The incredible story of the female spies, revolutionaries and soldiers who helped build Polish independence

Behind every great man: Aleksandra Szczerbińska, Marshall Piłsudski’s wife, a cold blooded and reliable fighter who led a team of female spies during WWI. Courtesy of Kamil Janicki

When Aleksandra Szczerbińska met Poland’s future national hero and statesman Józef Piłsudski, she was already heavily involved in politics.

Couriering arms and stock-piling weapons for Piłsudski’s faction of the Polish Socialist Party, in 1908 she helped organize a raid, led by Piłsudski, on the Russian Tsar’s train.

In a plan to steal 300,000 rubles to finance their fight for independence, she acted as a lookout, and prior to the raid prepared maps and plans.

Her colleague Janina Prystorowa, another revolutionary woman, stopped the train, forced the door open and took the money.

On the outbreak of WWI, Szczerbińska began serving as a military intelligence officer, heading up a team of female spies providing Piłsudski with invaluable information on enemy troops movements and plans.

One of her spies was Maria Korniłowiczówna, a femme fatale who used her womanly charms to gain information through seduction and deception.

But while some operated in the shadowy world of espionage, others became responsible for creating the structures of the first Polish army, the Polish Legions of 1914.

Woman of the revolution: Janina Prystorowa, the “hero” of the Bezdany raid, with her husband Aleksander Prystor. In 1908 she carried out a raid on the Russian Tsar’s train, blowing off the doors and making off with 300,000 rubles.Courtesy of Kamil Janicki

Taking part in some of war’s the earliest military offensives, they provided medical assistance and provisions, but also fought on the front line.

One of the key fighters was Maria Rychterówna, an excellent shooter who, in addition to fighting, became instrumental in creating the first seeds of the Polish state.

By 1915, three years before Poland regained independence, she had built the first structures of a national post office service, despite criticism from fellow soldiers who worried her actions would harm the underground movement.

Instead though, the post office system not only worked well and without interference, but also made profits. 

Kamil Janicki, author of ‘Defiant Ladies: Women who won Polish Independence’, told TFN: “Their input was undeniable.

“Nevertheless the commanding officers – including Józef Piłsudski – tolerated women’s work only as long as it was absolutely necessary.

“They were relegated from being troops after only a few weeks.

“The women’s intelligence service, which had 46 officers, survived a little longer as it couldn’t be disbanded without a considerable loss for the whole army.”

Zofia Moraczewska with her husband Jędrzej. She joined the Women’s League of Silezia and Galizia. After WWI Moraczewska was elected a member of the Parliament (Sejm) and was an editor for the Voice of Women (Głos Kobiet). Her husband was first Prime Minister of the Second Polish Republic for several months in 1918–19.Courtesy of Kamil Janicki

It is estimated that around 16,000 Polish women took an active part in the fight for Poland's independence.

In recognition of their efforts, upon gaining independence in 1918, in a global first women in Poland were given the right to vote.

Janicki told TFN: “The equality and suffrage was not given to them by men, as we usually read in history books.

“They won the fight by uniting, creating influential and numerous organizations, by initiating public strikes, marches, petitions.

“But also by their hugely meaningful work for the independence movement.

“In 1918 it was just impossible to omit their sacrifices and accomplishments, especially as tens of thousands of them no longer wanted to tolerate being second-class citizens.”