Memoirs of Olena Stepaniv – commander of the female detachment of the Ukrainian Sich riflemen (a national military formation in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War) about her military experience. The memoirs were published in 1934 in Lviv magazine “Nazystrich” (Towards).


Olena Stepaniv Memories About World War I, 1934

Olena Stepaniv-Dashkevych
Nazustrich. Lviv, 1934. 15 chervnia. Ch. 12. S. 3.
Printed in:
Olena Stepaniv - Roman Dashkevych. Spohady i narysy. Uporiadyky: H. Svarnyk, A. Feloniuk Lviv: Piramida, 2009. S. 80-82.
Original language:

Woman warrior 

Isn’t it surprising for you that it is me – not a stranger who has witnessed all that – who is writing about a woman warrior? It isn’t my fault. It made no sense to deny the editor my help. He just forced me to.

Have you ever thought about why young girls and women have always been, are and will always be fascinated by a war which is scary and disgusting in terms of its consequences?

Maybe, that’s the gust of youth, prohibition to fight together with men, the fear of worries, anxiety for unusual adventures, the boredom caused by everyday routine or the escape from the duties of life? Or maybe, it is anxiety for self-sacrifice or the inconsolable voice of the soul that orders us to do exactly this, not another duty?  Or maybe, it was the desire to prove to the world that it is we, the women, who is capable of everything that plunged us into the hugs of the war?

It’s a well-known fact that we are trying to be women, mothers and partners in various fields of work. We are not just obedient. We are creative. We are not just the performers of somebody’s will. We are responsible units who combine, formulate and implement our thoughts. We are capable of being resolute, resistible, obstinate and unapproachable like all those who prefer doing something under the slogan: “Every minute matters, because wasting a minute is similar to delaying death”.  In fact, “doing something” means the war. 


Can you listen, woman? – Yes, I can.

Can you give orders? – Yes, I can.

Can you be punctual and exact? – Yes, I can.

Can you understand the value and the significance of a minute? – Yes, I can.

Can you grin and bear anger, contempt, patience, oppression, fear, hunger and restless work? – Yes, I can.

Can you be glad about a minute of rest, the beauty of the nature, the smile of gratitude, the kindness of human hearts and your comrades’ trust? – Yes, I can.

Can you be courageous and resolute enough to put a gun to a stranger’s temple, not feeling mercy and not being surprised at anything? – Yes, I can. 

You are welcome!

You can be a warrior! 

Are you willing to go on answering? The answer is simple, isn’t it?

Our “ego” and our cherished feeling of duty forced us to go to the war. 

There is an assumption that women warriors are not interesting at all. Thy are all similar or even alike, having the same features.

In fact, it’s untrue.

My experience has given me an opportunity to distinguish between the following three main types:

The first one: punctual and hard-working, whatever other role they might play in everyday life;

The second one: lighthearted but courageous, the one who tried to become famous in an easy way; 

The third one: predatory, the one who took advantage of the chaos of military disempowerment for the sake of her own gain. 

Are these only women’s types?

Or such a division could be made between men warriors as well? Haven’t the world war and the Ukrainian war given us any examples? 

One more thing: do all women (like men) want to become warriors?

I think, not all of them do. You are sure to agree with me when I tell you about one adventure from the Galician War.

The year of 1919. Spring. Colonel Kurmanovych, Commander of Headquarters of the Ukrainian Galician Army, ordered me to immediately turn up in Hodoriv for the purpose of sending me on an errand. On the way there, I was wondering why he needed me. 

– I am ordering you to go to Village N., Bobrets Province, and to summon a women’s military unit: the lady villagers are willing to join the army. 

– Colonel, I would kindly ask you to get someone else to perform this mission. I am opposed to creating women’s military units in the army. I am even opposed to women’s mass participation in the war.

– The order must be followed. Anyway, we cannot ignore the military spirit of the village!

