Meet Milunka Savić, The Most Decorated Woman Soldier In History
Updated: Sep 26
Milunka Savić was awarded more combat medals than any other woman in history, yet she remains relatively unknown to the general public.
When the Serbian government called up her sick brother to serve in the First Balkan War in 1912, Savić cut her hair short and took his place, posing as a man — like a 20th-century version of Mulan.
As she fought for the Serbian army, Savić swiftly accumulated medals and promotions. However, after ten missions, a battlefield injury inadvertently unveiled her gender, putting her military career in jeopardy. Nevertheless, the determined war hero refused to depart from her regiment and demonstrated her rightful place on the battlefield. This is the remarkable tale of Milunka Savić.
Who Was Milunka Savić?
Born in a rural Serbian village towards the close of the 19th century, Milunka Savić spent her early years in a peaceful community comprising of fewer than 20 inhabitants. However, the onset of war would soon disrupt her tranquil life. In 1912, Savić's brother received a military summons, calling him to serve in the First Balkan War. This war saw the Balkan League, consisting of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, confronting the formidable Ottoman Empire.
The battle would be fierce. And Savić worried that her brother wouldn’t survive because of his poor health.
With few other options, Savić decided to take her brother’s place. After cutting her hair short, she reported to the army wearing men’s clothing.
The disguise worked.
The Woman Soldier Disguised As A Man
Savić went into battle nine times, winning medals for bravery along the way before anyone discovered her gender.
But on the tenth mission, she was injured by Bulgarian shrapnel. As Savić later quipped, per Serbia.com: “Just as is my luck, the bullet went right into my chest.”
Because of the location of her injury, the doctor treating Savić quickly realized that she was a woman.
Savić’s commanding officer couldn’t decide whether to punish her or send her back to the battlefield. Milunka Savić had proven that she was an outstanding soldier. But women were not allowed to fight in the Serbian army at the time.
The officer asked Savić if she would prefer to work in a nursing unit with other women. Savić turned him down, declaring that she wanted to keep fighting for Serbia.
Her commander said he needed time to think. Standing at attention, Savić said, according to SOFREP, “I shall wait.”
It took the officer an hour. But he finally agreed to send Savić back to the front with her unit.
Milunka Savić’s Astonishing Military Exploits
Milunka Savić was among the women who served in the military during the early 20th century, a period when most of these women concealed their true gender, and many were discharged if their secret was discovered. Savić, however, found herself in a unique position. Her identity as a woman was openly known, yet her military prowess was so remarkable that she continued to serve in the Serbian Army.
Savić actively participated in both the First and Second Balkan Wars, and shortly after these conflicts concluded, World War I erupted. Once again, Savić distinguished herself on the battlefield, earning the admiration of the soldiers with whom she fought, both comrades and adversaries alike.
Early in World War I, Savić and her regiment fought in the Battle for Kolubara. After the fighting, the commanding officer asked the unit, “Who deserves the Karađorđe star with swords?”
The entire regiment spoke as one: “Milunka Savić!”
Throughout her military career, Savić endured several injuries. She was wounded on four occasions during the Balkan Wars and faced a near-death experience in 1915 during a battle in Macedonia. After sustaining a head injury, Savić was compelled to withdraw through Albania. Nevertheless, she demonstrated her resilience by rejoining the front lines once she had recuperated from her wounds.
Subsequently, in the Battle of the Crna Bend in 1916, Savić accomplished the remarkable feat of capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers entirely on her own. This astonishing achievement left the enemy troops in disbelief as they realized that a woman had successfully apprehended and disarmed nearly two dozen men. As the war neared its conclusion and the Serbian army began to retreat, Savić made the decision to join a French unit, continuing her valiant fight on the front lines.
Milunka Savić’s Military Honors And Life After The War
Savić racked up an impressive number of medals by the end of her military service. She received a total of 12 medals for bravery from Serbia and its allies.
She won the French Legion of Honor medal twice. The British gave Savić the medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael. The Russians awarded her the Cross of St. George.
Savić also achieved the distinction of being the sole woman to be honoured with France's Croix de Guerre featuring the gold palm during World War I. However, instead of returning to Serbia as a celebrated hero, the post-war years brought tragedy into Milunka Savić's life.
Following the war, Savić was offered a military pension by France in recognition of her service. Nevertheless, she made the choice to remain in Serbia. After the war's conclusion, Savić entered into matrimony with a banker and became a mother to a daughter while also adopting three additional children. Regrettably, her husband eventually abandoned the family. As a single mother, Savić secured employment as a cleaning lady within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
With the outbreak of World War II, Savić operated an infirmary for Yugoslavia's National Liberation Army. However, when Germany occupied Serbia, her life took a harrowing turn. The Nazis subjected Savić to a beating in front of her children as punishment for her assistance to members of the liberation movement. Subsequently, they incarcerated her in the Banjica concentration camp in Serbia.
Despite enduring harsh and inhumane conditions, Savić managed to survive due to the recognition of her status as a war hero by a German officer. Instead of facing a firing squad, she was eventually released after enduring ten grueling months in the camp.
According to Culture Trip, Milunka Savić lived her final years in poverty and died from a stroke in 1972. In her lifetime, the military hero never received the recognition she deserved for being the most decorated female combatant in history.