Suffolk: Brave Flora - the only woman to fight in the First World War

Flora Sandes was a free-spirit and not at all ladylike. But she was brave – the only woman to fight in the First World War. She was a celebrity here and they’ve just named a road after her in Serbia. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about a life less ordinary

“TO think after all I’ve done and the places I’ve been to that I should have to settle down in Wickham Market!” remarked Flora Sandes, wryly, to a neighbour in the sleepy Suffolk village. She wasn’t wrong. Flora had sought adventure like a moth seeks a flame, living a life that would have appeared barely credible had it been suggested by a scriptwriter’s pen.

We have to use bullet points to give an overview of her achievements. Flora Sandes:

n Ignored the risk of disease to help the sick and wounded more than 1,000 miles from home as a volunteer “nurse”

n Carried out DIY amputations to stop men dying from gangrene

n Nearly died from typhus – a bacterial disease spread by lice or fleas

n Was very badly injured by shrapnel

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n Was the first woman – and the only foreigner – commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army

n Received its highest decoration, for bravery under fire

n Was imprisoned by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Belgrade

n Has just had a street in Belgrade named after her

The story is told in a biography by Louise Miller, who works for a stockbroking firm and researched and wrote it in her spare time.

“I first stumbled across a reference to Flora in a newspaper article about Philippa Tattersall, who was the first woman to pass the Marines’ Commando course,” she tells ealife. “This was about 2002. All it said was that a British woman had also fought in the First World War, and I thought it odd that I hadn’t heard of her.

“Therein began what has been nothing short of an obsession to find out more. I tracked down her family, who hold her papers and photographs. Very generously, despite the fact I had no qualifications to undertake a project of this scale, they agreed to help.”

Flora, granddaughter of a bishop, came from a comfortably-off, Protestant, Anglo-Irish family. She was born in 1876, near York. Her father was a rector. The family had fled Ireland four years earlier because of violence against the Anglo-Irish community.

The eight children and their parents moved about a lot. One stopping-point was Monewden, south-west of Framlingham. In 1885, when Flora was nine, they settled in Marlesford, near Wickham Market. Quiet now – apart from the A12 – then it had a population of nearly 400, a grocer, blacksmith, bootmaker, and thatcher and vermin killer.

They lived in an elegant rectory. The girls were home-schooled, and stubborn Flora – dubbed “the brat” by her brothers and sisters – enjoyed riding and shooting.

She went to a Swiss finishing school and spoke French and German. She was also an avid reader, with a taste for “heady tales of Imperial glory and far-flung adventure, which fired her desire for excitement”, says Louise.

In 1894 the family moved to the Croydon area. “The main purpose of the move was almost certainly to ensure that eighteen-year-old Flora and her sister Fanny, both of whom then aspired to become writers, were in commuting distance of London.”

The young lady took a secretarial course but, easily bored and not interested in domesticity, “showed scant desire to lead the respectable and leisured life that was expected of a woman of her background”.

Flora worked as a typist in Cairo for a year and then went to America with a friend, another typist. They worked their way from city to city.

In 1908, using part of a sizeable legacy left to the children by an uncle, she bought her first car.

“By the time Flora reached her thirties, the rector’s daughter was still living at home, single, and had a penchant for decidedly unfeminine pursuits which made her exciting company to those with similarly liberal inclinations,” writes Louise. A sister-in-law described her as hot-tempered, full of fun, and with “an amazing amount of vitality”.

Many took a dim view of her antics, but Flora didn’t worry unduly. In 1907 or 1908 she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – women ready to gallop onto the battlefield during a war to rescue the injured.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the 38-year-old was living at home with a teenage nephew, her bedridden father and a clutch of staff. She needed a change and “received the news of war with a thrill of excitement”.

In the west, women were barred from working near the front. That restriction didn’t apply in the Balkans. The unqualified but supremely competent Flora joined a corps of volunteer surgeons and nurses.

They boarded a train for Serbia. Her luggage included a violin, a portable rubber bath and all the cigarettes she could carry.

She quickly made friends with a kindred spirit. Volunteer nurse Emily Simmonds had an English mother but a home in New York.

They nicknamed each other Sandy and Americano, and their disregard of decorum earned the disapproval of their “stolid and duty-bound colleagues”. Flora, for instance, “had a penchant for what she called ‘galumphing’ (which almost always involved alcohol) and she smoked far too much”.

Towards the end of August the party clambered off the train at Kragujevac, 60 miles south of Belgrade.

The First Reserve Military Hospital, a converted army barracks, was overflowing with 1,200 patients. The women breathed in for the first time “the fetid smell that permeated every room, of crowded human bodies, badly-infected wounds, antiseptic, tobacco and stale food”.

There was no running water or proper equipment, and only two surgeons, eight nurses and five orderlies. Surgeons often worked without anaesthetic.

By autumn, fighting had intensified and the hospital ran out of dressings, food and beds. With Austrian forces only 35 miles away, staff and patients evacuated the hospital.

Flora and Emily went home. Both launched fund-raising campaigns – between them securing �4,000 to buy medical supplies. Early in 1915 they ignored warnings and headed back to Serbia.

The women arrived in Valjevo, horrified. The place swarmed with vermin as soldiers lay on floors, with no blankets, in the depths of winter.

