had arrived at Opatow among a detachment of volunteers for the campaign against the Austrians. She was dressed like a man, and passed for a remarkably handsome boy. She was detailed to carry ammunition to the trenches. She was in the hottest fire and was wounded twice., The Russians were forced to retire, and she was left lying on the field. The Austrian Red Cross workers found her. "Why, this is a woman!" exclaimed the Austrian surgeon who examined her. The Austrians nursed her. When the Russians again took Opatow she was still in a hospital. She was recaptured by them and sent back to Kiev, where she was given her honors.

Austrian women are also fighting. Stefa Falica is a young Croatian who enlisted with her husband in the same regiment. In this case her sex was well-known, and she was not forced to use men's clothes. She has already been made a corporal for her bravery in the field.

A similar case is that of Stanislawa Ordinska, who enlisted, masquerading as a man, in the Polish Legion of Austria. She was made a sergeant for bravery shown at the front before it was discovered she was a woman. Then she was allowed to keep her rank and her gun. One of the most interesting bodies of women soldiers is the Serbian organization called the "Legia Smirti," or Legion of Death.

The Legion of Death is composed of women who have been trained in the use of firearms and in the science of war. In the Balkan States, where women frequently follow their husbands throughout military campaigns, acting as pack-carriers, camp-attendants, and even as trench-diggers and sappers when necessary, it is not unusual for them to take their places beside their husbands or their lovers on the firing line. There are many expert rifle shots among them, many indeed who are capable of taking men's places under necessity. Accustomed to attack in solitary places, and more or less inured to be- reavement, a kind of grim quiet follows them wherever they are seen.

The Legion of Death is recruited from all classes of women, from the wives of rich merchants to the wives and daughters of peasants. This Amazon corps had its origin in the patriotic enthusiasm of a woman sixty-two years old, whose husband died for Serbia in the war for liberty against the Turks. The women handle the regulation rifles and are held in deadly fear by the Austrians and Germans.

Indeed, it seems that on both sides the soldiers dread the women soldiers more than they do those of their own sex.

Kipling's "The female of the species is more deadly than the male," recalls itself, of course. Dr. Hans Hul-duckson, writing of this same phenomenon, said:

"Women are not natural combatants. They do not rush into war for war's sake. They are without the blood lust that makes fighting a joy for fighting's sake. They will fight only in desperate straits, and then only for their honor, their children or the existence of their country. Standing at one of these last ditches, however, they fight with the ferocity of tigers. They do battle without rule or reason and to the death. An Englishwoman, who is endeavoring to organize a company of women for military training, said that she did not fear that they would not fight, but the fear was that they might fight too fiercely. They are the most cruel of combatants when they so far overcome their native womanly gentleness as to enter into combat.

"A soldier of experience said that he would rather fight a company of male soldiers than one woman soldier. He explained that woman is too resourceful in the matter of weapons. War transforms woman for the time into a beast."


two pages from a British magazine on the Russian women's 'Battalion of Death'


II — Story of the "Potassium Brigade"

Russia's women soldiers have pledged themselves to take their own lives rather than become German war prisoners. Each woman soldier carries a ration of cyanide of potassium to be swallowed in case of capture.

The members of the women regiments, now constantly increasing, agreed that death was to be preferred to the fate they would probably meet at the hands of the Germans.

The "Legion of Death" fighters are "good killers." I learned this to-day, when I talked to five of them now in a hospital near here, suffering from shell shock. From a woman's lips I heard how she had run a German through with her bayonet, firing the rifle at the same time. From others I heard how these women and girls, fresh from comfortable homes and universities, went leaping over mangled bodies in the charge with enemy shells bursting all about them.

But these harrowing experiences of the women fighters have steeled them and hundreds of other girls to a new determination to see it through. Girl soldiers drilling in the streets are now a common sight in Petrograd. Huge crowds gather daily about the Engineers' School, where 1,000 girls are drilling preparing to go to the front. In Moscow 1,000 men are training, while Kieff and Odessa have smaller bands. Premier Kerensky has also authorized the formation of women marine detachments and has promised to assign them to ships. The new women commands attempt no sort of decoration. Their heads are shaved and they wear the regulation uniform, including the heavy, ugly army boots.

The five women fighters I visited at the hospital were partially paralyzed by shell shock. One of them, a peasant girl, smiled joyously as she pointed to a German helmet on the bed beside her. It was the first war prize of a Russian woman.

