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  • Ilinca Stroe

1917: Romania’s First Female Second Lieutenant [1]


How did she, one of eight siblings born to villager parents in Oltenia, (still) a poor region of her country, become the woman that the famed French General Henri Berthelot saluted as “Romania’s Jeanne d’Arc” (Joan of Arc)? Here’s the short answer: through courage and courage again.


The longer answer unfolds like a chivalric tale out of the village of Vădeni, where Cătălina Toderoiu was born (1894) and attended primary school, whence she went to the Romanian-German School in nearby Târgu Jiu and then to a Girls’ Boarding School in Bucharest - on her way to becoming a teacher, had the First World War not broken out.

When it did, however, Cătălina, by her new name Ecaterina Teodoroiu, took a fateful U-turn in her career: as a scout in the “Domnul Tudor” Cohort, she looked after the wounded soldiers in her native area; she then enrolled as a volunteer in Regiment 18 Gorj (where her brother Nicolae had been conscripted), she fought, was wounded in battle, recovered; re-enrolled in Regiment 43/59 Infantry, was awarded the Military Virtue Medal 2nd Class, promoted to honorary Second Lieutenant, granted the Military Virtue Medal 1st Class; and she, while leading her 25-man platoon in battle, met head-on the machine gun bullets which carried her to the Great Otherworld of awe, gratitude and admiration by generations of Romanian schoolchildren. They, entranced by her story, must have been feeling nurtured by that lofty spirit of divine bravery which had inspired their 23-year-old National Heroine…


Venomous dragons, envious ogres or evil eyes are usually not mentioned in the glorious legend. Yet, should the heroine’s history be told comprehensively, we would have to admit that Ecaterina Teodoroiu’s story is also the story of a woman trying hard to make it in “a man’s world,” i.e. the army of early 20th-century Romania. And had it not been for supporters who did her justice based on her competence as a fighter, such as Queen Marie, an exceptional woman herself, the evil eyes that had been watching jealously Teodoroiu’s feats could have had it their way and deprived us, thus, of a valuable female Romanian personality.

The complete answer to our opening question, then, also includes an accusation, Teodoroiu’s removal from her Regiment, an arguably humiliating investigation, Ecaterina’s own plea in defense of her honour, and the final report on the case, following which she was readmitted into the army and was able to attend that fateful battlefield meeting with the machine gun bullets… Let’s proceed along the darker corridors of this underlying plot of the legend.

On, ironically, Valentine’s Day (14 February) 1917, a complaint is lodged with the Romanian Army Forces Command - anonymously, as befits all ill-intended business - that “within the military quarters of Regiment 43/59 Infantry there was a woman.” Ecaterina, who had fought previously with her brother’s Regiment 18 Gorj, had been wounded, visited in hospital, praised for her bravery and promised a military rank, medal and wages by Queen Marie (October 2016), and was now serving in that Infantry Regiment, is forced to leave the unit by order of Major Mareş.


An investigation is carried out into the woman’s presence in the unit, but the latter has no intention of being a passive witness to her forceful removal from the army. Instead, she reports to Colonel Broşteanu, the official in charge of the investigation, explaining: “I decided to enrol as a volunteer soldier in order to avenge my folks”; “I fought in the trenches alongside the soldiers of Regiment 18 Gorj”; then, ever since joining the 7th Company of Regiment 43/59 Infantry, “I have tended to the numerous sick of the Company, contributed as much as possible to the delousing of the men and made sure their food is cooked properly”; “on the cantonment site, being impossible for me to have a lodging of my own, I have lived in the same house as [Company Commander] Second Lieutenant Mănoiu, sleeping always in bed with the host’s daughter.”

As this last explanation and the phrasing of the complaint suggest, the claim underlying the investigation must have been that the woman present in the 7th Company was a liability to the male soldiers’ “moral integrity” (i.e. they risked being “tempted” by her and thus deflect from their military duty or performance standards). Hence, Teodoroiu’s appeal to sheer professionalism in her plea to be readmitted into that Company: “I entrust myself to your sense of justice and I turn to you as to a parent, to ask you to allow me to keep serving my country and set straight the injustice done onto me.” Hence, also, Colonel Broşteanu’s concluding remarks: “Her behaviour was of the most moral kind; even though she has lived among men until now, she is still a maiden.”

And so she was eventually allowed to meet those machine gun bullets and receive, from the heavens of our high-held heroes, on the day after her death on 22 August 1917, the accolade of Colonel Constantin Pomponiu: “Ecaterina Teorodoiu rose to the height of the most valiant defenders of her Country, and surpassed them by the power to defeat her female weakness and the ability to prove male vigour in body and soul, as well as all of the qualities of a bold soldier, relentless and enthusiastic about making herself useful at all costs.”

In this centenary year of Second Lieutenant Teodoroiu’s death, it might perhaps be worth pausing a moment to reflect on other Romanian female personalities, the obstacles they had to overcome and the price they had to pay to fulfill their dream of serving their country, their way.

[1] A military rank in the Romanian Army equivalent to NATO OF-1b.

Sources

“Ecaterina Teodoroiu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 3 Nov 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecaterina_Teodoroiu>

Moşneagu, Marian. „Legenda Ecaterinei Teodoroiu: ce spun Arhivele Militare.” Historia.ro, n.d. Web. 30 ian 2016. <http://www.historia.ro/exclusiv_web/portret/articol/legenda-ecaterinei-teodoroiu-ce-spun-arhivele-militare>

See also

Museum: <http://www.muzeugorj.ro/muzee-si-case-memoriale/casa-memoriala-ecaterina-teodoroiu/>

Film: “Soldiers Never Cry” (1978) <http://aarc.ro/filme/film/ecaterina-teodoroiu-1978>

Photos

Ecaterina Teodoroiu in January 2016. Source: King Ferdinand Military Museum (via Wikipedia).

Ecaterina Teodoroiu in January 2017. Source: Curierul de Iaşi/24 Aug 2017. <http://curierul-iasi.ro/100-de-ani-ecaterina-teodoroiu-simplitatea-eroismului-adevarat-22397>

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