Bessie Beatty was born in Los Angeles in 1886 to Irish immigrants. While she was still a student at Occidental College, she landed a job with the Los Angeles Herald, and by 1907 she was a columnist for the San Francisco Bulletin. She also found time to write a political primer for women in California, who in 1911 had won the right to vote.
In 1917 Beatty persuaded Fremont Older, her editor at the Bulletin, to let her visit Russia with four journalists and political activists: Louise Bryant, Rheta Childe Dorr, John Reed, and Albert Rhys Williams. There she scored an interview with Leon Trotsky, a leader in Russia’s October Revolution; became one of the first civilians to enter the Winter Palace after the fall of Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government; and went inside the Peter and Paul Fortress to visit with prisoners, including the former ministers of the government. She also traveled to the trenches to interview Russian soldiers and spent a week with the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, an all-female combat unit. After returning home, she finished a book about her experiences, The Red Heart of Russia, which was published in 1918 (and from which the following story, about events in 1917, is adapted). “I had been alive at a great moment,” she wrote, “and knew it was great.”
Beatty went on to become the editor of McCall’s magazine and, later, a freelance foreign correspondent for such magazines as Good Housekeeping, McClure’s, the New Republic, and Woman’s Home Journal. Beatty married British actor William Sauter in 1926. An activist to the core, she was a member of Heterodoxy, an organization of radical feminists in Greenwich Village. In 1940 she began hosting a radio show on WOR, the Mutual Broadcasting System’s station in New York, with her husband serving as the announcer, and within a couple of years it was the nation’s top-rated radio program hosted by a woman. Describing Beatty as “a short, voluble bit of human voltage” Time magazine noted that she could expertly ad-lib on just about any subject. During World War II Beatty used her show to sell more than $300,000 in war bonds. She died of a heart attack in 1947.
On an afternoon in early June, two years and three months from the day that Sidor Petroff hobbled on crutches into the meat shop to tell Marie Bachkarova [Maria Bochkareva] that her husband was dead, Bachkarova, illiterate peasant woman from an obscure Siberian village, knelt in the great square in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Petrograd, while the priests sprinkled holy water, and thousands of necks craned for a glimpse of her. On that day she became a full-fledged officer of the Russian army.
Her command, 250 young soldier women, stood at attention while three generals of high rank buckled on her sword, and, after their fashion with brother officers, kissed her on both cheeks.
On each girl’s sleeve were the same distinguishing marks—red “for the Revolution that must not die,” and black “for a death that is preferable to dishonor for Russia.”
Equipped as infantry, fully armed, rolled blanket-coats swung across their shoulders, the first woman’s regiment in the world left Petrograd.
At their head was Bachkarova, the peasant. Beside her marched Marya Skridlova, the aristocrat, aide-de-camp, tall and patrician, daughter of a famous Russian admiral.
Bearing the banner of white and gold came Orlova, big and strong, head erect, and deep, serious gray eyes looking straight ahead at a vision in which the cheering multitudes in the streets of Petrograd played no part.
Late on a dreary, rainy night, I dropped off a troop train at the military station of Malodetchna, and prepared to wait for dawn to show me the way to the headquarters of the Women’s Battalion. I had that day plowed through miles of trenches, with the red mud oozing over my shoe-tops.
Here were women on their way to battle, and just a fraction of the women’s army soon to be. They were housed in two pine-board sheds, sandwiched between a dug-out full of Austrian prisoners and the barracks of a battalion of Cossack cavalry.
I found myself in a building a hundred or more feet long, with steep roofs sloping to the floor, and just enough width to allow for two shelves eight feet deep and an aisle between. Above my head, hanging from the rafters, was a jungle of gas masks and wet laundry, boots, water bottles, and kit bags. Beside each girl lay her rifle. At the far end of the barracks we stopped before one of the brown bundles. The man’s head and man’s shoulders of Bachkarova arose from the blanket. Next to her, another bundle stirred, and Marya Skridlova, aide-de-camp, moved over and invited me to come up.
Soon the brown bundles were all up and shedding unbleached muslin pajamas for their soldier uniforms. Once dressed, they tumbled out into the rain, and lined up with their brother soldiers from the other barracks to fill their pails with hot water from the common kitchen.
We ate our breakfast sitting on the edge of a bunk, slicing off hunks of black bread, and washing it down with tea from tin cups. Bachkarova sat next to me, eating sardines from a can and wiping her greasy fingers on the front of her blouse.
