In the course of my research about the Serbian army in WWI as I continue to paint my Strelets figures, I was surprised to have come across a number of examples of remarkable female soldiers who fought in combat roles for the Serbian army. It’s all the more surprising, perhaps, that at a time when in Great Britain the electoral franchise had not even been extended towards women, there were to be found numerous examples of brave and adventurous women soldiers serving in combat roles with the Serbians on the Balkans Front. Here are some of the more notable ones that I’ve discovered:
Captain Flora Sands:
The first Serbian female soldier that came to my attention was in fact a British woman fighting for the Serbian army, Captain Flora Sands. Even as a very young woman (she was something of a ‘tomboy’) she enjoyed riding, shooting and driving racing cars. Yet, for all that, this adventurous spirit eventually ‘took a job as a secretary’, which perhaps says something about the job opportunities for women at the time. Not to be denied a life of adventure, Flora joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the only quasi-military organisation for women in Britain at that time. This enabled her to travel to Serbia and Bulgaria during the 1912 First Balkan War.
At the time of the First World War in 1914, a ‘middle aged, chain-smoking’ Sands served with the Serbian Red Cross only to become separated from them during the desperate retreat through Albania the following year. She eventually joined up with the Serbian Army and enrolled as a private. Action soon saw her promoted through the ranks to Sergeant Major and, ultimately, Captain, until being badly wounded by a grenade whilst in the thick of hand-to-hand fighting during the Battle of Bitola. This effectively ended her front line military service.
Sands survived the war, married a fellow officer and settled in Serbia where, in true pioneering style, she was said to have driven Belgrade’s first taxi cab! She was awarded the Order of Karađorđe’s Star, Serbia’s highest civilian and military decoration. Only a few years ago, this English woman was still remembered in Serbia via the release of a postage stamp with her face upon it.
Sergeant Milunka Savić
The second woman I discovered was Sergeant Milunka Savić who was brought to my attention by my Serbian friend from Benno’s Figures Forum. She was an astonishingly brave and tough personality, possibly even the most decorated female soldier in recorded history!
Her enrolment is shrouded in some doubt but the most popular story states that it was a consequence of her responding to the enlistment call intended for her brother:
In 1913, her brother received call-up papers for mobilization for the Second Balkan War. She chose to go in his place—cutting her hair and donning men’s clothes and joining the Serbian army. She quickly saw combat and received her first medal and was promoted to corporal in the Battle of Bregalnica. Engaged in battle, she sustained wounds and it was only then, when recovering from her injuries in hospital, that her true gender was revealed, much to the surprise of the attending physicians…
It’s interesting to note that the means of her discovery (injuries sustained in combat) bears similarity to the experience of British female soldier Hannah Snell in the mid-17th century, who narrowly avoided a similar discovery by employing the services of a local doctor rather than the regimental surgeon.
At the time of her discovery by surgeons, she was already a decorated soldier who had been promoted and had experienced up to 10 engagements. Despite being a woman, therefore, Marshal Putnik agreed that she was to be retained as a valued combat soldier and Milunka Savic went on to commit further acts of valour.
…Typically for her, she ran through no-man’s land between the fronts throwing hand grenades, sprang into the Austrian trenches with a bayonet and – still alone – captured twenty (!!) soldiers.
This act won her the order of Karađorđe’s Star for the second time, (the first being gained after the Serbian victory at Kolubara). She would go on to be lavishly decorated by other Allied nations also, such as Britain, France and Russia. In the thick of the action, she was wounded nine times in total. There are numerous tales of her abilities and bravery. In one such tale, French officers had challenged her to demonstrate her skill with hand grenades only to witness Milunka confidently hit a bottle of cognac at 40 metres. The French must have been very confident she’d miss to have risked a bottle of cognac!
