When we think of Russian women during the Great War, the first thing that perhaps comes to mind are the all female combat units. In particular, the 1st Women’s Battalion of Death and its founder Maria Bochkareva, who was the first Russian woman to command a military unit. Maria’s story, though fascinating, has been well covered, so instead, I wanted to shed some light on another Russian woman, Rimma Mikhailovna Ivanova.
Rimma was born in 1894 in Stavropol, a city in the southwestern Russia. When war broke out in 1914, she was working as a teacher in a nearby village, but as a highly patriotic woman she was desperate to contribute to the war effort and so left her job and attended a short course in nursing arranged by the local Red Cross. The Red Cross had begun to equip hospitals in Stavropol as soon as 2 weeks after war was declared, to better deal with trauma cases expected from the front. Many new hospitals opened in the region, with the first train of evacuated men arriving in late August. Rimma took up a highly pressurised role as a surgical nurse, where she learned from soldiers of the desperate need for skilled medical personnel on the battlefields.
At the end of 1914, keen to do more, Rimma left Stavropol attached to an infantry regiment in the Third Army, to begin work as a nurse in a field hospital. Though nurses were not permitted in the front line, Rimma recognised that if men received treatment more quickly, they were far more likely to survive, so she got her hands on an Army uniform, cut her hair short and made her way to the trenches.
Working under the dangerous conditions of the front line, she eventually gained a great deal of respect from the men around her, and in late February/March 1915 was decorated for her bravery in providing vital care to the troops involved in vicious fighting on the Eastern Front. After a short spell of leave to visit her parents, Rimma returned to the front where she stopped en route to visit her brother Volodya who was serving with the 105th Orenburg Regiment near Grodno. She arrived in September, just ahead of the start of the Sventiany Offensive. Fighting here was fierce, as cavalry divisions of the Germany 10th Army hammered the Russian line in an attempt to break through. On the 22nd, Rimma was helping to treat soldiers of the 10th company on the battlefield near the village of Mokraya Dubrova, when she found herself in a desperate position. Casualties were heavy and by this stage, all remaining officers had been killed and the situation was getting ever bleaker. It was at this point that Rimma did something remarkable. Upon seeing that the line was close to breaking it became clear to her that action needed to be taken. And so, Rimma took up arms, rallied the surviving men and led a counter attack against the German positions. After throwing everything they had into this last-ditch attempt, Rimma and her men successfully took the German front line trenches, holding it until reinforcements were sent to the area. The Russian Army successfully defended the line and the Sventiany Offensive was called off. Unfortunately during the counter attack, Rimma was fatally wounded.
News of her actions quickly spread and Rimma was posthumously awarded the St George Cross (4th Class) by Nicholas II. She was one of only a handful of women in the Russian Empire to receive this decoration, along with Maria Bochkareva. Through her brave actions, Rimma came to symbolise the patriotism and courage that as as a young woman, she herself had admired, and continues to be remembered as such in Russia today.