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Milunka Savić: The Most-Decorated Female Soldier in History

Milunka Savić
Milunka Savić, after being promoted to the role of sergeant; via Wiki Commons

In the 20th century, the role of a woman during a war was undervalued. From nurses and volunteers to female soldiers, women were considered inadequate for circumstances like a war or a battle. Going to the front was a “men thing” and most of the times women were not allowed to join the battlefield.

Despite this, many women found a way to stand up for themselves and showed the all world their undeniable skills.

Milunka Savić: Who was she?

Milunka Savić was born on the 28th of June 1888 in Koprivnica, a village near Novi Pazar, southwest Serbia. Savić’s family was very poor and the village she was living in was inhabited by only 20 people.

Her youth was quite uneventful, until 1912 when she turned 24 years old. In the October of that year, the First Balkan War started, and her brother received the papers to enrol in the Serbian army and join the war.

In order to protect her brother, since he was sick, Milunka Savić decided to take his place.

At that time, women were could only join the Serbian army as nurses, and consequently, Savić had to cut her hair and disguised herself as a man. Using the name Milun Savić, she successfully joined the army, without getting caught. 

The battlefield

In 1912, at the age of 22, she joined the battle of the Second Balkan War. Savić had a flair for combat, and she soon received her first medal for bravery. During the battle of Bregalnica, the largest battle of the war, she was also promoted to Corporal.

Savić was extremely successful, but during her 10th mission, in June 1913, a Bulgarian grenade injured her during the battle. Due to the serious injury, she was taken to the field hospital, and only then, the doctor found out that Savić was a woman. After recovering, her commander officer requested an explanation and answers for her actions.

Insisting that she would only join the war as a soldier, and not as a nurse, Savić stated, “I am a woman, I know, but one who has fought on the front for the last few years, with bullets flying by my ears and with aching arms from all the hand grenades.” After an hour from her request, the officer decided that she could stay and promoted her to Junior Sergeant.

Savić was finally free to be a woman and a combatant.

Milunka Savić female soldier
Milunka Savić; via Wiki Commons

Milunka Savić and the First World War

During the First World War, Savić kept proving her skills and bravery, obtaining more medals. After the Battle of Kolubara, she received her first Karađorđe Star with Swords, which is the highest military and civilian decoration in Serbia. She ran through no man’s land between the two fronts, and she threw hand grenades to hurt the enemy.

After suffering heavy injuries, in 1916, during the battle of the Crna Bend, Savić managed to capture 23 Bulgarian soldiers by herself. Thanks to her actions, she received her second Karađorđe Star with Swords.

Savić received medals from all over the world. She received two times the Legion of Honour from France, the British medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Micael, and the Cross of St. George from Russia. She was also the first woman in history to receive the French Croix de Guerre with Golden Palm.

Due to the deterioration of the Serbian army, Savić and her war comrades were integrated into the French army. The French soldiers and generals that met Savić did not believe that she could fight or use a gun since she was a woman. Consequently, Maurice Sarrail, a French General, bet her a case of 1880 Cognac. He placed the bottle 40 meters away and bet she could not hit that with a hand grenade. With her first throw, Savić smashed the bottle and celebrated sharing the price with her unit.

Milunka Savić and the post-war

After WWI, Savić went back to Belgrade, refusing to move to France. She found a job as a postal worker, she married Veljko Gligorovic, and she had a daughter, Milena. Savić also adopted three more kids, Visnja, Radmila and Zorka, but she had to raise them on her own because she decided to divorce her husband.

She worked different jobs in those years, until 1927 when she started working as a cleaning lady in Mortgage Bank.

Savić and her bravery were completely forgotten by Serbian society.

When WWII began, Savić decided not to join the army, but instead she organised a small hospital to treat and help the wounded. Due to her support to the enemy, the Germans arrested her and sent her to a concentration camp. After ten months, a German General recognised her and released Savić from the camp.

The heroine’s death

In the 1970s, Savić attended the jubilee celebrations, wearing her uniform and her many medals. Many military officers spoke with her and heard about her bravery and courage on the battlefield. She was finally gaining the recognition she deserved.

In 1972, due to the public pressure and the news highlighting her financial situation, the Belgrade City Assembly gave Savić a small apartment in Belgrade.

The Serbian heroine died on the 5th of October 1973, at the age of 85, after a stroke.

Milunka Savić is still the most decorated female soldier in warfare history. She fought three wars, on two different continents, and she was wounded ten times.

Many other women volunteered as soldiers and sacrificed their lives during the Balkans Wars and WWI. Nonetheless, the role of women in war was highly ignored.

Author

Rachele Momi

Rachele Momi is a graduate in Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University and in Middle East Politics at SOAS. Her research is mainly focused on the Middle East region, tradecraft, and cyber warfare.

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