In 1806, 23-years old Nadezhda Durova ran away from home and joined the cavalry in order to escape the “sphere prescribed by nature and custom to the female sex”. Durova was the daughter of a Russian hussar officer and was brought up among soldiers. She was a very able rider and had her own horse, Alcides. At first, she attached herself to a troop of Cossacks, who were marching to join the army on its way to the Prussian campaign against Napoleon. When they arrived at Grodno near today’s border to Poland, she officially joined a Polish Uhlan Regiment under the name of Aleksandr Sokolov. She saw action in several battles and once saved the life of an officer, who was threatened by enemy Dragoons:
“Instantly I rushed toward them with my lance tilted. I can only suppose that this scatterbrained audacity frightened them, because in a flash they abandoned the officer and scattered.”
Her autobiography describes several battle scenes, but even more interesting are the details on everyday life of the cavalry. There are fascinating passages on exercises, setting up sentries, foraging and the social life of officers and enlisted men.
Perhaps the most astounding episode of Durova’s life is her unmasking. Her close companions gradually became aware that she was a woman, but as she had proven herself to be a good and reliable soldier they didn’t care. However, she had written a letter to her father, telling him where she was. Her father immediately started an investigation and Czar Alexander I took a personal interest in the story. He collected reports from Durova’s superiors and in late 1807 finally summoned her to St. Petersburg. Confronted by the Czar himself, she admitted to being a woman but begged him to allow her to stay in the cavalry. Alexander not only presented her with the Cross of St. George for saving an officer’s life, but also promoted her to lieutenant in the Mariupol Hussar Regiment.
Durova served in the cavalry for several more years and took part in the Battles of Smolensk and Borodino. However, being a woman in disguise hurt her chances of promotion and she retired from the army in 1816. In her later years, she became a writer and published not only her diary under the title The Cavalry Maiden, but also several novels.
Durova’s exploits would make exciting skirmish games. What miniatures are available?
As she was in disguise, the most ‘historically correct’ variant would be to just use an Uhlan figure and declare her to be Durova. However, this may be a bit dull from a wargamer’s perspective. For 28mm, there is the option of putting one of The Dice Bad Lady’s spare female heads on an appropriate figure. A dedicated female hussar is presumably available from Elite Wargames and Models, but I was unable to get any further information – please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know more.
Durova, Naděžda A.: The cavalry maiden. Journals of a Russian officer in the Napoleonic wars, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1988.