Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Women's Death Batallion

While researching the Russian Revolution, I came upon a photo of the Women's Death Battalion.  Intrigued by the image and accompanying article, I was determined to include their story in my trilogy.  Unfortunately the late 80's was in still the information Stone Age and I struggled to flesh out their story.  It was not until the advent of internet that I gathered enough data to incorporate the Battalion into my saga.
Women's Death Battalion

I chose to tell the story of the Women's Battalion through my character Kataya.  The groundwork for her enlisting in the Death Battalion was laid early in my the second book, Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia when Kataya expressed her budding belief in feminist power. 
* * *
“Who-needs-men?”  Kataya’s attempt at humor died without eliciting a response.  The women surrounding her just stared at the ground.  “It-is-true.  We-have-no-need of-men,” Kataya said again, not ready to give up on her profound statement.
* * *
Once war with Germany begun, her father Boris traded his vodka stores for several dozen Mauser rifles to protect Hutava.  He attempted to instruct his eldest daughter, Akulina, in the use of the weapon, but she failed miserably. 
German Mauser 98
Undaunted by her older sister's feeble attempt Kataya shouldered the fallen weapon and faithfully mimicked her father's instructions.
* * *
“Let-me-try, Papa.”  Before Boris could reply, Kataya lifted the rifle from the ground.  It was heavier than she thought; yet she smoothly raised it to her shoulder.  Kataya planted both feet firmly in the soft earth, placed her cheek against the cool wooden stock and peered through the sights.  Slowly she squeezed the trigger, relishing in the cold, metallic click of the firing pin.  Still looking straight ahead she lowered the rifle, quickly slapped the bolt open, injected the imaginary bullet and slammed it closed.  Again she brought the rifle up to click off another round.  The Hutawa defense force had its first recruit
* * *
At the age of fourteen, Kataya had her nephew Stefan cut her hair and then ran off to join the Russian Army.  Even though she was small and young, her stamina and weapons' skill won her a spot in the newly formed Women's Death Battalion, a women's unit conceived by combat veteran,  Maria Bochkareva.  Sergeant Bochkareva had convinced the Russian Provisional Government to create an all female combat military force, who by their spirit de core would bolster the morale of the collapsing German front.

Kataya's stature always placed her in the front row
After several months of training, Kataya served at the front as a sniper.  Her experience in her one and only battle did not fair well.
* * *
Mercifully, Kataya could not remember everything.  Tragically, she remembered enough.  Kataya can easily recall the excitement of the train ride west and the march to the front lines and how gooseflesh appeared on her arms when Maria Boshkareva announced the women would lead the assault and male battalions would be supporting their flanks.  Kataya can still feel the rush of adrenaline as she climbed to the dirt parapet with the other sharpshooters and prepared to protect her comrades.  She remembers seeing Mademoiselle Skridlova’s banner leading the way and the utter confusion that followed.  Her mind holds only bits and pieces of bursting shells, screams, bodies snared in the barbed wire like flies in a web, and her own body frozen in terror.
* * *
After suffering a concussion from a shell explosion, Kataya convalesced and returned to her barracks where she learned the cost of war.
* * *

Kataya went over to her old bunk and threw her kit atop the straw mattress.  She took a deep breath, turned to the comrade seated on the next bunk and asked the question to which she feared the answer.  “Where are the others?”

“There are no others.”
* * *
The Women's Death Battalion made their final stand guarding the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks.  Out numbered and outgunned the women were forced to surrender.  Kataya spent her last days as a member of the battalion being chastised by a commissar before he shooed her off like a petulant child.

Eventually, the Red Army accepted Kataya and many other women into the combat arms during the Russian Civil War.  Two decades later, during the Great Patriotic War, women followed in the Death Battalions footsteps by serving not only as riflemen, but also as tankers, gunners and pilots.
Snipers from the Byelorussian Front