"I saw a German in front of me as I ran forward with the others in the charge," she told me. "It was his life or mine. I raised my rifle. I plunged with all my strength. I stabbed him. The bayonet went deep into his body. At the same moment I pulled the trigger. He dropped dead. Then I took his hat as a souvenir."

The girl soldier smiled with delight.

"What was the battle like?" I asked another of the legionnaires.

"I was very nervous just before the charge," she replied. "We knew the order was coming and naturally we were just a little scared. But as soon as the orders to go forward came we forgot everything else in the advance.

"I could hear our girls yelling and shouting throughout the march forward. None of us were afraid once we got started. We were in the midst of a great fusillade of shots. Then terrific big shells began breaking all around us.

"We were again frightened a little when we first saw dead men about, but before very long we were jumping over the dead, and quickly forgot all about them."

"We couldn't tell what was going on anywhere," said a third girl in describing the final stages of the battle.

"Commander Bochkoreva was everywhere, urging us to fight and die like real Russian soldiers."

Then the girl told how the legion took its first prisoners. "As we ran forward we suddenly came upon a bunch of Germans immediately ahead of us. It was only a second until we were all around them.

"They saw they were caught and threw down their rifles, holding up their hands. They were terribly frightened.

"Good God! Women!" they exclaimed. "We saw wounded German soldiers raising themselves on their elbows and shooting," interjected another wounded girl. "We just forgot ourselves entirely. We were simply Russia, fighting for her life.

"The loss of Lena, the most popular member of our company, was keenly felt by all of us," she added soberly. "During the battle Lena heard that Commander Bochkoreva had been killed. She hurried forward into the shell and fire, saying she was going to find her. We saw her go through one space literally strewn with exploding shells. Then, through the smoke and flames, we saw her blown to fragments.

"We also lost Sonia. She used to be a musician with the Romanoff concert organization. She was killed by machine gun fire."

Petrograd has not yet seen the full casualty list of the Legion of Death. From what the girls say, however, it appears that at least a dozen big shells struck square in their midst, killing perhaps twelve girls and wounding twice as many more.

Five of the German prisoners the girls captured were women, wearing the German soldier's uniform. The number of women in all armies on the eastern front is believed to be growing steadily.

As I returned from the hospital where I saw these paralyzed girls I met a new company of women marching briskly through the street. They were ready for the firing line, ready to give their lives in battle, and with their little ration of cyanide ready to take their own lives to avoid worse than death at the hands of the enemy.


Russian women volunteers


Ill — Stories of Wounded Girls in "Command of Death"

When the Russian women's battalion, known officially as the "Command of Death," went into action against the Germans near Smorgon, July 25, they captured a number of German women who also were fighting on the battle front in western Russia.

Ten wounded heroines of the women's battalion arrived in Petrograd leaving their commander, Vera Butchkareff and Marya Skrydloff, a daughter of Admiral Skrydloff, former commander of the Baltic fleet, and minister of marine, in a hospital at Vitebsk.

The women said it was reported that of the 200 of the command who reached the front only fifty remained. Twenty were killed, eight were taken prisoners and all the rest were wounded.

"Several times," said one wounded girl, "we attacked the Germans. Especially memorable was our attack at Novospassky wood, near Smorgon, where the enemy, hearing the voices of girls, lost their nerve. The result was that the prisoners were a few women, from whom we learned for the first time that German women also were fighting.

"We did not feel the slightest fear for our personal safety. Our passion was to serve the fatherland. We advanced gaily against the foe with laughter and song, our only unpleasant sentiments being when we first came to the corpses. Once when replying to the enemy's severe rifle and machine gun fire, we discovered to our amazement that all our men comrades in the neighboring trenches had treacherously fled, leaving us — a handful of women — to face the enemy alone."

The Russian women's battalion underwent the greatest hardships, not only in the actual fighting, but on their way to the front, according to stories told by wounded girls who have been brought back from the fighting lines to be placed in hospitals. Their heroism under fire was wonderful. Their dash and elan and their fearlessness under fire make a new chapter of the war.

The girls were sent to the front after they had demanded of Premier Kerensky that they be allowed to go.

They had boarded a train of long striped cars. The wooden bunks had been placed along the walls. The journey had been long and tiresome. Word of the women soldiers' coming had preceded them and they were greeted by jeering and hooting crowds at every station along the route.

