Killed in action in September 1917 leading Romanian troops into battle, Ecaterina Teodoroiu was likely the first woman in the 20th century to command a male infantry unit in combat. Today she’s regarded as a national heroine, but during Romania’s communist era (1947–89) she was a “nonperson” due to her association with the former royal family. It was that connection, however, that led to her infantry commission.
Born in 1894 into a farming family, Teodoroiu initially trained as a schoolteacher, then in 1913 joined the Romanian branch of the international Scouting movement—another target of the postwar communist regime. When Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies in August 1916, Teodoroiu volunteered as a field nurse so as to be close to her brothers. Working on the Eastern Front that October, she joined an ad-hoc band of reservists and civilians who repulsed Bavarian troops seeking to cross a bridge over the Jiu River. Impressed by her courage under fire, the royal family invited Teodoroiu to visit them in Bucharest.
A week later, on November 1, Teodoroiu’s brother Nicolae, a sergeant in the 18th Infantry Regiment, was killed in action. Wanting to avenge his death, Ecaterina sought permission to join the unit as a volunteer. It was an unprecedented request, one that undoubtedly would have been denied if not for the support of the royal family. She soon proved her worth by devising a ruse that allowed the unit to evade the Germans. Teodoroiu was captured, but she managed to escape with light wounds after shooting her German guard in the head with a concealed revolver. Days later she fought in skirmishes near Barbatesti and Tantareni, then in the fighting near Filiasi, where she suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs.
Released from a Bucharest hospital in January 1917, Teodoroiu requested reassignment to the 43rd/59th Infantry Regiment as a volunteer nurse. Heartbroken by the harsh conditions, she appealed to Queen Marie for relief. The monarch sent the nurse back to the front with cigarettes and supplies for the men. On March 10 Teodoroiu received the Military Virtue Medal 2nd Class for her prior combat actions. A week later King Ferdinand I awarded her the MVM 1st Class and commissioned her a brevet sublieutenant. Teodoroiu took command of a 25-man infantry platoon in the regiment’s 7th Company.
In early August 1917 Teodoroiu’s regiment was part of the First Army reserve when a Russo-Romanian force launched an offensive against the Austro-Hungarian First Army (which included German units) around Marasesti and the Siret River. The 43rd/59th crossed the river and bivouacked close to the front. Two weeks later the unit dug into a defensive position near Muncelu-Varnita. Anticipating an enemy attack, and recognizing Teodoroiu’s propaganda value, Brig. Gen. Ernest Brosteanu, commander of the 11th Division, ordered her to withdraw to a mobile hospital in the rear. She refused.
On September 3 the German 115th Division struck the 11th Division lines in force. While leading her platoon in a counterattack, Teodoroiu was killed by a burst of machine gun fire.
The costly but successful defense was the last major battle of World War I on Romanian soil between the Central Powers and Romania. Though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had occupied much of the country, the Battle of Marasesti kept the northeastern region free from occupation.
Teodoroiu was buried near the front, but in 1921 her remains were reinterred near the bridge she had helped defend. Among other memorials in her honor is a stone plinth near the village of Muncelu, marking the spot where she fell at the head of her men. MH