After the war, she was married and had a daughter, but soon divorced and, being illiterate, was forced to take a job as a cleaner in a bank. She fell on hard times, which were made even more difficult by her compassionate decision to care for three adopted orphaned girls. Standing up to the Nazis in WWII landed her 10 months in a concentration camp. As tough as ever, she and her girls survived and endured in poverty until, belatedly, she was recognised by the Yugoslav state and rehoused in small accommodation just prior to her death at 81 in the 1970s. With great ceremony, in 2013 she was buried in the Alley of the Greats cemetery in a service led by the Serbian president to be nationally recognised as a great Serbian war hero.
More on the remarkable Milunka Savic at the splendid Serbia, Land of Heroes blog.
Yet another to come to my attention was Sofija Jovanović, apparently she is sometimes referred to as the ‘Serbian Joan of Arc’. She was a graduate from Belgrade and had applied to volunteer for the infantry immediately after the outbreak of war. Like Milunka Savic, Sofija served initially in the Serbian Army using a man’s name – Sofronije Jovanović – and was soon in action in the early days of war in 1914. I am not entirely sure at which point her true gender was discovered, or in what manner, or even why she was retained. I am also unsure of her army rank but one photo shows her with an officer’s sword.
I do know that she served in the defence of Belgrade and, as with her sister soldiers Flora Sands and Milunka Savic, survived the horrifying, brutal retreat through Albania to achieve evacuation by the Allies. Rearmed and re-equipped, she fought with the Serbian army on the Salonika Front until Serbia’s final liberation in 1918.
I regret that my cursory research of mostly English Language sites has uncovered little more information than this. The images I have uncovered reveal both a smart and richly decorated officer (above) and a tough guerilla fighter (below). The latter picture is a postcard dated 1912 and therefore appears to suggest that Sofija was an experienced soldier and a known female combatant even before WWI, having been a veteran of the Balkan Wars 1912-13. In the postcard, she wears the traditional Serbian šajkača hat and opanci shoes. The rest of the uniform seems (although artificially colourised) to be a dark blue or black uniform. It appears to be the 1896 double-breasted kaporan or tunic. This could indicate she belonged to the 2nd ‘Ban’ or line reserve which was less likely to be equipped with the new single-breasted, olive-grey 1908 pattern familiar in the 1st Ban.
Sergeant Antonija Javornik (aka Natalija Bjelajac)
It would be remiss not to mention Antonija Javornik, aka Natalija Bjelajac, another woman whose combat achievements were heroic. I’m not entirely sure how it was that she became a combat soldier or was allowed to do so as woman; there is no suggestion of disguise so it’s possible that she simply made a kind of natural transition from army nurse to soldier. Unfortunately, I’ve only located the one picture and I have found it equally difficult to find out much about her that doesn’t require some translation from the Serbian. Consequently, I respectfully reproduce the following in its entirely from the English language Serbian history site – “Meet the Serbs“:
Natalija Bjelajac was the Serbian army sergeant and a nurse. However, her real name is Antonija Javornik. She was born in 1893 in Maribor, Slovenia, the city where she finished elementary education and left on the eve of the Balkan wars. Impressed by the stories of Uncle Martin, an officer and a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army who changed sides and became a Serbian soldier, Natalia decided to follow his footsteps and go to Serbia to help the Serbian people in his mission of liberation and unification of the southern Slavs. Just when she started to attend a course for nurses, the First Balkan War broke out. In this war, Antonija was a nurse in her uncle’s regiment. They both participated in the liberation of Kosovo and Metohija and the siege of Shkodra. In the Second Balkan War she already fought as a volunteer, with a gun in her hand. On one occasion, she captured an entire battery of Bulgarian soldiers and earned herself her first medal.