Well, I went to that village. Centurion K, my silent partner, was staggering in a small cart from side to side, furrowing his eyebrows and sipping words. He was also dissatisfied with the mission. 

By night we were there. Up the hill there was a parish. Not far away from it there was a library. Everybody was surprised at our arrival.

– “We wanted to emphasize our desire to support the army from the bottom of our hearts but didn’t think that our announcement would be taken so seriously”, said the befuddled priest.

“Now that we’ve got it, it is necessary to talk to women”. Girls and women are getting together in the library. Men are walking around beneath the windows, by the door and in the yard with sticks in their hands, their faces frowning: “You’ve come to take the women to the war!”. 

There is tension and menace in the air.

In spite of all that, I decided to give a speech.

– A very good letter has come to the Headquarters from your village: not only men but women as well are willing to do their duty for Ukraine and have volunteered to join the army. I have a mission from the Headquarters to ask you what girls and women really want to assume the duty of a warrior and to create separate women’s army units from those who are volunteering.  

Not a leaf was stirring…

I heard a purring coming from behind the window and from the walls that made me feel uncomfortable. 

There was something bad in the air. 

I’ll put it better:

– The Headquarters appreciates your aspiration and good will. I would like to reveal to you the message that you, women, are very much needed right where you are now, in your village: sow and pick up corns, since the warrior needs some food to eat; kick deserters out of the village and encourage your brothers, grooms, husbands and sons to do the duty of a warrior; feed the hungry, help the wounded and the sick; your work will be as valuable a sacrifice for Ukraine as the corpses of your men, the warriors.

I won. Everybody calmed down. I was looking in the smiling eyes of the girls and their parents. They understood that I hadn’t come to force them to go to the war.

My eyes were smiling at them, too: one had better not go instead of falling down smashed down the curb. The frowning on my silent partner’s (the centurion’s) face yielded to a smile of joy as we were coming back. We felt we had luckily got out of the risk of our errand.

What the war is, especially for a woman warrior – ask those who have been through it.

Related sources:

Documents (2)

Image for “The sorrowful 14th year has come”, Ukrainian song about the First World War
“The sorrowful 14th year has come”, Ukrainian song about the First World War
This source is a folklore text representing the developments of the First World War. Katria Hrynevycheva (1875-1947), a writer, public activist, head of the Ukrainian Women's Union (Soiuz Ukrainok), recorded a variation of the song in the city of Gmünd (Lower Austria), during her stay in the war refugees displacement camp. The recording was found in the archives of Volodymyr Hnatiuk. It is probably that Hrynevycheva was motivated by Hnatiuk’s call to document war-inspired pieces (see below the entry on “War and Folk Poetry”) and her personal story as a mother of two volunteer combatants from the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen (USR, Ukrainian National Military Formation within the Austro-Hungarian Army). The camp...
Kharytyna Pekarchuk’ memories about World War I, 1918-1919
Memoirs of Kharytyna Pekarchuk - corporal of the Army of the Ukrainian People's Republic, the first woman to receive a Ukrainian state award in the 20th century (token of the Order of the Iron Cross No. 1, Cross of Symon Petliura). The passage refers to her medical service during 1918-1919. The memoirs were published in 1969 in the Ukrainian magazine in USA, Nashe Zhyttia (Our Life) by the Union of Ukrainian Women of America.
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Audio (1)

Legend about the “disguised emperor” during the First World War
This source is the audio recording of the legend about the events of the First World War. The storyline describes an “emperor” who was incognito inspecting his army and its provisions. The prototype for the protagonist is Franz Josef I (1830–1916), the emperor of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. This artistic image shows the elements of naive monarchism. The type of “just and kind” ruler is based on his favorable attitude to Galician Ukrainians, who he took as loyal to the Habsburgs. This social myth about the “loyal troops” consisting of Ukrainians was reflected in the prose but also in songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our emperor is getting old...
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Worked on the material:

Ivanna Cherchovych

Translation into English

Mykhailo Tarapatov

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