May 12, 2014
Born in England, of Irish descent, Flora Sandes became a Serbian military heroine. Louise Miller explains how a Suffolk nurse found fame and fulfilment as a soldier far from home
Private Sandes enlisted in the army on 28 November 1915. Many British soldiers of the time wanted, like this new recruit, to fight, to test their wits against an enemy and to experience the thrill of battle. But few wanted it more than Pte Sandes, for whom war was the ultimate “sport”, the great testing ground of endurance and courage. Yet what set this British soldier apart from thousands of others was that the army was Serbia’s – and that the soldier was a woman.
In mid-December, only two weeks after she joined the army, Flora Sandes got her chance to fight. In so doing, she became the only Western woman to enlist and go into battle during the First World War – an experience she later described as follows:
“We rode all that morning, and as the Commander of the battalion, Captain Stoyadinovitch, did not speak anything but Serbian nor did any other of the officers or men, it looked as if I should soon pick it up… While we were riding up a very steep hill where Captain S had to go for orders, Diana’s saddle slipped round, and by the time some of the soldiers had fixed it again for me I found he had got his orders and disappeared. I asked some of the soldiers which way he had gone, and they pointed across some fields; so I went after him as fast as Diana could gallop.
"I met three officers that I knew, also running in the same direction, and all the men seemed to be going the same way too. The officers hesitated about letting me come, and said, ‘Certainly not on Diana,’ who was white and would make an easy mark for the enemy; so I jumped off and threw my reins to a soldier.
“‘Well, can you run fast?’
“‘What, away from the Bulgars?’ I exclaimed in surprise.
“‘No, towards them.’
“‘Yes, of course I can.’
“‘Well, come on then,’ and off we went…”
Sandes was 39. She had been waiting for this moment all of her life. One of eight children of a village rector, she had grown up in the leafy surrounds of Marlesford, Suffolk. While other girls of her age and standing had spent their hours practising sewing and painting and dreaming of their wedding day, her liberal parents had allowed their youngest child to go riding, hunting and shooting. Her pursuit of these pastimes meant that, by the outset of the war, she had developed an unusual set of skills and aptitudes (particularly for a woman), which could be transferred readily to the battlefield. In war-ravaged Serbia, she found freedom to pursue her childhood dream.
Sandes arrived in Serbia at the end of August 1914. Her comprehensive pre-war first aid training allowed her to nurse in a military hospital 60 miles south of Belgrade. By the autumn of 1915, her Serbian was good enough to allow her to engineer her way into the ranks of the Serbian army, first by working as a nurse in another military hospital near the front, then by transferring as soon as she could to a field ambulance attached to a Serbian regiment. By then, in the winter of 1915, the Serbian army was on the verge of defeat and was being pushed across the mountains of Albania.
Faced with a choice between being sent home or remaining with the army, Sandes seized her moment. With the approval of her commander, she picked up a rifle and enlisted as a private. The night that she was welcomed into the Fourth Company, at the top of an Albanian mountain, was one of the happiest of her life.
“That evening was very different to the previous one,” she wrote later. “Lieut Jovitch had a roaring fire of pine logs built in a little hollow, just below what had been our firing line, and he and I and the other two officers of the company sat round it and had our supper of bread and beans, and after that we spread our blankets on spruce boughs round the fire and rolled up in them. It was a most glorious moonlight night, with the ground covered with white hoar frost, and it looked perfectly lovely: with all the camp fires twinkling every few yards over the hillside among the pine trees. I lay on my back looking up at the stars, and, when one of them asked me what I was thinking about, I told him that when I was old and decrepit and done for, and had to stay in a house and not go about any more, I should remember my first night with the Fourth Company on the top of Mount Chukus.”
Sandes survived the retreat, although nearly 100,000 Serbian soldiers succumbed to disease and starvation, and seems to have adapted to combat with ease. In her 1916 memoir, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, she wrote:
“Later on the next day [after that first encounter with the enemy], the sun put in an appearance, as did also the Bulgarians. The other side of the mountain was very steep, and our position dominated a flat wooded sort of plateau below, where the enemy were. One of our sentries, who was posted behind a rock, reported the first sight of them, and I went up to see where they were, with two of the officers. I could not see them plainly at first, but they could evidently see our three heads very plainly.
"The companies were quickly posted in their various positions, and I made my way over to the Fourth which was in the first line; we did not need any trenches as there were heaps of rocks for cover, and we laid behind them firing by volley. 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.”
Badly wounded by a grenade in November 1916 in an action for which she won the Star of Karageorge, the Serbs’ highest award for bravery under fire, Sandes was promoted shortly thereafter to sergeant-major in recognition of her courage. She returned to the Serbian army following her recovery and later fought with them to liberate their country from enemy occupation.
She was also a talented fundraiser who raised the equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds for them. By the end of the war, she had survived typhus and Spanish influenza, had been mentioned twice in despatches and was known throughout the army as “nasa Engleskinja” (“our Englishwoman”).
She remained in Serbia (later Yugoslavia) after the war, becoming a reserve captain in 1926 and marrying a White Russian refugee, a former officer in the Russian imperial army, in 1927. Her courage would come to the fore again in the Second World War, when she refused to leave her Belgrade home ahead of the Nazi invasion but, instead, pulled on her uniform again at the age of 65 and marched off to fight the Germans. Her old war wounds quickly put paid to this plan, though, and she finished up in a German-run military hospital, from which she escaped by changing into civilian clothes and sauntering out through the front gate.
Her husband died in 1941, and in 1946, after the Partisans came to power in Yugoslavia, Sandes returned to Wickham Market in Suffolk.
She lived there for a decade, complained about the boredom and the fact that the police would not permit her ammunition for her gun, and lived for the veterans’ events that she was able to attend – especially the annual reunion of the Salonika Campaign Society at the Cenotaph, where she was welcomed as a heroine. She died in 1956, aged 80.
Louise Miller is the author of ‘A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes’ (Alma Books, £25). Flora Sandes’ memoir, ‘An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army’ was published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton
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