Jessie Kenney and the Battalion of Death

Adam Baker, third-year History undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia delves into the 1917 Russian diary of suffragette, Jessie Kenney, and an account of a  military procession on the 13th of July when Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst met the ‘First Women’s Battalion of Death’, a newly formed group, led by the non-commissioned officer Maria Bochkarëva.

During Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1917 Russian expedition, Jessie Kenney met with the First Women’s Battalion of Death. The newly formed group, led by the non-commissioned officer Maria Bochkarëva, participated in a procession on the 13th of July. But why did a country in the grips of a bitter conflict decide to host such an elaborate event, and how did a women’s battalion come to exist in a country where many of its soldiers weren’t even full citizens?

Though Bochkarëva may have formed the first women’s battalion, this was certainly not the first time women had fought for Russia during the First World War. Russian women dug trenches, served as nurses and mechanics, and drove military vehicles. A few became pilots. Not all were satisfied with these roles, however. Some women secretly joined the front lines by enlisting as men. A select few (such as Bochkarëva) became officers, but those who promoted them were usually aware that they were women. Female combatants often outshone their male counterparts. Female soldiers were by definition enthusiastic volunteers, as only men were conscripted. Furthermore, women who had joined disguised as men had to display better discipline in order to avoid discovery. Bochkarëva carried this strictness over to her regiment, leading to 1700 of her original 2000 volunteers quitting. Her battalion was forbidden from showing ‘feminine’ qualities, such as having long hair or giggling.

The patriotism of the Russian women was admired by Kenney. In her unpublished memoir, she went as far as to call it “one of the greatest patriotic demonstrations being held during the revolution”1 – and Kenney had seen plenty of them during her tour. Kenney also noted the presence of a wounded soldier’s battalion, showing that the women were not the only patriots itching to get back to the war. The presence of the wounded battalion shows that the Russian spirit was uplifted by the Women’s Battalion, something that Alexander Kerensky had hoped for when they formed in March 1917. The Provisional Government decided that volunteer groups would reinvigorate front line troops who were becoming tired of the defensive war they were waging. Their patriotism would not have been lost on Emmeline Pankhurst, either. Her mission to Russia was also a patriotic one, encouraging the Russian people not to accept German treaties and to continue to fight alongside Britain. By 20 July 1917, just 7 days after this procession, all Russian women had gained the right to vote.

In October 1917, the Women’s Battalion was called to defend the Winter Palace. The 1000-strong battalion was unable to overcome the 40,000 Bolshevik soldiers, and they surrendered.

Further Reading:

  • Jessie Kenney Archive, Kenney Papers, University of East Anglia: KP/JK/4/1 Russian Diary available at the UEA Archives KP/JK/4/1 [Specific sub-files: KP/JK/4/1/1 Desk diary, 1917; KP/JK/4/1/6 The Price of Liberty, c. 1966 (unpublished memoir)]
  • ‘They fought for Russia: Female Soldiers of the First World War’ by Laurie Stoff. (From: A Soldier and a Woman. Edited by Gerard J. DeGroot and Corinna Peniston-Bird)

This blog is submitted as part of UEA’s Unboxed programme.

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2 thoughts on “Jessie Kenney and the Battalion of Death

  1. I recently wrote about the Battalion of Death on my blog, so I read this with interest. I had wondered how the meeting with Pankhurst came about. According to the 1918 Delineator magazine article about the battalion that I wrote about, the “no giggling” rule was not very strictly enforced! Unfortunately the writer was more interested in the women’s sex lives than in their qualities as soldiers.

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