“There have been a number of women’s brigades that have served in wartime. Here are a few of them.”
IT WAS IN the spring of 1916, with the world’s eyes transfixed on the bloodbath on the Western Front, that a coalition of Irish nationalists seized the city of Dublin and proclaimed the country’s independence from Great Britain. The disturbance, which began on April 24, 1916, would go down in history as the Easter Rising.
Four four days, 12,000 insurgents from the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army occupied the capital as British soldiers and local police battled to regain control. The two rebel armies were joined by a third outfit — an all-female paramilitary unit known as the Cumann na mBan or the “Irish Woman’s Council.”
Formed in 1914 to “advance the cause of Irish liberty,” the 10,000-strong resistance movement trained young women volunteers with pistols and rifles in preparation for an armed confrontation with the hated British Empire. Sixty of its members served as nurses, messengers and even snipers during the 100-hour rebellion.
One of the group’s leaders, a 47-year-old Anglo-Irish aristocrat named Constance Georgine Markievicz, famously gunned down an unarmed city constable as fighting raged throughout the city. Dozens of Cumann na mBan soldiers were captured in the final hours of the disturbance, which was brutally crushed by British soldiers on April 28; all but 12 were released before the end of May.
For her leading role in the insurrection, Markievicz was condemned to death by firing squad; the sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Amazingly, she was released the following year as part of a general amnesty. Markievicz would go on to represent Dublin in the 1918 U.K. general election, becoming the first female candidate to win a seat in the House of Commons. But despite her victory, as a member of the Sinn Fein party, she boycotted the British legislature. The Cumann na mBan, which would later take part in the Irish Civil War, was branded as radical by the government of the Irish Free State and eventually outlawed. The organization went underground but would assert its presence decades later during sectarian violence that rocked Northern Ireland.
As fascinating as their story is, the Cumann na mBan are neither history’s first nor last female military organization. There have been a number of women’s brigades that have served in combat during wartime. Here are a few of them.
Russia’s “Battalion of Death”
When Russia declared war on Germany in 1914, a 26-year-old peasant girl from Novgorod named Maria Bochkareva was determined to take her place in the front lines with the men. After successfully petitioning Tsar Nicolas II for special permission to join the Imperial Army, Bochkareva was assigned to the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion, where she was decorated for bravery under fire on three separate occasions. Following the 1917 Romanov abdication, Russia’s new provisional government appointed Bochkareva to head up a new female army unit — the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. An estimated 2,000 volunteers from across the country flocked to Bochkareva’s side to enlist in the ground-breaking brigade. After being rigorously trained by their newly minted commander, the Battalion of Death charged into battle during the 1917 Kerensky Offensive. Some reports held that the unit fought tenaciously; other accounts suggested it was ineffective. Regardless, Russian women were spellbound and soon began raising their own unofficial copycat battalions. Units sprung up in Moscow, Petrograd and Kuban. Despite the army’s reluctance to throw these women’s battalions into the thick of the fighting, some of the outfits served in auxiliary or reserve roles behind the front lines. Although the units were disbanded when the Bolsheviks seized power later that year, Bochkareva would be approached by the anti-communist White Army to lead an all-new women’s regiment in the widening Russian Civil War. Captured en route to a rendezvous with her counter-revolutionary contacts, Bochkareva was sentenced to death. An old comrade who had defected to the Red Army managed to arrange for her release in 1918. Bochkareva subsequently fled to the United States where she became a national celebrity and an outspoken advocate for Western intervention in Russia. She even met with President Woodrow Wilson to make the case. By 1920, Bochkareva was back in her homeland to resume the fight against the communists. Captured once again, she was shot by firing squad on May 16 of that year.
The Night Witches
The idea of female fighting units didn’t die out in Russia with Maria Bochkareva’s execution. In fact, more than 800,000 women served in the Red Army in the Second World War. But it was the trailblazing aviator Marina Raskova who founded history’s first female combat flying squadrons: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, famously known as the “Night Witches.” One hundred pilots served in the units, which collectively made up the larger Aviation Group 122. All told, the formations flew 30,000 combat missions during the war and produced two aces. The Western Allies also had female flying corps — the American Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (the “WASPs”) and the Commonwealth Air Transport Auxiliary famously ferried fighters and bombers from home front factories to the front lines throughout World War Two. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, none of these women aviators saw combat.
