During WW1, most countries did not allow women to fight. They could be nurses, take over the jobs of the men at war, send them luxury food and items, and help out in other ways, but they weren’t allowed to be soldiers. However, there were some women who slipped through the cracks.

Dorothy Lawrence was an English woman who posed as a man, so she could fight in WW1. In 1915, she decided to enter the war zone, through France, as a freelance war correspondent. She was swiftly arrested by French police and told to leave the war zone.

She returned to Paris and befriended two English soldiers in a café. She saw this as an opportunity to try to get the story she wanted. Dorothy convinced the soldiers to smuggle her a khaki uniform, piece by piece. Meanwhile, she practiced transforming herself into a male. When she finally made it to the front line, under the fake name Denis Smith, who was a private, she was just doing work within the trenches.

Dorothy Lawrence as herself (left), and dressed up as a male (right).

She only lasted ten days in the trenches. The toll of the job, combined with the fact that she had to hide her true identity, caused her to gain a rheumatic condition. She feared that if she were to need medical help, her true gender may be revealed, and anyone that helped her along the way would be in danger, so she handed herself into the commander, who promptly placed her under military arrest.

She was interrogated by many different people, in many different places. She was eventually allowed to go back to England; however, she wasn’t allowed to write about her experiences. The British Army was embarrassed that an ordinary journalist, that was a woman, managed to infiltrate their trenches, and they didn’t want the average person to know about it. Despite this, she tried to write an article for ‘The World Wide Magazine’ but had to scrap it upon instruction from the War Office. Later, after the war was over, she did write a book about her escapade, however, it was heavily censored by the War Office.

Unlike Britain, some other countries allowed women to fight, legally. Serbia was one of them, although, the large majority of the Serbian army still consisted of men. Milunka Savić was a soldier in the Serbian army during the Balkan wars, and World War One. She is a Serbian war heroine and the most decorated woman in all of history. She was awarded the French Legion of Honour twice, Russian Cross of St. George, the British medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, the Serbian Miloš Obilić medal, and many more. She was the sole female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre with the gold palm attribute for service in World War I.

Milunka Savić, Serbian war heroine.

The Russians also had some women fight for them in WW1. Maria Leontievna Bochkareva wanted to fight when WW1 begun, however, she was rejected when she went to enlist. She managed to join the army by getting permission from the Tsar at the time, Tsar Nicholas II. In 1917, in the February revolution, the Tsar was abducted. Maria proposed the creation of an all-female battalion to Mikhail Rodzianko, one of the leaders of the February Revolution. The Army commander approved her proposal, and the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death was born.

Initially, this battalion attracted around 2 000 women, all of whom were eager to fight, however, the commander's strict discipline drove all but 300 away. These women fought alongside the men, on the front line. The creation of this battalion inspired other women from all around the country to seek permission to make their own battalions. The 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion was the second women’s battalion to be created in Russia, followed by the 2nd Moscow Women's Battalion of Death, and the 3rd Kuban Women's Shock Battalion.

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva, Female Russian soldier.

In early 1918, the Bolsheviks (the Red Army) learnt that Maria had been aiding the White Army, and she was scheduled to be executed; however, she was saved by a soldier who had served with her in 1915. He convinced the Bolsheviks to pardon her, and let her leave the country. She lived in the United States for approximately 3 months, before going back to Russia to try and organise more units.

She arrived in Archangel in August 1918, and attempted to organise another battalion, but failed. She tried to organise a medical battalion in Tomsk, in April 1919, but was caught, and captured by the Bolsheviks. She was interrogated for four months, before finally being executed.


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