The girls had their answers ready to the cries of the station crowds.

"What do you think you're going to do?" the jeers would go.

"Why are you fighting?"

Back would come the answer hot with scorn:

"Because you men are afraid to fight. All Russians are not cowards."

The women were sent to a camp back of the lines on the northern front. On their arrival there they were hooted by the male soldiers, who later tried to force themselves into the women's camp. It was plain that the men had no idea the women really expected to fight; they believed them to be merely camp followers and their cries showed as much. It was only when a band of male soldiers had been driven from the women's quarters at the bayonet point that they changed their view.

The girls drilled every day, rain or shine, and bathed in a river near the camp. While half of the battalion bathed the others had to maintain a strict guard to keep the male soldiers away.

Then came weary days of waiting. The commanders would not let the girls go to the front. It was only after great influence had been used that the order sending them to the trenches was given. They greeted the order with cheers and in their first action advanced singing songs of home. Their voices reached the German trenches and the sound of women singing so surprised the defenders that they were beaten back before they could regain their composure. As a result a number of prisoners were taken.

The women of the "Command of Death" came from every branch and class of society. University students, girls from some of the most noted families of Russia, professional women, working women and peasants, all were included in the membership.

"All we wanted was to help save the fatherland," said a wounded girl. "Women have as much right at the front as men. It is our country, too."


a Russian female soldier and her numerous decorations


IV — Stories Told by Women After the Battle

Only fifty of the whole battalion of women in Russia's Legion of Death came through their first battle unscathed. But the wounded as well as those who escaped are going back to the front.

Vera Butchkareff, commander of the Legion, suffering from shell shock in a hospital, so declared as she proudly-told the heroic story of her unit's fighting. Half a dozen other wounded women in the same hospital gave instant corroboration.

"We have fought with men and with women," Commander Butchkareff declared, "and one is as good as the other if he or she loves the fatherland.

"My girls have been divided before the battle. One half remained a unit under my command and the other half were distributed in small detachments of six or ten to various companies. These small units were to act as ammunition carriers only. My half was an active fighting force. I led them into the charge myself."

"We are all going back to the front," one of the girls declared. The whole roomful of wounded Legionnaires chorused instant approval.

"The German girls we captured carried a sign 'Send us your women; we will pay you well,'" declared one of the girl soldiers.

"They sent us — but we carried bayonets," she added.

The girls are for the most part between eighteen and thirty years of age. Some of the force are married women with children and a few are of middle age. Among these latter a striking figure is Mme. Sofie Vansa, widow of a colonel killed in battle and whose two sons are now lying wounded.

Mary Goloubyova, the eighteen-year-old high-school girl who was wounded, tells this story:

"We went into action a fortnight after our arrival at the front under heavy German cannon fire. Given the order to advance, we rushed out of our trench. Feeling no sense of danger, we dashed toward the enemy in the wood. The machine guns began knocking over my companions. We were ordered to lie down. I noticed those at the front with me were all women. The men were further back.

"I began shooting, the gun kicking my shoulder so hard that it is still blue and stiff. I was glad when we were ordered to charge the machine guns in the woods. We paid dearly, but we held on, and by night our scouts discovered the machine gunners and we shelled them out.

"After the first attack I was attached to a machine gun, carrying ammunition to an advanced position under the fire of hidden German machine guns. We were advancing and constantly in danger of capture by the Germans. On one trip over newly captured ground I saw what I considered a wounded German officer lying on the ground. I went to help him with my gun in my right hand and the machine-gun ammunition in my left.

"Seeing this, he jumped to his knees and pulled out his revolver, but before he could shoot I dropped the ammunition and killed him. How did I feel on taking a human life? I had no sensation except to rid my country of an enemy. There was no sentimentality. We were trying to kill them and they were trying to kill us — that is all. Any Russian girl or any American girl in the same position would have the same feeling."


left : a decorated Russian female soldier : Mme Kocovcheva
right : photos of the Russian women's battalion


V — Visit to the Women Soldiers' Barracks

In the history of new Russia, as it will be written for posterity, will stand out one bright, flaming spot — the gallant stand of the Women's Regiment — the "Command of Death" — in the midst of an ebbing wave of cowardly, panic-stricken men units. For pure courage and coolness the action of the Butchkareff detachment near Vilna on that terrible July day has seldom been equaled. . . .

The barracks of the command is in Torgvay Street.

