The Woman’s Battalion of Death
I don’t know what the other women thought about it all. There is a lot of big talk, the plans in high pitch with the postures of courage, but eventually the troop’s ability to follow orders cracked, then broke at the early tinges of dawn. Vacillating, the troops are first persuaded, then suddenly they break stride and turn back with words of doubt and lies about prudent action, they are a miserable lot. My sister and I find it unthinkable, intolerable but the sun creeps further into the sky and no battalion leaves the trench to fight the Germans.
‘We’re ready to go, why don’t they ask us?’ her whisper reaches me, but I don’t answer. There is a chain of command. There is so many doubters that women should be here at all that I fear to disturb the order. Soon the men will rally and at that time they will have to accept that we are part of the offensive.
The Colonel, the Company Commanders and a few braver soldiers try to persuade the regiment to go over the top. Their strong words fall into the mud, while the slackers, for that’s all they are, phrased their arguments as if they are only contributing to the decision, as though their fear isn’t rampant.
The morning mist has almost vanished. The artillery fire slackens, the debate continues. The time is now! I want to weep in frustration. Don’t you see it, the time is now, we cannot wait. We will fail if we wait.
Pusillanimous conduct on both flanks and my Battalion is not even included in the discussion, I could barely stand it. I pace back and forth, my features more grim, my readiness and that of my women never more evident, but my blood could boil for all they care. The decision is not mine to make, ours the ‘tender’ battalion is to be kept safe, gentlemen’s honor. And yet it is they that seek their mother’s aprons.
Minutes roll into hours, the order is given for more artillery fire to bombard the enemy, but there is no sign of decision from my fellow officers. These very men that gave their words of honor to attack; now have faint souls that draw back for fear of death.
The day more than half gone and the men have made no decision. Finally about seventy-five officers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ivanov, come to me to enter the ranks of my Battalion for a joint advance. The move is made by a true leader, he knows how we feel, he knows we are ready. And from the ranks of the other squads another three hundred intelligent and gallant soldiers follow. We are now a thousand. Each officer is provided with a rifle, our line is formed. It is arranged so that men and women alternate. My sister has fallen into the line, I’ve lost sight of her but I have all my soldiers to command and my sister must take her place as one of them. We are ready to advance. In my heart I believe that shame alone would carry the rest of the soldiers over in our defense. They would not let us perish in No Man’s Land.
Around me the faces are pure and noble and shone with purpose, my women, I am so proud. And I am proud of my sister, so young but so brave. The offensive has to be launched soon, before the front deteriorates to a state of impasse.
Colonel Ivanov telephones his decision. His gamble, some might think and I find doubt in his face so I stand straighter as if that could tell him that he is right to trust us, that we will fight.
As it became apparent that we are ready, those soldiers who have not joined us break into jeers.
“Woman and officers! They are faking. They’ll never go over the top. They don’t even know how to use a rifle.”
“They’ll break and run. Just watch.”
How I want to reply, but I would not, could not make the situation worse. I grit my teeth in fury. They have to follow us, they have to. I believe, and yet they have not proved themselves this day.
The signal is given, and more than a few of us made the sign of the cross as we leapt out of the trenches. For the country and for freedom, we move against the machine gun fire, marching steadily against the hail of bullets.
Every step carries death with it. Every mind has the same thought.
Will they follow?
Every breath, though a fleeting instant, seems an eternity. Already there are fallen soldiers, women and men alike, equal in the hail of bullets, and yet no troops come after us. We look back, every now and then, as their heads stuck out from the trenches, only to pop back down. Are they still wondering if we are in earnest? Do they think it is a ruse? Perhaps they are right, how could a mere thousand men and women attack after a two days’ bombardment on a front of several versts? It is impossible. And yet the ground under my boots says we are doing it.
Our boots, the same as the boots of our male soldiers bog with mud, slip as we step from the greasy soil wet from rains and blood. Our boots carry us, keep us steady, encase our feet and our forward motion. I dare suggest, our boots were as important as our rifles. Without either we are not soldiers at all but mere fodder for the machine of war. But as more of my battalion fell, thoughts of boots and rifles and training are lost to the realization that we are still alone out here, that the troops in the trench have not joined us, that we had not shamed them into the battle. I cannot describe to you how it feels at that moment. The sensation of being lost, the betrayal that made my veins run icy, that being right made no difference, that we could die this very day froze our minds but it doesn’t stop our boots. They keep moving unless a bullet takes one of us down. The fallen seem less dead than we who are upright and moving. Our hearts break but our boots go on.
Dauntless is called for, and dauntless of heart and firm of step, we keep the line unbroken, each of us heartened by the presence of the others. We move into the shadows, further into No Man’s Land, and only the fire of explosions reveal our profiles to those of our boys in the trenches. Finally their hearts must have moved. We hear a great commotion in the rear. At last. They are awake at last, and they bound forwards with shouts, numberless bodies climb over the top and in a few moments the front stretches to our left and right to become a swaying mass of soldiers, our regiment, then more of the Corps until almost everyone is on the move.
We swarm forward and overwhelm the first German line, then the second. Our regiment alone captures two thousand prisoners. But there is poison waiting in the second line of trenches. There lie cases of vodka and beer, and the troops throw themselves at it, not seeing it for the enemy’s trick that it is. My regiment of women fight to destroy it, but the common man is bent on pouring it down their gullet.
“Are you insane?” I plead. “We must take the third line yet, and then the Ninth Corps will come to relieve us and keep up the drive.” Few listen. The precious opportunity pours away, our blow is only a tap and not the beginning of a general offensive.
But the men succumb to the bottle. And there are wounded to care for. Many of my women were killed outright, many were wounded. But they are stoic. I can see now, my sister, lying in a pool of blood. I run to her and seek to aid her, but it is too late. Blood pours from her wounds from bullets and shrapnel while she smiles faintly her last smile.
Just before she dies, she tells me,
“My dear, it’s nothing.”
And perhaps she is right. No one will know of the Woman’s Battalion of Death, the most defining moment of my life will be ignored and forgotten, another page of history too raw to be written fully. Already it feels as though it never happened. But I will remember.