Flora Sandes: A Female Soldier in the First World War

by JoHarrington

Back home in England, the Suffragettes were demanding votes for women. Flora Sandes was already in uniform fighting, as a British woman on the front line of World War One.

Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes did not set out to become a soldier. Nor did she intend to enter history, as the only English woman to officially fight during the First World War.

This Yorkshire born, and Surrey bred, lady had originally volunteered to be a nurse. Turned down because of her lack of qualifications, Flora Sandes traveled to the front line as a First Aider instead.

But one thing led to another, as they do. Flora ended up enlisting in the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army.

A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes the Victorian Tomboy

Flora used to tell her childhood governess that she wished she'd been born a boy.

Image: A young Flora SandesFlora Sandes had always been a bit of a tomboy. Even as a child, she'd demanded that she be taught to ride a horse and shoot a gun, just like the boys.

Her parents were Irish.  Samuel Dickson Sandes had been the rector of Whitchurch, in County Cork, before a new position saw him relocating with his wife Sophia to England. Flora was born in Nether Poppleton, Yorkshire, on January 22nd 1876.

When she was nine years old, the family were uprooted again. This time Samuel's pastoral duties took them to Marlesford in Suffolk, before they finally settled at Thornton Heath, near Croydon, in Surrey.

It was here where Flora learned to drive and bought herself a French racing car. She liked the adrenaline rush.

Now an adult, Flora might have craved an adventurous life, but she was still a female. She entered the Edwardian Age as a secretary. The only aspirations held for her was that she'd eventually marry and have children.

Instead, Flora Sandes saw her opportunity to see the world in 1914, when the outbreak of war forged an opening for nurses on the front line.

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The Red Cross in Serbia during World War One

From the St John's Ambulance to the Red Cross, Flora Sandes experienced much more than she'd bargained for. This included a stint amputating limbs in place of a surgeon.

Image: Flora Sandes as a Young WomanIt was an American lady named Mabel Grouitch, who provided passage for Flora Sandes into the theater of war.

A surgical nurse, Mabel recognized the need for trained medical staff in Serbia, as soon as hostilities began in 1914. She raised a unit of St John's Ambulance First Aiders in both the US and Britain, though only thirty-six women answered her call.

Flora Sandes had trained as a First Aider with the Ladies' Nursing Yeomanry, during peacetime, back home in Surrey. She'd attempted to sign up as a nurse before Mabel even came along, but was turned down. Her training wasn't good enough.

But she was perfect for the St John's Ambulance unit, so traveled with them to Kragujevac, in Serbia. They were soon inundated by soldiers wounded in conflict against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Flora received a crash course in nursing right there on the front line.

Within weeks, she had transferred to a Red Cross unit, also stationed in Kragujevac. Here she worked alongside the indomitable Emily Simmonds, who has been called the 'Florence Nightingale of the First World War'. Side by side, the two women treated everything which came their way, including dysentery and typhus, as well as the more usual injuries sustained in battle.

Those World War One nurses may have been safe from the guns, shelling and mortar attacks, but they weren't immune to the disease. Flora and Emily were simultaneously bed-ridden during one particularly nasty bout of typhus in the hospital.

Also prone to catching any pestilence going was the surgeons and doctors themselves. Flora recalled in later years how no surgeon was available, while soldiers in desperate need for limbs to be amputated lay at their door.

Unflappable to the last, Emily Simmonds scrubbed up and called for the first patient to be carried in. Flora nursed, while Emily sawed. Thus lives were saved in Kragujevac.

Serbia in World War One

The first shots of the Great War were fought on Serbian soil. Flora Sandes began with treating the wounded, then took up arms and joined the fight.

Learn More About the Outbreak of World War One

Flora Sandes on the Serbian Front Line

Some damsels would rather deal with their own distress, thank you very much. No Prince Charmings need apply.

Image: Soldier Flora SandesEven while nursing, Flora Sandes was not content to remain safely behind military lines in the field hospital. Throughout 1914 and early 1915, she frequently made trips to the battlefields themselves, escorted by friendly Serbian soldiers.

It was during one of these sorties that Flora found herself unable to safely retreat back to Kragujevac. Instead, she was forced to attach herself to a unit fleeing back towards Albania.

By the time they crossed the border, Flora was feeling less than useless. She could fire a gun. She'd learned that in childhood. She didn't have to be a burden on the regiment, when she could join it.

The commanding officer needed some persuading, but Flora was equal to that task. Also in her favor was her location. Northern Albania has a long tradition of 'sworn virgins', women who take an oath to live as men. By taking that oath, there really were no more barriers to Flora Sandes enrolling as a soldier.

In November 1915, Flora was handed a rifle and enlisted into the Serbian Army's Second Infantry Regiment. She was now a soldier.

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Sergeant Flora Sandes at the Battle of Bitola

Flora was badly injured during hand-to-hand combat in Macedonia. She refused to simply lie still in a military hospital.

