At a time when the British Army is talking about women fighting in the frontline, and the Ghurkhas have opened their selection process to female candidates, we should perhaps pay tribute to a British woman who fought her way across central and eastern Europe before and during the 1914-18 War, and who was about to fight in the Second War before being imprisoned by the Germans. She ended her days living in Bury St Edmunds and died in 1956 in West Suffolk Hospital. She was a most amazing person – and an extraordinarily inspiring example to any woman today for so many reasons.
Flora Sandes was born in 1876 in Nether Poppleton in Yorkshire. Her father had been a rector in Ireland and had semi-retired to Yorkshire as he was 54 when Flora was born. Her mother, Sophia, must have been a very enlightened sort of person as she allowed her daughter to drive cars, ride and shoot – indeed to be a real tomboy. She also loved hiking and camping, staying out in all weathers according to tales of her early life. Flora once said she had wished she had been borne a man – and the rest of her life rather supported that claim.
In 1907 she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, (now the Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps), an all-woman mounted unit where she learned not just nursing but signalling and mounted field-drill. A few years later in 1912, she left to join the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy, founded by Mrs St Clair Stobart. She was another inspirational character who rejected the Red Cross’ assertion that war was no place for a woman and took her trained team of volunteers to help look after Bulgarian troops in the Balkan War of 1912. Working from a convoy of ox-wagons, and suffering badly from a lack of food and malaria, they tended to over 700 patients, of whom only one died.
When the First War broke out, Flora Sandes volunteered for nursing duties with the British but was rejected due to her lack of training. She, like Mrs Stobart, refused to give up and so joined an all-woman, American-led St John Ambulance group which set out for Serbia in August 1914 to assist with the growing crisis in that country. After some initial Serbian successes, the Austro-Hungarian offensive had prevailed and the Serbs were forced back in a retreat which went on through a harsh winter in which many thousands of Serbs died.
Flora had impressed Serb soldiers with her riding and other skills and they had encouraged her to become a soldier rather than a nurse. In spite of some British attempts to “control” her, she joined an infantry regiment as a nurse, but after its medical team were effectively destroyed she simply swapped roles to become a private soldier. The local commander, Milos Vasic, told her she would be an inspiration to men rather than a hindrance but warned her she would have to stay with them as they struggled back to Albania.
She soon proved her worth and was quickly promoted to corporal. She was involved in some hard combat and was present at the Serbian attack at Bitola where she was badly wounded by a grenade during the hand-to-hand fighting. It was for this action amongst others that she received the highest Serbian military award: the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star. By the end of the war, she had become a sergeant-major and, after the Armistice, was promoted to captain, being de-mobbed in 1922.
Flora, like, many men in the forces, never quite adjusted to civilian life and seems to have looked for anything that challenged both her and the “establishment”. For example, she is said to have taken many men’s jobs, including driving the first taxi in Belgrade in 1927. She and her new husband, a Serbian army officer were living in what was now Yugoslavia in the years before the Second World War, although she travelled extensively, lecturing about her wartime experiences in the UK, Australia, the States and elsewhere.
When WW2 broke out, she and her husband, Yudenitch, were recalled for military duty but by the time they had returned to Yugoslavia the Germans had invaded and the war was effectively over for that country. They were both interned but then released on parole; Yudenitch died soon after.
Flora returned to England after the war where she lived for the last ten years of her life in Suffolk. She died on 24th November 1956.
Flora wrote two autobiographies:
Sandes, Flora (1916). An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Sandes, Flora (1927). The Autobiography of a Woman Soldier: A Brief Record of Adventure with the Serbian Army 1916–1919. London: H.F. & G. Witherby.
It is a great shame that she is now almost forgotten in this country. There was a local pub named after her – but that has now been closed and her name is no longer on the building. In contrast, she is still revered as a national hero in Serbia, with a street recently named after her in Belgrade and a Serbian stamp issued in her honour in 2015.
Flora was able to do much of what she wanted as she was a strong-minded woman of independent means. Money and connections were admittedly very important in those days and she was also highly educated and spoke a number of languages. Some have pointed to all of this, claiming she led a privileged life. However, none of those counted for much when facing the hardships of life in the frontline during a Balkan winter. That was where she earned her many military honours and the respect of all those around her. She worked as a nurse in wartime before WW1 and was the only British woman who fought anywhere in the First War. That is what we should remember her for today.