Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers, for he had earned an unparalleled 28 medals— every military combat award for valor in the US Army, plus French and Belgian awards for heroism. His lesser-known counterpart was a woman named Milunka Savić from Serbia, who first fought in the Balkan Wars and World War I.

Taking Her Brother’s Place

Milunka Savić was born in the 20-people small village of Koprivnica, Serbia, near the Novi Pazar in the 19th century, where she grew up. When her brother received the call-up papers to serve in the army during the Balkan Wars, Milunka, who was 24, decided to take her sick brother’s place. She cut her hair short and wore male clothing to serve and join the Serbian Army in 1912. She successfully got herself in.

Milunka Savić
Milunka Savić with a medal. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

She got by perfectly fine on her first nine missions, avoiding getting wounded near sensitive areas that might end up with her needing to undress to get treated. However, during her 10th mission, she was injured in the chest by shrapnel from a Bulgarian grenade. The doctors treating her found out that she was, in fact, a woman.

Upon reaching the news, her commanding officer was torn about whether to punish or keep her in the service, acknowledging her contributions to the war efforts. He decided to offer Savic to be transferred to a nursing division instead, but with a stiff attention stance, she insisted she would only want to serve as a combatant. The officer responded that he would think about it and give his answer the next day. Still standing at attention in front of him, she answered, “I shall wait.” Finally, after just an hour, the commanding officer returned with his decision: She could return to the infantry and fight alongside her comrades.

Back In The Game

If anything, Savic proved that her commander’s decision was right. She fought in the two Balkan Wars. However, a year after it ended, World War I broke out. Nevertheless, she continued serving as part of her country’s military forces.

She was awarded the highest award available, which was the Karadorde Star with Swords medal in the Battle of Kolubara in the early days of the war. In 1916, she again showed she was one of the best Serbian soldiers of her time after single-handedly capturing 23 confused Bulgarian soldiers during the Battle of Crna Bend. When the Serbian army retreated as the tides of war went against them, Savic fought for the French when they reformed under their control at Corfu.

By the end of World War I, she had received military honors from France like the French Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) that she got twice. She also received the Cross of St. George from Russia, The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael from Britain, and the Miloš Obilić medal from her home country. She also became the only female to ever receive the French Croix de Guerre 1914–1918 with the gold palm. All in all, she was awarded 12 medals.


The grave of Milunka Savić at the New Cemetery in Belgrade  (PinkiCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After War

When the war ended, France offered Savic a military pension, but she turned it down and decided to return to Serbia. There, she settled in Voždovac— a suburb in Belgrade known for having a shopping center with a football stadium. She raised her daughter and some other foster children she adopted off the street there.

Despite her contributions and awards, she slowly faded into the civilian background and made a living by working as a cleaning lady. When World War II erupted, Savic did not try to enlist but instead organized an infirmary that provided help to the wounded Yugoslav Partisans.

During the German occupation of Serbia, the Nazis imprisoned her in the Banjica concentration camp, where she managed to survive the unlivable conditions. She was spared execution and released when a German officer recognized her as a war hero.

Savic suffered from a stroke and died in 1973 at 84. She was buried with full military honors. A street in Belgrade is also named after her.