Young Girls Fighting on the Russian Front

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]

Stories are filtering in from the various belligerent countries telling of actual fighting in the ranks by women. There are numerous authenticated reports from Serbia of women who are doing the work of soldiers, and there is official confirmation of the promotion of Slavia Tomitch, a young Serbian girl, who enlisted in the regiment of Wojo Tankositch, and who is credited with being the instigator of the plot, which resulted in the assassination of the Austrian Grand Duke. This girl fought through the Serbian campaigns, was twice wounded, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, Martha Malko, the wife of a Russian subofficer, fought beside her husband until he was killed and she was taken prisoner by the Germans. She is now interned at Schoulen.

A correspondent of the Novoe Vremya tells an interesting story of the experiences of twelve young Russian girls who fought in the ranks as soldiers of the line. The story, as related by one of their number, was also authenticated by the Petrograd correspondent of The London Times, who wrote as follows:

"She was called Zoya Smirnov. She came to our staff straight from the advanced positions, where she had spent fourteen months wearing soldier's clothes and fighting with the foe on even terms with the men.

"Zoya Smirnov was only 16 years old. Closely cropped hair gave her the appearance of a boy, and only a thin girlish voice involuntarily betrayed her sex.

"At the beginning Zoya was somewhat shy; she carefully chose her words and replied confusedly to our questions; but later she recovered and told us her entire history, which brought tears to the eyes of many a case-hardened veteran who heard it.

"She and her friends decided to go to the war on the eighth day of mobilization—i. e., at the end of July, 1914; and early in August they succeeded in realizing their dream.

"Exactly twelve of them assembled; and they were all nearly the same age and from the same high school. Almost all were natives of Moscow, belonging to the most diversified classes of society, but firmly united in the camaraderie of school life.

We decided to run away to the war at all costs, said Zoya. It was impossible to run away from Moscow, because we might have been stopped at the station. It was therefore necessary to hire izvozchiks and ride out to one of the suburban stations through which the military echelons were continually passing. We left home early in the morning without saying a word to our parents and departed. It was a bit terrible at first; we were very sorry for our fathers and mothers, but the desire to see the war and ourselves kill the Germans overcame all other sentiments.

"And so they attained the desired object. The soldiers treated the little patriots quite paternally and properly, and having concealed them in the cars took them off to the war. A military uniform was obtained for each; they donned these and unobstructed arrived at the Austrian frontier, where they had to detrain and on foot proceed to Lemberg. Here the regimental authorities found out what had happened, but not being able to persuade the young patriots to return home allowed them to march with the regiment.

"The regiment traversed the whole of Galicia; scaled the Carpathians, incessantly participating in battle, and the girls never fell back from it a step, but shared with the men all the privations and horrors of the march and discharged the duties of ordinary privates, since they were taught to shoot and were given rifles.

"Days and months passed.

"The girls almost forgot their past, they hardly responded to their feminine names, for each of them had received a masculine surname, and completely mingled with the men. The soldiers themselves mutually guarded the girls and observed each other's conduct.

"The battles in which the regiment engaged were fierce and sanguinary, particularly in the Spring, when the Germans brought up their heavy artillery to the Carpathians and began to advance upon us with their celebrated phalanx. Our troops underwent a perfect hell and the young volunteers endured it with them.

"Was it terrible?" an officer asked Zoya. "Were you afraid?"

"I should say so! Who wouldn't be afraid? When for the first time they began to fire with their heavy guns, several of us couldn't stand it and began to cry out."

"What did you cry out?"

"We began to call 'Mamma.' Shura was the first to cry, then Lida. They were both 14 years old, and they remembered their mothers all the time. Besides, it seems that I also cried out as well. We all cried. Well, it was frightful even for the men."

During one of the Carpathian engagements, at night, one of the twelve friends, the sixteen-year-old Zina Morozov, was killed outright by a shell. It struck immediately at her feet, and the entire small body of the girl was torn into fragments.

Nevertheless, we managed to collect her remains [Zoya stated with a tender inflexion in her voice]. At dawn the firing died down and we all that is, all the remaining high school volunteers assembled near the spot where Zina had perished, and somehow collected her bones and laid them in a hastily dug grave. In the same grave we laid also all Zina's things, such as she had with her. The grave was then filled up and upon the cross which we erected above it the following inscription was written: "Volunteer of such and such a regiment, Zina Morozov, 16 years old, killed in action on such and such a date in such and such year."

On the following day we were already far away, and exactly where Zina's grave is I don't remember well. I only know that it is in the Carpathians at the foot, of a steep rocky incline.

"After the death of Zina other of her friends were frequently wounded in turn—Nadya, Zhena, and the fourteen-year-old Shura. Zoya herself was wounded twice the first time in the leg, and the second time in the side. Both wounds were so serious that Zoya was left unconscious on the battlefield, and the stretcher-bearers subsequently discovered her only by accident. After the second wound she was obliged to lie at a base hospital for over a month. On being discharged she again proceeded to the positions, endeavoring to find her regiment, but on reaching the familiar trenches she could no longer find a single regimental comrade, nor a single fellow-volunteer; they had all gone to another front, and in the trenches sat absolute strangers. The girl lost her presence of mind, and for the first time during the entire campaign began to weep, thus unexpectedly betraying her age and sex. unfamiliar fellow-countrymen gazed with amazement upon the strange young non-commissioned officer with the Cross of St. George and medal on her breast, who resembled a stripling and finally proved to be a girl. But the girl had with her all necessary documents, not excepting a certificate giving her the right to wear the St. George's Cross received for a brave and dashing reconnoissance, and distrustful glances promptly gave place to others full of respect.

"Zoya was finally induced to abandon the trenches, at least for the time being, and to try to engage in nursing at one of the advanced hospitals. She is now working at the divisional hospital of the N –––– division, in the village of K., ten versts from the Austrian town of Z.

"From her remaining friends whom she left with the regiment which went to another front Zoya has no news whatever.

"What has befallen them? Do these amazing Russian girls continue their disinterested and heroic service to the country, or do graves already hold them, similar to that which was dug for the remnants of poor little Zina, who perished so gloriously in the distant Carpathians?

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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The Headlong Fury