Posted at the gate was a little blue-eyed sentry in a soldier's khaki blouse, short breeches, green forage-cap, woman's ordinary black stockings, and neat, heavily soled shoes. The sentry was Miss Mary Skrydloff, daughter of the former commander of the Baltic Fleet and Minister of Marine. The Skrydloff family is one of the oldest and most distinguished in Russia.

Inside there were four large dormitories, the beds without bedding and heavy overcoats flung over them. In the courtyard 300 girls were at drill, mostly between eighteen and twenty-five years of age and of good physique and most of them pretty and refined in appearance. They wore their hair short or their heads entirely shaved. They were being drilled under the direction of a male sergeant of the Volynsky Regiment, a famous Russian military organization, and were marching in an exaggerated goose step.

Commander Vera Butchkareff explained that most of the recruits were from the higher educational academies and secondary schools, with a few peasants, factory girls, and servants. The commander said:

"We apply the rigid system of the army before the days of the revolution, rejecting the new principle of soldier self-government. Having no time to inure the girls gradually to hardships, we impose a Spartan regime from the first. They sleep on boards, without bed-clothes, thus immediately eliminating the weak and those who require comforts. The smallest breach of discipline is punished with immediate and dishonorable discharge.

"The ordinary food of the soldier is furnished by the guards equipage corps. We arise at four and drill daily from five to eleven and from one to six. The girls carry the cavalry carbine, which is five pounds lighter than the regulation infantry rifle. On our first parade I requested those whose motives were frivolous to step aside. Only one did so. Later on, however, many who were unable to stand the privations of a soldier-life left us.

"We are fully official and are already entered on the lists of Russia's regiments. Uniforms and supplies are received from the Ministry of War, to which we render accounts and present reports. Yesterday the commander of the Petrograd district reviewed us and expressed great satisfaction. I am convinced that we will excel the male fighters, once we get into action."

Commander Butchkareff said that only the Volynsky, which had provided the drill- sergeant, was really favorable. The Volynsky Regiment was the unit which led the Russian revolution. The regimental clerk is Mme. Barbara Bukovishkoff, the author of several admirable short stories.


Russian female soldiers on parade drill


VI — Story of Commander Vera Butchkareff

Mme. Butchkareff is of peasant origin. Vera Butchkareff, or simply Yashka, as she has been christened by the men of the regiment to which she belonged, got much of her warlike spirit from her father, who fought through the whole of the Turkish war and was left a cripple for life. Her mother was a hard-working woman, with five children, of whom Yashka was the eldest, and she had to go out washing and cooking to earn enough to clothe and feed this flock.

At the age of five Yashka was sent out as nurse to a baby of three. And from that time she has never stopped working. She looks none the worse for it. Finely yet strongly built, with broad shoulders and healthy complexion, she can lift 200 pounds with the greatest of ease. She has never known what fear is.

Not long ago she remarked that during the last two years she had lived through so much that there remained but one danger yet to experience, that of flying. Just as she was saying that an aviator came up and offered to take her for a flight, and before the day was out she had exhausted her list of perils.

When she was sixteen years old her parents seized the first opportunity of getting her married. She never knew the man, but luckily as time wore on they grew very fond of each other, and were very happy. At first they both served in a shop, and thanks to their perseverance and frugality they were soon able to open a small shop of their own. But just as they began to prosper the war broke out, and he was one of the first to be called up.

She was very keen on accompanying him as a soldier, but he begged her to stay behind and work for her parents, whom they had been keeping.

She was always ready for any daring venture, and it, was with great reluctance that she stayed at home in compliance with her husband's wish. Time passed, and after long waiting she got the news that he had been killed in action on May 28, 1915. At once she went to her parents, and said: "I have decided to go to the front, and you will either hear of my death or I shall return to you in honor and glory. I trust in God." And no persuasions were of any use.

For two years she has lived in the trenches and fought like a man. She has been wounded three times — in her arm, leg, and back. In the Lake Naroch battles there was a time when all the officers were killed and the men lost courage and lay down, too frightened to attack. Then she rose up and dashed forward calling on them to follow her. Every one obeyed her.


Many are the tales that will be told of these women soldiers in the "New Russia," but this is sufficient to prove that womanhood the world over always rises to the emergency when home or country are in danger.

see also : Female Soldiers - a Post-War View


left : a Morrocan women serving with the french army and Mde Kocovcheva
right : Austrian female soldiers


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