Poland’s Women’s Legion
At least one female brigade bore arms for Poland following its independence at the end of World War One. The Ochotnicza Legia Kobiet (OLK) or “Volunteer Legion of Women” first emerged to help the struggling new nation fight in its 1919 conflict against the independent Ukraine. Established by a 35-year-old army courier named Aleksandra Zagórska who lost her young son in heavy fighting at the Battle of Lviv, the OLK would later grow to more than 2,500 volunteers. The unit also saw action against the Red Army at the pivotal 1920 Battle of Warsaw, also known as “the Miracle on the Vistula.” For her role in these victories, Zagórska received her nation’s top military decorations including Knight’s Cross of Order of Polonia Restituta, the Cross of Independence with Swords and two Gold Cross of Valour.
Nurses from the Sky
While the 46 volunteers of Portugal’s Enfermeiras Pára-quedistas or “Parachute Nurse” platoon didn’t fight per se, they did serve in combat during that country’s 13-year war in Angola, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique. Inspired by the paratroop nurses of the French Red Cross, members of the outfit treated wounded soldiers close to the action, often evacuating casualties while under heavy fire. The unit was disbanded in 1974 when Portugal gave up its overseas colonies Africa.
The Dahomey Amazons
Unlike Portugal’s airborne nurse platoon, the Dahomey Amazons of West Africa were anything but angles of mercy. The elite female army, which was named by Europeans after the mythical woman warriors of Ancient Greece, numbered 6,000 troops, or roughly a third of the Kingdom of Dahomey’s military. And far from being an auxiliary corps, each of fighters in the unit was a ruthless killer. Recruited as young girls from the female population of the Fon tribe of what is now the Republic of Benin, the brigade, which were known locally as N’Nonmiton or “our mothers,” was founded in the early 18th Century as a bodyguard for the small nation’s ruler. Legend holds that the monarch drew the earliest conscripts his vast harem. By the mid-1800s, the Dahomey kings were turning the Amazons loose on rival tribes. Hardened by years of rigorous physical drill and close combat, the warriors were merciless on the battlefield, often decapitating their vanquished foes or selling their captives into slavery. Armed with clubs, spears, European muskets and later even American-made Winchester repeating rifles acquired from foreign traders, the Dahomey Amazons were reportedly more reliable than their male counterparts. The army gained international recognition in the 1890s when France, keen on colonizing the region, invaded the small territory. At first dismissive of the N’Nonmiton, French soldiers soon learned to fear and respect their female foes. Despite being massively outclassed by their machine gun-armed European adversaries, the Amazons fought bravely in several battles, but were finally decimated by a series of French bayonet charges at the 1892 Battle of Cana. The two-day clash led to the fall of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Amazons were disbanded never to serve again.
The Rani of Jhansi Regiment
Of the 43,000 expatriate Indian troops who joined the anti-British nationalist army in 1943, as many as 1,000 were women. The Japanese-backed legion, which fought the Allies in both the Burma and Imphal campaigns during the Second World War’s final year, assembled its female volunteers into what became known as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Named in honour of Lakshmibai, the the famous warrior queen of the 1857 Indian Rebellion against British rule, the outfit was raised in Japanese-occupied Singapore and trained as both nurses and guerrillas. The unit was eventually sent into action during the ill-fated Japanese invasion of north-eastern India in 1944. The regiment retreated with the rest of the Indian National Army through Burma where it eventually scattered. Many of its members returned to India after VJ Day to join the struggle for independence. In fact, one of the regiment’s top commanders, Janaki Athi Nahappan, became a leading figure in the post-war Indian National Congress party.
The Women Who Fight ISIS
Among the coalition of armed factions fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is the Yekineyen Jinen Ezidkhan (YJE), a female militia group committed to protecting Kurdish Yazidi women from the murderous Islamist movement. Founded in 2015 by former Iraqi pop singer Xate Shingali, the regiment is made up of survivors of ISIS’ bloody rampage through Kurdish territory. Numbering more than 100, the women’s Ezidkhan army, also known as the “Force of the Sun Ladies,” has joined the larger anti-ISIS Sinjar Alliance. As recently as November, the YJE was part of the successful multilateral onslaught against Islamic State forces in Northern Iraq. Supported by U.S. Special Forces and American, British and Canadian warplanes, the operation, known as the Sinjar Offensive, decimated 700 ISIS fighters in Nineveh Province. After securing the region, Sinjar Alliance units uncovered mass graves containing nearly 150 Yazidi civilians believed to have been butchered by Islamic State militants. In all, ISIS has murdered nearly 5,000 Yazidis since 2014.