1912-1913 marks the centenary of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, a spot of local trouble that would lead to the killing fields of the First World War. They’re not much remembered outside the area except by specialists and presumably relatives. Certainly they didn’t kick up any household names. Which is not to say that there were not people with good stories. People like Milunka Savic. She was a village girl, and either from boredom or patriotism (or possibly because her brother was to ill to go), in 1912 she cut off her hair and presented herself to the recruiting sergeant. Induction was presumably a cursory affair, and she was soon toting gun and bayonet to the front lines. No further record of the brother, but the army got their money’s worth. In fact she was a little late for action in the first war which ended just before she got there, but the second broke out in short order, and she came into her own. Within weeks she was quickly decorated for bravery and after a few assaults at the Battle of Bregalnica (June 30 – July 8, 1913), she was promoted to corporal.
Her tenth assault in that battle was a bit too far. She was severely wounded by a grenade in the attack and it was only in the hospital room that the doctors discovered she was not who she had claimed.
That was awkward, and her commanding officer said she could transfer to the Nursing Corp. She said she would rather carry a gun. He said he would think about it She said she would wait. He cracked after about an hour, and promoted her to Sergeant. She was simply too famous, too intrepid, too good at what she did.
The second Balkan war ended in 1913, but the First World War started the following year, and as it had begun in Serbia, no surprise that the country was invaded. She was ready. The first war saw her wracking up medals for valor. There was the Serbia’s own Order of Star of Karadjordje with Swords, the highest award the country could give. She got it twice. Once at the battle of Battle of Kolubara where she captured twenty German soldiers, the second time at the Battle of the Crna Bend (Crna Reka) for capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers single handed.
Despite her best efforts, the war was not going well for Serbia and her army was forced to retreat, ending up in Corfu where it was reformed as part of the French army (some readers will recall that France wanted to do the same thing with the American Expeditionary Force, but that General Pershing wouldn’t have it.)
The French were not about to mess with a winner, though French General Maurice Sarrail was not totally convinced that she was as good as promised, and wagered a case of 1880 cognac that she could not hit a bottle of same at 40 meters.
He lost, and she split 19 bottles with the rest of her company.
By the time the war was over, France had given her the Legion d’Honeur (twice) , Russian the Cross of St.George, British the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbia the Milos Obilic medal. She was the only woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre in the First World War, which may have figured in France’s offer of a pension if she chose to move to that country. She did not. After seven years of almost continual warfare, she returned to Serbia, married, had a child, divorced, raised two adopted children.
During the Second World War she operated a small hospital to treat wounded partisans, which was enough for the Germans to put her in a prison camp. She remained there for ten months, and was slated to be executed when a German officer saw her name on the list of prisoners, confirmed her identity, and ordered that she be released immediately. Chivalry comes out in the oddest places.
After the war she fell into official disfavor in Tito’s Yugoslavia and worked as a cleaning woman for the Hipotekarna Bank, generally forgotten until late in life. Died of a stroke in 1973 and was buried in Novo groblje cemetery in the Alley of the Meritorious with full state and military honors. By Bruce Ware Allen
Savić was born in 1888, in the village of Koprivnica, near Raška, in Serbia. In 1913, her brother received call-up papers for mobilization for the Second Balkan War. She chose to go in his place—cutting her hair and donning men's clothes and joining the Serbian army. She quickly saw action and received her first medal and was promoted to corporal in the Battle of Bregalnica. Engaged in battle, she sustained wounds and it was only then, when recovering from her injuries in hospital, that her true sex was revealed, much to the surprise of the attending physicians.
Mental Floss described the repercussions:
"Savic was called before her commanding officer. They didn't want to punish her, because she had proven a valuable and highly competent soldier. The military deployment that had resulted in her gender being revealed had been her tenth. But neither was it suitable for a young woman to be in combat. She was offered a transfer to the Nursing division. Savic stood at attention and insisted she only wanted to fight for her country as a combatant. The officer said he'd think it over and give her his answer the next day. Still standing at attention, Savic responded, "I will wait." It is said he only made her stand an hour before agreeing to send her back to the infantry."
In 1914, in the early days of World War I, Savić was awarded her first Karađorđe Star with Swords after the Battle of Kolubara. She received her second Karađorđe Star (with Swords) after the Battle of Crna Reka in 1916 when she captured 23 Bulgarian soldiers single-handedly.
She was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) twice,Russian Cross of St. George,British medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. She was the sole female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre 1914–1918 with the gold palm attribute for service in World War I.
She was demobilised in 1919, and turned down an offer to move to France, where she was eligible to collect a comfortable French army pension. Instead, she chose to live in Belgrade and found work as a postal worker. In 1923, she married Veljko Gligorijević, whom she met in Mostar, and divorced immediately after the birth of their daughter Milena. In the interwar period, Milunka was largely forgotten by the general public. She worked several menial jobs up to 1927, after which she had steady employment as a cleaning lady in the State Mortgage Bank. Eight years later, she was promoted to cleaning the offices of the general manager.
During the German occupation of Serbia of the Second World War, Milunka refused to attend a banquet organised by Milan Nedić, which was to be attended by German generals and officers. She was arrested and taken to Banjica concentration camp, where she was imprisoned for ten months.
After the advent of socialism in 1945, she was given a state pension, and continued to live in her house in Belgrade's Voždovac neighborhood. By the late 1950s her daughter was in hospital, and she was living in a crumbling house in Voždovac with her three adopted children: Milka, a forgotten child from the railway station in Stalac; Radmila-Višnja; and Zorka, a fatherless girl from Dalmatia. Later, when she attended the jubilee celebrations wearing her military medals, other military officers spoke with her and heard of her courageous actions. News spread and at last she gained recognition. In 1972, public pressure and a newspaper article highlighting her difficult housing and financial situation led to her being given a small apartment by the Belgrade City Assembly.
She died in Belgrade on 5 October 1973, aged 84, and was buried in Novo groblje. A street in Belgrade is named after her.