The routine of the day began with the reading of the army regulations. The women soldiers had chosen to submit to the stern discipline of the Russian army in the days before the Revolution. The ceaseless rain made drilling in the field impossible, but within the narrow limits of the barracks they marched back and forth for several hours a day.
Very soon one soldier girl after another detached herself from the mass and became to me an individual—a warm, personal human being. Bit by bit I gathered their stories. Little by little I discovered some of the forces that had pushed them out of their individual ruts into the mad maelstrom of war.
There were stenographers and dressmakers among them, servants and factory hands, university students and peasants, and a few who in the days before the war had been merely parasites. Several were Red Cross nurses, and one, the oldest member of the regiment, a woman of 48 whose closely cropped hair was turning gray, had exchanged a lucrative medical practice for a soldier’s uniform.
Many had joined the regiment because they sincerely believed that the honor and even the existence of Russia were at stake, and nothing but a great human sacrifice could save her. Some, like Bachkarova, had simply come to the point where anything was better than the dreary drudgery and the drearier waiting of life as they lived it.
There was a Cossack girl from the Ural Mountains, 15 years old. Her father and two brothers had been killed early in the war. Soon after, her mother, who was a nurse, had died from the effects of a German bomb thrown upon the hospital where she was working. The girl was absolutely alone in the world.
“What else is left for me?” she asked, with a pathetic droop to her strong young shoulders.
There was a lonesome little girl, named Leana, whose big brown eyes, wide and questioning, will always come back to me when I think of women and war. She was a Pole, and had fled from Warsaw before the advancing Germans. She was 16 years old, and far more hungry for love than for killing. She had the ways of a child, and, though we had no common language but that of the heart, we became fast friends. She used to slip her arm around me, and we would walk up and down the barracks, never speaking, but understanding quite as well as if we had many words. Sometimes, when I looked at her and realized that all her potentialities would be wasted out there on the battlefield, my eyes filled with tears.
They had come for many reasons, these women soldiers, but all of them were walking out to meet death with grim confidence that it awaited them there in the dark forests a few miles distant.
If there seemed to be any fear of them forgetting it—if girlish spirits ran too high in the barracks—Bachkarova quickly recalled it.
“You may all be dead in three days,” she would say. And soon afterward the Volga boat song or the rollicking peasant tune they were singing would change to a deep, melancholy mass, with all the tragedy of the moment and of millions of other moments packed into it.
On a cord around each girl’s neck was a collection of sacred medals, and a tiny cloth pouch whose contents I speculated upon.
“What will you do if you are made prisoner?” I asked Skridlova one day.
“No one of us will ever be taken alive,” she answered, and pulled out the little gray pouch. “It is the strongest and surest kind there is,” she said.
Orlova seldom spoke. From morning till night she went about the barracks, doing something for someone. I had no soldier coat to wrap about me at night, and Orlova spread a couple of tents over the hard boards. When the black bread came from the commissary, Orlova saw to it that we had our soldier ration—two pounds and a half a day, more than any of us could eat; and just at the moment when I was most nearly petrified with cold, she was sure to appear with a pail of hot tea.
At noon and at night, when two ragged little children from a nearby village came to beg the “leavings,” Orlova always managed to have an extra lump of sugar for each of them.
She was born for service, for mothering, for doing; but her solemn face, almost grim in its crude strength, remained fixed on her vision of death, and her thoughts were all for Holy Russia.
Day and night the rain pounded upon the low roof, and all that week our feet and boots were soaked beyond all drying. It was bitterly cold in the barracks, and the odors of cheese and sausage purchased at the soldiers’ store mingled with the smell of wet clothes and greased boots.
Marya Skridlova acquired a severe cough, and her cheeks were flushed with fever.
“I am afraid I will never make a soldier,” she said one day, with a wry little smile; “I am too demoiselle.”
I recalled the first time I saw her. It was in the barracks at Petrograd, the day she joined the regiment. She still wore her Red Cross nurse’s uniform, and the lovely oval of her face was framed with braids of soft brown hair. She was 25 years old, spoke five languages, was pretty, accomplished, and popular. Apparently she had everything to live for, but she was quite certain that her hours on earth were numbered.
“Why did you come?” I asked her.
“Because I felt I had to,” she answered. “What else is there for us to do? The soul of the army is sick, and we must heal it. I have come, and I shall stay until they give me a cross—a metal one or a wooden one,” she added.
