In the week that the United States lifted a ban on its female military personnel serving in front-line combat roles, we remember Flora Sandes, the woman whose bravery in battle made her a true heroine of World War 1.
Flora Sandes was born in 1876 in Yorkshire, the youngest daughter of middle class Irish clergyman Samuel Sandes. The family moved to Suffolk when she was 9 and, while most girls her age were content with dolls and sewing, she spent many hours in the Suffolk countryside following her two favourite pursuits, horse riding and shooting. She wished she had been born a boy and dreamed of being a soldier. Inspired by Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, she imagined herself on horseback charging at the Russian ranks in the Crimea. Her spirit of adventure was a joy to her liberal father, and not even her governess nor finishing school could curb it.
When she was 18 Flora trained as a stenographer in London and used her secretarial skills, plus a legacy from a rich uncle, as the means to fund her passion for travel. She worked in Cairo, British Columbia and across the US (where she shot a man in self-defence). When she returned home to London, she learned to drive and bought a French racing car. She also joined a shooting club and trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.
By 1914, Flora was 38 years old and living at home with her elderly father and 15 year-old nephew Dick Sandes. Society considered her unladylike – her hair was cut short and she was over-fond of alcohol and cigarettes. Dick remembered the house as being ‘in turmoil’: “She knew nothing about housekeeping and could not care less.” In short, she was bored.
Then an opportunity for adventure presented itself. On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and within a week all the major European powers had become embroiled in what became the First World War. A week later, Flora was on her way to Serbia.
She had joined a St. John Ambulance unit of 36 women raised by American nurse Mabel Grouitch to aid the humanitarian crises now developing in Serbia. They arrived at the town of Kragujevac which was on the frontline of Serbia’s fight against the Austro-Hungarian offensive. She worked in military hospitals tending the Serbian wounded, initially communicating with them through sign language. By October 1915, her Serbian was fluent enough for her to join the Serbian Red Cross and work in an ambulance for the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. The 2nd Regiment was known as the ‘Iron Regiment’ and spent most of its time in the front line.
By this stage the war was going badly for the Serbian Army and it was slowly being driven back by overwhelming odds. Their only line of retreat was through the Albanian Mountains, and conditions were such that Flora drifted by successive stages from a nurse into a soldier. When her unit reached country impassable to ambulances, she took the Red Cross badge off her arm and declared that she would join the 2nd Regiment as a private. Flora’s enlistment in the field was simple; the colonel of the regiment took his small brass regimental badges off his own epaulettes and fastened them on the shoulder straps of his new recruit.
Following the Balkan tradition of ‘sworn virgins‘, it was not unusual for women to serve in the Serbian Army, but Flora was the only British woman to do so. She was regarded as a considerable asset by her Serbian comrades, who looked on her as a representative of England – she personified a pledge that England would help them. Their personal affection for her soon increased to idolatry when, under the stress of war, she showed all the qualities they most admired – outstanding courage (she was twice Mentioned in Dispatches), cheerfulness and sympathy.
She rose swiftly through the ranks and was a sergeant within a year. She also published her autobiography, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, and used the proceeds to help Serbian soldiers and prisoners of war.
In the autumn of 1916, Flora fought in a series of bloody battles in the bitterly cold mountains of Macedonia. On 16 November, during the Serbian advance on Monastir, she was involved in desperate hand to hand combat when she was seriously wounded by an exploding grenade. She sustained 28 shrapnel injuries to her back and the right side of her body from shoulder to knee; her right arm was also shattered and badly lacerated. Bleeding and unconscious, she was rescued by a lieutenant in her company who crawled out under fire to drag her back to safety.
Flora was taken to a British military field hospital for Serbians, where she remained for about 2 months. While recovering there, she was presented with Serbia’s highest military decoration for bravery, the Order of the Star of Karađorđe, for her exceptional courage under fire. She was also promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major. She was given sick leave in England, where she raised more funds for Serbian soldiers. In May 1917, she returned to her regiment and took part in all further operations until the end of the war.
After the war Flora remained in the Serbian Army and became the first woman and only foreigner to be commissioned as an officer. She was given command of her own platoon and “could be seen every day goose-stepping with her recruits over the cobbles of Belgrade”, according to an observer.
In October 1922 she was finally demobilised as the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) scaled back the size of its military forces. She said: “I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.”
Living on her army pension, supplemented by teaching English and writing (including her second autobiography), she drifted between England and Serbia, often accompanied by Yurie Yudenitch, a handsome, educated Belarussian officer, 12 years her junior. Yudenitch had been a colonel in the White Russian Army and had escaped from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He had joined the Serbian Army as a sergeant and had been in Flora’s regiment. They married in 1927.
Flora and Yurie lived in Paris for a time, where Flora worked as chaperone to the young ladies of the Folies Bergère, before settling back in Belgrade. Among other jobs, Flora drove Belgrade’s first taxicab. She also lectured extensively on her wartime experiences to audiences in England, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada and the United States, which she delivered in her army captain’s uniform.
When World War 2 broke out British citizens were warned to leave Yugoslavia, but there was no question that Flora would remain in Belgrade with Yurie. When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, both Flora and Yurie were recalled to military service. Flora, now aged 65, was still quite willing to return to active service, but she never got the chance as the Germans defeated the Yugoslav Army and occupied the country within 2 weeks.
The Gestapo arrested Flora as an enemy alien and threw her into a cell in Belgrade. Flora later recalled: “There were 14 women in that room – British and Serb. There were also streetwalkers and so on, but we were bound together by our common misfortunes and became good comrades.” One of Flora’s fellow prisoners later wrote of her, “She possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully.” She was soon released on parole but had to report weekly to the Gestapo for the rest of the war.
Shortly after her release, her beloved Yurie fell ill and died of heart failure in hospital. Flora remained alone, cut off from family and friends, in German-occupied Belgrade for 3½ years. When Yugoslavia was finally liberated in 1945, Flora took the difficult decision to leave.
Her wandering days weren’t quite done. Instead of heading home to England, she went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to live with her nephew Dick, who was now an officer in the colonial police force. However, she only stayed there for a few months as the authorities were unhappy with her “fraternising with the African peasant population, sitting around an open fire and drinking beer made from sorghum,” as Dick’s daughter remembered. Flora had to go.
She eventually made her way home to Suffolk, where she spent her remaining years – living for the annual gathering of the Salonika Reunion Association who still idolised her. She died, after a brief illness, in November 1956 aged 80. She still had adventure on her mind until the end; she had renewed her passport shortly before she died.
Flora Sandes was a remarkable woman and way ahead of her time. Her spirit smashed through the stifling social conventions of Victorian and Edwardian England without putting her femininity or her morals in question. She was a courageous soldier, respected and adored by the troops she led, and by the people whose country she lovingly adopted. She was a true heroine of the Great War.
Sources: Louise Miller, author of ‘A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes‘, and contemporary newspaper accounts