Lady of the Dark
Milunka Savić was born on June 28, 1888, in the village of Koprivnica, Serbia. She was one of the few women who actively fought in the Great War and would go on to become one of the most decorated women in military history.
There aren’t really any records of her family background or her childhood, but she had a brother because she joined the Serbian military in 1912 posing as a man to take his place. There are claims that she did this so he wouldn’t have to serve.
Milunka wanted to see active duty, and women were only allowed to be medical staff at that time. She soon got plenty of action, fighting in both Balkan Wars with a unit known as the Iron Regiment, and was promoted to Corporal.
She was wounded at the Battle of Bregalnica in the second war by a Bulgarian grenade and it was the field surgeons who discovered that she was, in fact, a woman.
She recovered, but the high-ranking officers wondered what to do with her. She was a brilliant soldier, so punishment wasn’t an option, and the military deployment that resulted in her gender reveal was her tenth deployment. They decided to offer her a transfer to nursing, which she refused. According to records, she was standing at attention and said she wanted to fight battles for her country and would only accept active service. The officer facing her said he’d think it over and give her an answer the next day. Still standing at attention, she reportedly said: “I will wait”. He only made her wait for an hour before giving her the green light and another chance at fighting.
The First World War begins
The Great War broke out the next year and Serbia found itself repeatedly invaded by hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian imperial soldiers. In November and December 1914, the Battle of Kolubara was fought, and although the Serbs were big underdogs, they not only won, they drove the Austrians right out of Serbia. Milunka Savic became a national hero after that. There were many tales of her actions at Kolubara: she crossed no man’s land alone tossing grenades, jumped into an Austrian trench and took 20 prisoners single handedly. Tales like these may well be true or they may be exaggerations. She was honoured though, with the Star of Karadjordje with swords – the highest honour the Kingdom of Serbia offered.
Later on, after the Bulgarians had joined the war and Serbia was again under siege, she cleared out a Bulgarian trench and took 23 prisoners single handedly, for which she was awarded a second star. That last happened at the Battle of Cerna, and after that, the Serbian Army retreated across the snowy mountains to the Albanian coast. They only had around 100,000 troops left.
They were evacuated by the British and French, and Milunka’s unit then became a Serbian brigade in the French Army. She was wounded in Tunisia and then fought on the Salonika or Macedonian Front until 1918, becoming a non-commissioned officer.
Milunka was wounded a total of 9 times and was decorated time and again by a variety of nations. She was awarded the Russian Order of Holy George for courage, the British Medal of the Order of St. Michael, the French Legion of Honor twice, and was the only woman in the Great War to win France’s Croix de Guerre.
Always up for a challenge
On one occasion, Milunka was challenged by a French officer in Thessaloniki who couldn’t believe that a woman was so capable. He set up a bottle of 1880 cognac and said if she could shoot it from 40m, she could have the other 19 bottles in the case. It took her just one single shot. That story is also told with it being a French officer refusing to believe she could throw grenades with great accuracy, and she took the bottle out on the first grenade. But with the impressive number of awards and honours she received, she is certainly one of the most decorated women in military history, if not THE most decorated.
Even postwar, she continued to receive honours and awards, including the Serbian silver and gold medals for her service back in the Balkan Wars. The French offered to give her a military pension if she moved to France and lived there. She declined, though, and lived in Belgrade in what was Yugoslavia for the rest of her life in a neighbourhood that is now named after her.
As for her “civilian life”, Milunka didn’t have any school certificates and may have been illiterate, so she worked in a post office and was a janitor in a bank. She got married, had a daughter, got divorced, and eventually adopted three more daughters. But life was really on a downward trajectory. During World War 2, she was put in a concentration camp for nearly a year after refusing to attend a banquet thrown by Milan Nedic, the collaborationist Prime Minister of Germany’s puppet Serbian government, and even after that war, she lived in poverty and obscurity.
That was until the half century remembrances of the Great War in the 1960s. She turned up at those wearing her medals, and she had more medals than anybody. The other soldiers remembered who she was and talked about her legends and exploits, so she became famous once again in her late 70s. She died at the age of 85 on October 5, 1973, in Belgrade.
Milunka’s story is a unique story any way you look at it. She was forgotten for a large chunk of the 20th century but that is no longer the case. There have been movies and plays about her, and she is remembered as a Serbian war hero.
Milunka Savić’s incredible story inspired our song ‘ Lady Of The Dark‘, which is featured on our album, The War To End All Wars. Take a look at the lyrics we wrote here.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Lady of The Dark – Milunka Savić: