OK, Scribblers. Buckle up. Today we’re talking about real-life Mulan.
Her name was Milunka.
Milunka Savic was born in Serbian village called Koprivnica, somewhere between 1888 and 1890. However, in her army documents she cited 1892 as the year she was born. I guess you could do that back then, without records and internet trolls to prove you wrong. You do you, girl.
She had a brother and two sisters, and her childhood nickname was Muma.
Now, living in the mountain village at the end of the 19th century, even if she was interested, she wouldn’t have a lot going on in terms of social life. As a child, she played the same games I did, almost a century later. Like “hitting the mark”, where we would make a target and threw rocks trying to hit it. Or climb trees, jump over the walls, ride horses and bulls, play in the mud. Her childhood games prepared her for what was to come, just like mine prepared me. She would listen to the stories and legends of all those heroes that came before her. But according to modern standards, her life was boring. Unfortunately, Milunka’s boring young adult life was about to change.
In 1912, the first Balkan War broke out. To simplify for all those who have no idea what I’m talking about, the First Balkan War was basically sending Ottoman Empire packing. Yeah, after five hundred years of enslaving local folks, it was about time they go home. So, all the little countries of Balkan came together and decided to kick them out.
And they did. Hard.
However, when the Ottoman Empire was on their knees and practically defeated, smart Bulgaria said, ‘Hey, what if, like, I take everything now?’ And so the second Balkan War began. The war in which Romania, Serbia and Greece fought for their freedom from yesterday’s allies. When the call for her brother came to join the army, Milunka decided to go herself.
You see, she had only one brother, younger than her. The way she saw it and the way most people here would see it is that if he dies, the entire line dies with him. Besides, she really wanted to fight for her country and she was more than qualified to do it.
So, she chopped off her hair and donned the uniform.
She signed up as Milun Savić, her brother. Back then, women were only allowed to work as medical personnel, active duty was ‘boys only’ club. Milunka changed that forever. Battles already started and Milunka was able to show off her talent, almost immediately. Battle after battle, her fame grew. She could throw a grenade like no one else. Milunka was accepted as one of the guys, a member of famous Iron Regiment, and was promoted to corporal. But. In July of 1913 during nine days long Battle of Bregalnica, a grenade exploded next to her, and she was wounded for the first time. They took her to the field hospital, undressed her and…
Oops! Milunka’s big secret was out.
They couldn’t really punish her; she was one of their best soldiers, but command didn’t know what to do with her now. They did offer her transfer to hospital and position of a nurse.
Milunka said she wanted to continue fighting. The only way she wanted to stay was to stay and fight. Commanding officer said she can go and he will inform her of their decision.
Milunka said “I’ll wait.”
After an hour of majorly uncomfortable silence he said, “OK, fine.” She was back with her Iron men and promoted.
A year later, when Austro-Hungarian Empire knocked on the door, Milunka was more than ready to “welcome” them.
It was the dawn of World War 1.
Hold on… Don’t roll your eyes just yet.
If you are not familiar with the geography of this part of Europe, Serbia is like a crossroads between East, West, North and South. And everyone always wanted to control the crossroads. It’s like basic war strategy. Have you ever read war strategy? You should. You can never be too prepared.
Almost 500.000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers marched on Serbia. Waiting for them was Serbian Army made of 250.000 soldiers, volunteers, peasants and Milunka, commander of the Assault Bomber Squad of the Iron Regiment.
During Austro-Hungarian third offensive, in the winter of 1914, in the battle of Kolubara, Serbian forces finally caught a break and pushed the enemy back. Milunka ran across no-man’s-land into an enemy’s trench and single-handedly captured 20 Austrian soldiers. After the Kolubara, enemy retreated and didn’t come back until later next year.
For her bravery in battle she received her first Karadjordje Star with Swords, the highest medal for bravery Kingdom of Serbia offered.
Milunka repeated her bomber stint two years later and received her second Karadjordje Star with Swords. During the Battle of Crna Reka, she ran across no-man’s-land into enemy trenches and this time captured 23 Bulgarian soldiers.
Why Bulgarian you ask? Well, take a wild guess who they sided with… Come on, I’ll wait.
No, I’m not. I don’t have time for that, the rest of the class is waiting.
Also, internet records on this battle are… ugh. People call it Crna Bend, or Cherna, or whatever. Let me tell you, Crna Reka literally means Black River. No funny Serbian words, no squiggly letters, just Black River. I mean, what the—
After the battle of Black River, Serbian army started a retreat in an attempt to save the lives of as many people as possible. In the dead of winter, civilians together with the army began the slow walk over the mountains to get to the sea. They walked over Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Walked. 72.000 people died on this march.
During the retreat she was wounded seven more times. Why? Well, some of the folks living in the area thought it would be a great sport to shoot half-dead, frozen people in the back. It was a hard walk. There was no food and temperatures went to -30C.
Also, Milunka and her regiment fought of Bulgarian attack in the battle of Struga, and during that same battle, she was wounded once again, with shrapnel to the head.
By the time they came to the coast, just over 100.000 of them was left. And instead of being evacuated immediately, because everyone knew they were coming, they had to wait. Italy (ally) wouldn’t let them cross the river. None of the help that was promised from the other allies was there. It took some strong diplomatic language from Russia to France and Great Britain to get someone to come. After weeks of waiting, while sick and wounded were dying, army and civilians, including the King and the government, were evacuated by British and French ships. They were taken to Greek islands Corfu and Vido. Vido is a little rock right next to Corfu, and there was only room for a few tents that acted as field hospitals. While the soldiers were stationed there, typhus epidemic broke. A lot of people died. Without enough burial ground they were given sea funeral. To this day, waters around Vido are called Blue Tomb.
