Who Was Milunka Savic, The Serbian Soldier Who Replaced Her Brother In The First Balkan War?

The story of Mulan became legendary, especially after Disney released the animated version of the tale in 1998 and a live action version in 2020. However, according to TIME, the story has changed quite a bit over thousands of years. A person named Mulan appeared first in a poem, then a play, then a novel, and finally on film. The story's unclear origins and changes make scholars question whether it even happened at all. However, most follow the general plot of Mulan joining the army without her fellow soldiers knowing that she is a woman.

True or simply an old folk tale, Mulan resonates around the world. Even in the United States, women could not formally serve in the military until after World War II (per Brookings). In other countries, such as Iran, women continue to fight for equality.

A woman whose identity is much less contested is Milunka Savić. Her story began much more recently than Mulan's. Yet she is often forgotten by history.

The Serbian Army wanted Milunka Savic's brother to serve in the war

According to Britannica, the Balkan Wars occurred in 1912 and 1913. The First Balkan War saw Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro team up against the Ottoman Empire. The Second Balkan War included Serbia and Greece against Bulgaria. The aftermath was a strained relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary over Serbia's claims on Albania. In 1914, a Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This sparked the outbreak of World War I.

In 1912, the Serbian army called upon Milunka Savić's brother to join the war effort. Her brother's poor health inspired Savić to pose as a man and serve in his place. Just as in the Disney version of "Mulan," Savić cut her hair and dressed in men's clothes. She was not the only woman to fight in wars of the early 20th century, but many were forced to quit if others discovered their true gender (per All That's Interesting).

Milunka Savic received France's Croix de Guerre

According to Serbia.com, Milunka Savić managed to pass as male until she suffered a bullet wound to the chest in the Second Balkan War. Rather than the Serbian army forcing her to leave the service, they allowed her to remain in the military and later serve in World War I. She went on to receive 12 medals across the First and Second Balkan Wars and World War I. She was awarded with France's Croix de Guerre, making her the only woman to receive it at the time (per Emerging Europe).

Though Savić is history's most awarded female soldier (per Grey Dynamics), she spent the later years of her life rather ordinarily. After her husband left her and their children, she took a job as a custodian. In World War II, she ended up in a concentration camp once the Nazis entered Serbia. She survived the camp, but lived the rest of her life without much recognition and died in the early 1970s (per All That's Interesting). Luckily, her grave was eventually moved to a war hero cemetery in Serbia, according to Serbia.com.