In World War I, Antonija fought alongside Serbian soldiers [at the battles of] Cer, Drina and Kolubara. She used a false name Natalija Bjelajac to protect her family in Maribor from the Austrian retaliation, in case of being captured by the enemy. In one of these battles she received another medal. Her uncle Martin died heroically In the Battle of Cer, but Antonija continued to fight with even greater zeal. In the battles on Kaimakchalan (12-30. September 1916), Antonija managed to capture 30 Bulgarian soldiers by herself, and was awarded once again. In breach of the Thessaloniki Front, on 15 September 1918, she had shown great courage, but was severely wounded in the leg and the chest. The wounds healed, but a shrapnel remained in her leg for the rest of her life as a memory of passing through the “Gate of Freedom”. She met the end of the war as a sergeant in the Serbian army. Twelve wounds and twelve medals were there to remind her of the turbulent past. In addition to several medals for bravery and the Order of the White Eagle with Swords, Antonija also became the Knight of the Karađorđe’s Star with Swords and a knight of the French Legion of Honour. She died in Belgrade in 1974 at the age of 81.
Ljubica Cakarević, was born in Uzice and became a school teacher there. In 1914. her father and brothers were among the first to go to the front to defend their homeland. Once Serbia was occupied by the enemy during the First World War, she refused the invitation of the occupier to work as a teacher and performed tough rural jobs instead.
After three and a half years of this labour, Ljubica was forced to leave occupied Serbia in order to escape the Austro-Hungarians, who had issued a warrant for her in the summer of 1918. With a few more people, under the leadership of the Duke of Lunet, Ljubica started out to find the Thessaloniki front to join the rest of the Serbian army. After 27 days of avoiding the pursuit and ambush, the group of starving, exhausted, almost barefooted people came close to the battle lines.
Along the way, they saw burned villages with hanging corpses of people killed by the Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. The group somehow broke through the Bulgarian positions and finally appeared in front of the Serbian army in a state of complete exhaustion.
After 27 days of this traumatic journey, she testified to the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army, giving an account of the occupier’s crimes. Ljubica Čakarević was part of the Serbian army which liberated its homeland, breaking through the Thessaloniki front on September 15, 1918. For her service she was decorated with the Golden Medal for Courage, the “Miloš Obilić” medal. Ljubica notably became the first freelance journalist of a newspaper for the enslaved Serbia which was produced on the Thessaloniki front. So it seems this brave woman fought with both the pen and the sword.
Once more, I know little about this lady, but I do know that Lenka Rabasovic narrowly escaped capture by the Austro-Hungarians and escaped to the mountainsto join her brother’s Chetnik squad. As a Chetnik, she was akin to a nationalist guerilla fighter rather than a regular soldier. The Chetniks had been active in the two Balkan Wars (1912–13), and as they had proven valuable during that war, the Serbian Army used them again in World War I (1914–18).
Lenka quickly learned to handle a rifle, a knife and a bomb, and bravely fought in all the battles with the enemy. Occasionally, she acted as a courier or messenger in disguise, maintaining communication between the Chetniks of the mountains and settlements then still under the Austro-Hungarian / Bulgarian occupation.
Her brother was killed in 1917. I note that this date coincides with the failed Toplica Uprising, a Serb rebellion in 1917 carried out by Chetniks against the Bulgarian occupation force which was eventually suppressed. Lenka survived one wound and remained in arms until liberation in 1918.
Of course, many Serbian women demonstrated their valour and fortitude or suffered enormously in many other ways during WWI; be it as nurses, workers, farmers, civilians or carers. Over the past century, some of the stories of these soldier women’s achievements may have merged myth with fact. Yet there is no doubt about their incredible bravery and valour which was proved time and again in brutal combat. Some of them would have been considered a truly astonishing soldier in any era and for either gender.
I found even more references to other women serving the Serbian army, such as the courageous and adventurous Australian woman Olive Kelso King who served as an ambulance driver. But that’s probably more than enough for now!
In the meantime, I am continuing with finishing the last batch of Strelets Serbian WWI figures which are wearing a very different colour uniform to the early war figures. I feel I should look very closely at them, perhaps a Milunka Savic or a Sofija Jovanović stands disguised within their ranks…