Image: Captain Flora SandesFor the next year, Private Sandes proved her worth time and again on the battlefield. Within weeks, she had been promoted to the rank of Corporal. 

By November 1916, she was Sergeant Flora Sandes, leading her own unit on the Thessaloniki front line. Allied Troops fought long and hard against Bulgarian forces, with the city of Bitola under daily bombardment from 1915 all the way through to 1918.

It was up a mountain, to the south of Bitola, where Flora was wounded by a flying hand grenade. She received several injuries caused by shrapnel, while all around her the combat was face-to-face.

She was air-lifted out and taken to the local field hospital. In honor of her bravery, she was awarded the Order of the Karađorđe's Star - the highest accolade available in the Serbian Army. There was also promotion. From now on, she was Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes.

However, her injuries were so bad that she was eventually flown to a larger rehabilitation center based in Africa. With few Allied superiors there caring at all for the Albanian tradition of 'sworn virgins', the pressure was on for Flora to give up her military career and do something more feminine instead.

Flora was equally rankled by her presence there. It all felt too far from the action and she was no good at lying around in bed. She devoted her recovery time to writing a book. The proceeds of which would fund the Serbian Army, which was desperately in need of provisions.

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But with her book published, Sergeant-Major Sandes was ready to go. It took a lot of arguing with doctors and military personnel alike, but eventually she was flown straight back to southern Serbia.

There Flora had one more project to get off the ground. She teamed up with an English Suffragette and nurse working with Serbian soldiers in order to found Hon. Evelina Haverfield's and Sergt-Major Flora Sandes' Fund for Promoting Comforts for Serbian Soldiers and Prisoners.

Fund-raising activities over, Flora quickly re-established herself with her unit and pronounced herself fit for battle.

Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army

Captain Flora Sandes in Charge of a WWI Hospital

What goes around comes around, but this time Flora was right at the helm.

Image: Captain Flora SandesUnfortunately, those injuries were still sufficient to keep her from full health and mobility. She really had become a liability out on the field, but she still had her leadership and nursing skills to fall back upon.

Two years earlier, Flora had been turned down by a nursing corps for lack of qualifications. Now Sergeant-Major Sandes was placed in charge of a whole hospital. For the next six years, she ran it with military precision, becoming reunited with Emily Simmonds along the way.

In 1918, Flora received her final promotion into the officer class. She was hitherto Captain Flora Sandes, the first woman ever to achieve such a commission.

Even after the end of the First World War, the hospital kept on going, as wounds did not magically heal with the Armistice. In fact, Captain Sandes was not demobilized until October 1922, four years after the last shots were fired in World War One.

But she did not go home. Flora remained on in Serbia for the next five years. In May 1927, she met and married General Yuri Yudenitch, a Russian officer in the White Army stationed in Serbia. The couple lived for some time in France, before returning to Belgrade. On this occasion, Flora drove Serbia's first ever taxicab.

In April 1941, when the German Army invaded Yugoslavia, the couple were recalled into military service. Before they could take up their posts, the couple were captured by the Gestapo.

Their internment in a prisoner of war camp was only brief, but it was enough to destroy the health of Yuri Yudenitch. Despite his wife's care, he died in September 1941. 

By now, it was too much even for a stout spirit such as Captain Flora Sandes-Yudenitch. On the next flight to Britain, she finally returned home. She lived out her final years in Suffolk, on the east coast of England.

In November 1956, Flora Sandes-Yudenitch died peacefully in her bed aged eighty years old.

Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

Lisa - It helps that I'm a historian to begin with, but then I go on voyages of discovery in history books. Occasionally a gem of a story like this is just stumbled upon.

I'm glad that you enjoyed reading about Flora Sandes.

JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

Kate - You are very welcome. I wasn't at all surprised that she was Yorkshire, and even less so that her parentage was Irish. Hefty combination there!

LisaSanderson on 07/02/2013

Great Story! Where did you find out about her? You are discovering some very unusual people.

kate on 06/20/2013

than k you enlightening us again to another of histories hidden heroines. Why am i not surprised she is from Yorkshire?

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

I'm glad that you thought so. Flora Sandes was a fascinating lady, and very stubborn in what she wanted. In many ways, she shifted the world to suit her own world view, and it worked.

Mind you, opportunities came her way and she grasped them. Fair play to her!

Guest on 06/14/2013

I find this a very interesting account of a lady soldier. It must have taken a great deal of hard work and commitment as a female in those days. Thanks for sharing.

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

Apparently they're making a bit of a resurgence in Albania right now. Which says a lot about gender divisions still applicable there.

Glad that you liked the article. Though I'm sure that there's a joke in there somewhere about British women forgetting 'sworn virgins'...

WordChazer on 06/14/2013

Great article. I'd forgotten about the 'sworn virgins'...

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