Culture, Travel & Sport

History’s most decorated female soldier: A Serb who defied the rules to fight in World War I

On September 10, 2011, nineteen women were promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Serbian Army, the first generation of female cadets to graduate from the country’s military academy. While all are pioneers, they are not, however, the first women to serve in the Serbian military. That honour goes to the mostly forgotten Milunka Savić, a hero of World War I.

Born between 1888 and 1890 (sources differ) in the village of Koprivnica near Novi Pazar, she was the eldest of four children. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary about Milunka while she was growing up, but in 1913, at the beginning of the Second Balkan War, for reasons unknown she decided to take the place of a brother when he received his conscription papers.

Milunka cut off her hair, donned male clothing, and joined the Serbian Army while posing as a man named Milun. She quickly saw combat as part of the Drina division in the Battle of Bregalnica, where she got her first medal. Many other medals would follow, and she advanced to the rank of corporal — all the while maintaining the illusion of being a man.

Eventually, her time as Milun would come to an end. She sustained a chest wound, which led to her gender being revelaed as she was recovering in hospital. Notably, perhaps due to the decorations she had received or the fact that the combat mission in which she was wounded was already her 10th, Milunka was not reprimanded. Instead, she was offered a transfer to the nursing division.

She rejected this proposal, saying that she only wanted to fight for her country as a combatant. According to an apocryphal account of the events, her commanding officer said he would think about it and tell her his decision the next day. Standing to attention, Milunka replied, “I will wait.” It only took an hour for the commanding officer to reach a decision to let her stay in the infantry unit.

And so Milunka Savić went on to fight in World War I, now under her real name and as a woman. She was shot eight times and became the most decorated female soldier of all time. In the early days of the war she was awarded the Karađorđe Star With Swords at the Battle of Kolubara. She was then awarded the same medal again at the Battle of Crna Bend for single-handedly capturing 26 Bulgarian soldiers.

Milunka was also there during the Great Retreat of the Serbian Army through Albania, known in Serbia as the Albanian Golgotha — named so due to the harsh conditions, enemy raids, and massive casualties suffered by both soldiers and civilians.

In his 2015 book about the Thessaloniki front, author Antonije Đurić notes that Milunka spoke little, and was focused on the defence of her country.

“In the tough days of the retreat Milunka did not leave the soldiers’ side. She looked like a ghost, but she didn’t give up,” he writes.

After the ordeal of the Great Retreat, she was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur – twice, the Russian Cross of St George, the British Medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Micheal and the Serbian Miloš Obilić medal.

At the time, Milunka Savić was the only female recipient of the French of Croix de Guerre for her service during World War I.

After the war Milunka was offered the chance to live in France and receive a hefty pension, but keeping true with her patriotic leanings she turned the offer down, choosing instead to stay in Serbia and live in Belgrade while working in the postal service.

In the interwar period, she worked menial jobs before settling as a cleaning lady at the State Mortgage Bank, where after eight years she was promoted to cleaning the office of the general manager. During this time, she married, had a daughter, divorced, and adopted three more daughters.

Milunka’s achievements largely languished in obscurity during this period. When Serbia was occupied by Germany, she refused to attend a banquet held by Milan Nedić, prominent Nazi collaborator and prime minister of the puppet government. For this, she was arrested and taken to the Banjica concentration camp where she was imprisoned for 10 months.

She remained in obscurity after the war, although now with a state pension from the new communist government, until she began appearing at jubilee celebrations wearing her medals. This caught the eye of the media and the public, which focused attention on Milunka’s by then difficult living conditions. In 1972, public pressure and newspaper coverage led to her being give a small apartment near the Belgrade City Assembly.

She died in that apartment a year later, aged 85, after suffering three strokes while knitting, according to her grandson. She was buried in the Belgrade New Cemetery. In 2013, in recognition of her importance as a war hero, her remains were moved from the family plot into the Alley of the Greats, where nationally importantly people in Serbia are buried.

But despite this recognition and the erection of two monuments, one in Jošanjička Banja and one in Inđija, the life of Milunka Savić is told mostly through apocryphal stories and snippets. Even though she is the most decorated of female soldiers, no proper biography has yet been written, and her story stands firmly in the margins of serious history. The major exception to this is a documentary film produced by the Serbian public broadcaster RTS in 2013.

Perhaps today, with book reading and movie going audiences more open to tales of strong women, this might change. As people flock to see Disney’s new live action Mulan, it may be worth remembering that our region too has its share of fierce women who defied expectations and gender norms to fight for what they believed is right.

Here’s to hoping we get a proper blockbuster Milunka Savić biopic sooner rather than later.

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