When I first came across the name of Flora Sandes and read a few lines that stated she was an ‘infantryman’ in World War II, I presumed that perhaps she might be a lesbian. Then, I read on and she married a man and they lived happily until his death. Not a lesbian, but then, this site is devoted to women – straight and gay.
Flora SANDES (22 January 1876 – 24 November 1956) was the only British woman officially to serve as a soldier in World War 1 (1914-1918) for the Serbian army.
She was born in Yorkshire, England, on January 22, 1876, the youngest daughter of an Irish Protestant minister.
She was a tomboy and liked to ride and shoot a rifle. She admitted to her governess that she wished that she had been born a boy. She drove a car which was a rare thing for a woman to do at that time.
First Aid and St. John Ambulance
In her spare time Sandes trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps, founded in 1907, (F.A.N.Y) as an all-women mounted paramilitary organisation, learning first aid, horsemanship, signalling and drill.
In 1910 she joined a Mabel St Clair Stobart, in the formation of the Women’s Sick & Wounded Convoy. The Convoy saw service in Serbia and Bulgaria in 1912 during the 1st Balkans War.
World War I
In 1914, Flora joined a St. John Ambulance unit that was raised by American Nurse, Mabel Grouitch. The unit, comprised of 36 women, arrived in the Serbian town of Kragujevac which saw fierce fighting against the advancing Austro-Hungarian empire.
Flora joined the Serbian Red Cross and worked in an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. During the difficult retreat to the sea through Albania, Flora was separated from her unit. To survive, she enrolled as a soldier with a Serbian regiment.
Following the Balkan tradition of “sworn virgins“, it was not unknown for women to serve in the Serbian army, but Sandes was the only British woman to do so. She quickly advanced to the rank of Corporal. Two years later, Flora was seriously wounded by a grenade and was awarded the highest decoration of the Serbian Army, the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star and she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major.
Injured But Still Fighting
Flora was no longer able to fight as a soldier, so she published her autobiography, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army. She used her letters and diaries and chose to donate money from the sale of her book to fund the Serbian Army. At the end of the war, she was commissioned as a Captain.
The Tomboy Marries
Flora married a fellow officer named Yuri Yudenitch who was a general in the White Russian Army (supporters of the Tzar). They lived in Belgrade which became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Flora, a lover of firsts, became the driver of Belgrade’s first taxicab.
Loving the Uniform
After the war, Flora was a well-known speaker on the lecture circuit. She was a striking figure who lectured in her military uniform. She toured Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and France as well as the United Kingdom.
World War II (1939-1945)
When Germany launched its attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941, Flora and her husband were recalled by the military. The invasion was so swift that they never served. Flora and Yuri were briefly interned by the Germans and in the same year, Yuri died in September 1941.
Flora died in Suffolk, England in November 1956, at the age of 80 years.