Every night Bachkarova announced that tomorrow they would leave for the trenches, and every night the announcement brought a cheer. In the morning they packed their kit bags and rolled up their blanket coats; at night they were still in the same place.
Late one Sunday afternoon Bachkarova and Skridlova were summoned to staff headquarters. When they returned, they brought the news for which every girl in the barracks was longing. The Battalion was ordered to march at three o’clock next morning.
Gas masks and wet laundry, water bottles and boots, trench shovels and kit bags, came down from the rafters in one mad scramble.
Before the dawn had come everything was in place, and they trudged away through the rain and mud of Malodetchna, singing a Cossack marching song to lighten their packs and their spirits.
All the world knows how they went into battle shouting a challenge to the deserting Russian troops. All the world knows that six of them stayed behind in the forest, with wooden crosses to mark their soldier graves. Ten were decorated for bravery in action with the Order of St. George, and 20 others received medals. Twenty-one were seriously wounded, and many more than that received contusions. Only 50 remained to take their places with the men in the trenches when the battle was over.
The battle lasted for two days. Among the pines and the birches of the dusky forests they fought. With 40 loyal men soldiers, they became separated from the main body of the troops, and took four rows of trenches before they were obliged to retreat for lack of reinforcements.
I heard the story from the lips of 20 of the wounded women. No one of them can tell exactly what happened.
“We were carried away in the madness of the moment,” one of them said. “It was all so strange and exciting, we had no time to think about being afraid.”
“No,” said Marya Skridlova; “I was not afraid. None of us were afraid. We expected to die, so we had nothing to fear.”
Marya Skridlova got her Cross of St. George, and she came back to Petrograd walking with a limp as a result of shell shock. “There were wounded Germans in a hut,” she said. “We were ordered to take them prisoners. They refused to be taken. We had to throw hand grenades in and destroy them. No; war is not easy for a woman.”
I asked about Leana.
“She was one of the six to stay behind,” Marya Skridlova answered. “She was wounded in 16 places, and died in the hospital after hours of frightful suffering.”
There were nearly 5,000 women soldiers in Russia at the beginning of the fall of 1917. All over the country essentially the same in Moscow, in Kieff [Kiev], in Odessa essentially the same they were learning to load, aim, and fire.
Bachkarova’s little band in its first mad charge was but the advance guard. The making of women soldiers became a business. People no longer followed the uniformed woman about the streets of Petrograd.
In Moscow I saw a thousand of them, representing all spheres of life from the peasant to the princess. In the officers’ school, 20 girls were being trained to take their command. They were sleeping on boards, and getting used to soup and kasha, and all believed their day in the trenches was close at hand.
Soon after the fall of Riga, Bachkarova left the hospital in Petrograd, where she had been slowly recovering, and went to Moscow to lead a fresh battalion of girls to the defense of the new front.
Out on the Finland road, not far from Petrograd, 1,100 of them, after a stiff course in training in barracks, had a month of camp life to harden them for service in the trenches. These girls were to see their only fighting in the defense of the Winter Palace in the Bolshevik Revolution, and none was killed.
When the Cossack troops of General Korniloff [Lavr Kornilov] prepared to march on Petrograd, the Provisional Government took stock of the forces at its command.
Prince Kudasheff [Nikolai Kudashev], who had been drilling the women soldiers, reported there was not a better disciplined or more thoroughly prepared unit in the Russian army.
Bachkarova’s adventurous battalion took no thought of age or physical condition; but these later soldiers submitted to a rigid examination, conformed to all of the requirements of the men of the army, and were asked to adhere to a rigid moral code. They had their own transport and medical service, signal corps, machine-gun company, mitrailleuses, and a scouting detachment of 20 Cossack women.
Such was the woman soldier as Destiny delivered her into a startled world.
Her movement was a failure, not because of any shortcomings on the part of the women, but because it was based upon a false premise. It assumed that the Russian soldier left the trenches because he was a coward. He was not: he was merely a disillusioned man who had lost all his old gods, and had not yet found new ones worthy of his faith.
Women can fight. Women have the courage, the endurance, even the strength, for fighting. Vera has demonstrated that, and if necessary all the other women of the world can demonstrate it. The issue is no longer a question of whether Vera can fight, but whether Vera should fight. She will fight whenever and wherever she feels she must. She is a potential soldier, and will continue to be until the muddled old world is remade upon a basis of human freedom and safety.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Classic Dispatches | The Battalion of Death
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