By Sandi Radoja
Milunka Savic’s life has been described as tragic despite earning recognition as the most decorated woman in warfare. She was largely forgotten for decades, but her achievements have managed to overcome the apathy. There have been recent efforts to revive the memory of her sacrifices and celebrate her bravery and humanitarianism, particularly through a documentary “Milunka Savic: Heroine of the Great War,” (2013) directed by Ivana Stevens.
Milunka took her brother’s place in the Serbian Army before the Balkan War in 1913, fighting in multiple conflicts. The role of women in the history of the Balkan War was largely ignored as their roles were seen as simply supportive of the men on the battlefield. But Milunka took it upon herself to head straight for the frontlines, and risked her life for family and country.
She was born near Novi Pazar on June 28, 1892 growing up in the small village of Koprivnica. Almost amazingly, she tricked everyone when her brother got called to the army by cutting her hair short and taking his place. Reportedly, her success on the battlefields earned her medals in nine missions before her gender was discovered. It was during her 10th mission that she suffered a shrapnel wound in her chest and medics discovered she was a woman. Her commander was reluctant to let her go as she was a brave and competent soldier, yet he decided to send her to the nurse’s division. However, Milunka stood firm in her commitment to fight with the men and was allowed to stay.
She was recognized as one of the best Serbian soldiers of her generation, famously managing to capture 23 Bulgarian soldiers by herself. She fought in both Balkan Wars and World War I, and was decorated for her actions in all three. France bestowed upon her the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’Honneur, while Russia gave her the Cross of St. George, and Great Britain awarded the Medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael.
She married Veljko Gligorijevic in 1923, but the couple divorced soon after the birth of their daughter Milena. She adopted three other daughters and supported them through working in menial jobs cleaning offices. She also made sacrifices to educate 30 other children.
When World War II arrived, she organized an infirmary that provided aid to the Yugoslav Partisans, eventually being imprisoned by the Nazis for refusal to attend a banquet organized by Milan Nedic. She was kept at Banjica Concentration Camp for ten months.
After the war she returned to the Vozdavac area of Belgrade and was given a state pension. On her meager earnings she was a true humanitarian. She suffered a stroke in 1972 and died penniless on October 5, 1973. Milunka Savic was laid to rest in the New Cemetery in Belgrade.