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Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War

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Forgotten Heroines
Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr | Margaret Sanger - Pioneer in Birth Control and Women's Rights | Lisa Potts - Schoolyard Heroine | Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War | The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two | Lillie Hitchcock-Coit - Firefighter | Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette | Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend | Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine

'Well, can you run fast?'
'What, away from the Bulgars?!' I exclaimed in surprise.
'No, towards them.'
'Yes, of course I can.'

Flora Sandes, an English nurse who enlisted with the Serbian Army during the First World War, risked her life to fight for the cause of a people she barely knew. However, she picked up a gun when called to and became not just a soldier, but a highly decorated leader of men.

The Vicar's Daughter

The daughter of Samuel Sandes, an Irish clergyman, Flora was born in 1876, the youngest of nine children. She grew up in the small town of Poppleton (near York), in Yorkshire. Always an adventurous woman, she once cycled through Central America to visit her brother, who was helping build the Panama Canal. While there, she rescued her baby nephew, Dick, whose mother had recently died, by cycling back through the jungle carrying the baby in her bicycle basket.

On her return to England, Flora began gaining nursing expertise with the St John Ambulance and a group known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). The FANY worked with the Red Cross, principally as ambulance drivers, but were also trained in battlefield retrieval: the nurses would rescue casualties and carry them to safety on horseback.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Flora Sandes promptly volunteered for service with a Red Cross ambulance unit on the Eastern Front. Already in her late thirties and a comparative 'old-timer', she left London by steamer on the 12 August, 1914, along with another 36 nurses bound for Serbia. When the Serbian Army was overrun by invading Austro-German-Bulgarian forces in November 1915, Flora travelled with the army and government-in-exile during the 'Great Retreat' to Corfu via the mountains of Albania.

During the retreat, Flora became lost while on her white horse Diana, and found herself fighting alongside the men of the Fourth Company of the Serbian 2nd Infantry Regiment (the 'Iron Regiment') against the Bulgarians. The Serbian Army were no strangers to women fighting in their ranks, so the English nurse was quickly encouraged to pick up a weapon. She borrowed a rifle and quickly learned how to use the weapon:

I had only a revolver and no rifle of my own at that time, but one of my comrades was quite satisfied to lend me his and curl himself up and smoke. The officer in charge showed me how to fire off one of the guns when he gave the word, and let me take the place of the man who had been doing it.

Flora soon officially enlisted in the regiment and went with them as it retreated into Kosovo. By the end of November, the Serbian forces had reached the Albanian mountains.

A Natural Soldier

Colonel Militch, the company commander, explained that he allowed Flora to join his troops because he felt she would be 'as effective a soldier as the Serbian peasant women' already fighting in the ranks. Flora was a vital asset to the company, as she was able to shoot, ride a horse, drive and speak four languages. Although nearing forty years of age, she quickly became a corporal:

Lt Jovitch took me into his company, and I was enrolled on its books, and he seemed to think I might be made a corporal pretty soon if I behaved myself.

Flora was in charge of a platoon when she was severely injured by an enemy grenade during hand-to-hand fighting in August 1916. She was hospitalised, awarded Serbia's highest military decoration, the Karageorge1, and in November was promoted to the rank of sergeant-major. She quickly recovered and, despite her injuries, returned to the front. Her notoriety among the enlisted troops and other army units grew. Ishobel Ross of the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit recalls in her diary of 29 September, 1916:

Colonel Vassovitch came into the camp with an English woman dressed in the uniform of the Serbian Army. Her name is Flora Sandes. She is quite tall with brown eyes and a strong, yet pretty face. She is a sergeant in the 4th Company and talked to us for a long time about her experiences, and the fierce fighting she and the men of her company had to face. We felt so proud of her and her bravery.

In 1916, Flora also published her biopic An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army as a means of raising necessary funds for the Serbian cause. The book quickly propelled her to stardom, and, to the Serbs, she was akin to many other contemporary heroes.

After the Great War

Flora Sandes remained with the Serbian Army. Her bravery during the Great War was recognised in June 1919 when a special Serbian Act of Parliament made her the first woman to be commissioned to the rank of Lieutenant in the Serbian Army. In 1927, she married former Russian White Army general Yurie Yudenich. Flora found civilian life difficult, and spent most of her time shunning female attire and dressing mainly in her military uniform, proudly wearing her Karageorge.

When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, Flora was living in Belgrade with her husband. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was briefly called up, despite her age and the lingering effects of a severe war wound, as a member of the Serbian Army reserves in 1939. Although now 63, she was captured by Germans and taken to a military prison hospital, where she was able to use her gender to her advantage. The German guards were accustomed to seeing Flora in uniform, so did not recognise her when she put on women's clothes and simply walked out of the jail. It took several weeks for the Germans to track her down and re-arrest her.

After the death of her husband in 1941 and the end of the Second World War in 1945, Flora returned to England, retiring from the Serbian Army with the rank of major. The quiet life was something Flora found difficult:

Turning from a woman to a private soldier proved nothing compared with turning back from soldier to ordinary woman.

She continued to make public appearances dressed in her uniform, a smart walking cane at her side, passing comment on the Great War to anyone who asked:

It is a funny thing about rifle fire, that a person's instinct always seems to be to hunch up his shoulders or turn up his coat collar when he is walking about, as if it were rain, though the bullet you hear whistle past your ears is not the one that is going to hit you.

Flora Sandes passed away in 1956 at her home near Thornton Heath, Suffolk. To this day, she is almost forgotten by her home country, but in Serbia she continues to be an inspiration for the men and women of the armed forces.

1The Serbian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

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