When I went to visit a few years ago, on the little beach from where boats went to bury soldiers at sea, people were sunbathing and swimming. Honestly, it hurt. A lot. But I don’t blame those people, and that’s why I said nothing to them. I blame educational systems and idiots who let all that sacrifice to be forgotten. No one would tolerate a picnic blanket on Arlington. Every single allies cemetery here is being taken care of. And yet, there I was, on a hot August day, standing barefoot on the cold Greek stone, watching people laugh and swim in my holy place, where souls of my ancestors should be resting in peace. OK, fine. Hurt is an understatement.
But you’re not here because of me.
Vido being a small island, a lot of people had to be evacuated to North Africa. Among them was Milunka.
In the hospital in Bizerte, Tunisia, Milunka met Admiral Émile Guépratte. When she recovered from her wounds, Milunka and what was left of her Iron Regiment became the Serbian Brigade in the French Army. She fought in Macedonia and was wounded again, when she climbed out of her trench to see what enemy soldiers were up to. Thanks to her crazy stunt her commanders were able to regroup and fight off the attack. She ended up in Tunisia, again. After a short recovery, Milunka went to Marseilles to meet with her unit. She was on the ship Polynesia, coming back to Salonika front, when her ship got hit by a German submarine. Milunka managed to escape the blue tomb of Mediterranean Sea.
She came back to the front in Thessaloniki. Of course, from this period is the legend of her bet with the French officer. He just couldn’t believe that this mademoiselle can throw grenade better than any living man. He took the bottle of 1880. French cognac from the case and placed it about 40m/130 feet away and told her that if she manages to hit it, she can have the other 19 bottles from the case.
Needless to say Serbian Brigade was pissed drunk that night.
After allied offensive in September of 1918 and capitulation of Bulgaria, Serbia was free and Milunka was finally able to go home.
She came back with the Serbian Milos Obilic Medal, two Karadjordje Stars with Swords, two French Legion d’Honneur, the British Medal of the Order of St. Michael, the Russian Cross of St. George, and was the only woman in the world that ever received the French Croix de Guerre 1914–1918 with Palm. That’s the highest bravery award France gives.
All the above making her THE most decorated woman in the history of warfare.
People quickly forget their heroes. That’s something we all have in common. So Milunka very soon slipped into obscurity. She found the job and got married. But life is not a fairytale and Milunka didn’t get her prince. I mean, yeah, he was kinda cute, maybe. And he was quite younger. You go, girl! There are even inconsistencies with her date of birth in marriage documents due to almost ten years age difference. Which they never do when the guy is older, but whatever…
He was a clerk in a bank and… Well, men can be and are intimidated by strong women. So looking back now, I guess this marriage was doomed from the start. I mean, can you imagine that dinner conversation?
“Oh, Milunka, honey, I’m so tired. I was writing the damn reports whole day.”
“Yeah, babe, I believe you. I remember when I charged throwing grenades over no-man’s-land toward enemy trenches and captured 20 Germans single-handedly without breaking a sweat, but reports, yeah…”
After she gave birth to their daughter Milena, their marriage ended. Milunka bought the house in Belgrade and settled down. She adopted three more girls, one of them lost child from the train station, and one pulled from the ruins after the bombing. During her life she brought up more than 30 children, giving them home and putting them through school.
By the time World War 2 began, Milunka was in her 50s. Not saying that’s old but after all those wounds she sustained in the last war, she wasn’t really in the mood for combat. So she stayed home. There are stories about her being arrested and put in Banjica concentration camp. Like she declined the invitation to go clubbing with German officers or something. And although those stories are totally believable, her own grandson says that’s not true. I’ll go with the family on this one.
She did, however, run small illegal hospital from her home, helping anyone hurt by Germans. It made no difference to her who they were as long as they fought against occupying forces.
After the war she lived a quiet life, taking care of all her children and working. She let her grandson play with her medals and took his entire class to pastry shop to overdose on sugar. Kids could do anything as long as they were respectful and well behaved.
A lot of what is said about her is not true. She was almost invisible to the public for years, but I guess that was her choice. She traveled to Greece and France with her veteran friends. At one of those parties, American Colonel from West Point came up to her.
“Those medals you’re wearing are unattainable for most soldiers. I fought in World War 2, but no doubt in your time you were braver than me. Can you tell me your rank?”
“Of course, Colonel. I am Sergeant Milunka Savic.”
Milunka’s pen pals were people like Flora Sandes, Franchet d’Espèrey, Archibald Reiss and Admiral Émile Guépratte. One of those Bulgarian guys she captured came to see her one day. They became friends, and she hooked him up with one of her friends.
After everything she went through, it would be nice if she got a little more than she did, but … After all that *waves frantically at the whole upper part of the blog post*, a person wants peace. Trust me, a person can only take so much excitement before it’s “just leave me alone”. Some things you go through change you forever. Some things stay with you for the rest of your life. Milunka’s father taught her to fight for her life, not to kill enemies. I think that is the secret of her success and the main difference between then and now. She fought enough for the whole regiment, and she deserved some peace. So, the next time you watch Mulan, remember that real life is sometimes wilder than any movie you see. People like that do exist. Look around you and you’ll see.
Milunka lived the rest of her life in peace, loving and indulging her adopted children, having fun with her friends. She died of a stroke in October of 1973 at the age of approximately 85.
I mean, who knows? Ya can never be sure with Muma.