Flora noted: “There was no-one to nurse them . . . the only thing that was being done was to sort out the dead from the living in the mornings . . .”

Most patients had typhus. The hospital was designed for 250 men, but there were more than 800. Louise writes: “Some were so covered with lice that it looked as though ‘moving grey patches were on [their] dusky skins’. Those in the grip of typhus writhed and shouted in delirium.”

The volunteers girded themselves and pitched in. Soon, everything ran like clockwork.

Flora and Emily realised something would have to be done about men dying from gangrene. They blew the dust off an old sterilizer found under a bed, collected a few surgical knives . . . and began operating.

“It was a case of doing something for these men or seeing them die before our eyes without lifting our little finger to help them,” Flora later explained. “We were very short of anaesthetics; what we had we kept for the worst cases.”

She reckoned: “The men had such faith in us because we were English that I really think we cured them more by faith than skill.”

The following spring, both women succumbed to typhus and for a week Flora’s life hung in the balance. They pulled through. The disease is thought to have claimed at least 150,000 of the population.

Flora had been out riding alongside a Serbian soldier the previous year. “What do you want to be a nurse for?” he had asked, impressed with her horsemanship. “Your skills are wasted in the hospital wards. Why don’t you join the army instead?”

Flora joined a military ambulance, and had a narrow escape from Bulgarian forces.

The Commandant of the Second Regiment of the Morava Division heard about this eccentric Englishwoman, and when he met her was impressed by the 39-year-old’s enthusiasm and fearlessness.

Colonel Milic “could see that his men took comfort from the fact that a British woman had chosen to stand by them at a time when they were on the verge of defeat”.

He allowed Flora to accompany him to the trenches – sometimes close enough to hear the cries of the Bulgarians as they charged.

“To be in the thick of the battle was something that Flora had long dreamt of, ever since as a child she had read and reread ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and spent hours imagining herself as the central character in Kipling’s tales of high adventure,” explains Louise.

Her cup runneth over when the grey-haired, 39-year-old Englishwoman was accepted as a private in the Serbian army. “At a stroke, she became the only Western woman to enlist in a regular army during the First World War.”

Lieutenant Janacko Jovic, leader of the Fourth Company, “was impressed enough with Flora’s sangfroid under fire and her ability to handle a rifle to enrol her on his books as a member of his company. She was overjoyed finally to have her place in the Serbian frontline”.

“She earned instant respect from the fact that she, an Englishwoman, was willing to fight for Serbia and share their hardships . . . ‘Brother,’ they began to call her, their usual term of address.”

Plenty more scrapes, adventures and hardships followed. We’ll leap forward to a cold November night in 1916.

Flora and 500 men suffered a surprise attack on a hillside. For the Englishwoman, everything suddenly went black. She lay bleeding in the snow. “Shrapnel had shredded the flesh of her back and the right side of her body from shoulder to knee. Her right arm had been both broken and badly lacerated by the blast.”

A lieutenant dragged her to relative safety. (He would receive the highest decoration for bravery.) Hours later, without anaesthetic, a doctor probed her wounds for shrapnel. Seriously injured but not dangerously so, she would later need more operations to remove smaller splinters.

“Volunteer Sergeant” Flora was later awarded the highest decoration in the Serbian army for bravery under fire, while “twenty steps from the Bulgars”. It brought promotion to sergeant major and caught the attention of British newspapers. The publicity made Flora a household name.

“In an era when only men could vote, she provided an example of what women could achieve. She proved so inspirational that British liaison officers attached to the Serbian army grumbled about the amount of time it was taking to reject applications from other women.”

In England she enjoyed a royal audience – showing Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria her revolver! – and did a lecture tour.

After the war ended, she and Emily set up facilities for former PoWs and the following year Flora – the first woman and only foreigner ever to have been commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army – was promoted to second lieutenant. She was made a “vodnik” – platoon officer – and put in charge of about 60 men.

Then, in the autumn of 1922, Flora became a civilian after almost seven years in the army. She missed the camaraderie desperately.

While still in uniform she’d met Russian colonel Yurie Yudenitch. They married in 1927, in Paris.

Flora was 51 and her husband 38. Yurie “gave her the constant company she needed without ever suffocating her and, after five years together, the thought of life without him had become inconceivable”.

Financially, times were tough and after a couple of years they moved to Belgrade.

By 1940, Yurie’s health was so poor there was no chance of side-stepping the Nazi threat by leaving for England.

Hitler’s subsequent aerial assault left the capital without phones, water and electricity. Flora was 65, but vowed to battle for her adopted country. “You can’t stay out of the fighting – can’t let other people do it for you – not if you hold the Kara George Star,” she said.

On a snowy April morning she donned her uniform and reported for duty. It was pretty hopeless, though. Yugoslavia (as it then was) quickly fell.

In June, the Gestapo knocked one night and arrested the couple. Flora was put in a cell with 13 other women. Some prisoners were executed but, thank goodness, the pair were freed after 11 days.

Yurie’s health worsened, however, and he died in September, 1941.

Flora remained in Belgrade for three and a half years, in grinding poverty. She taught English and just about kept her head above water – breaking up tables and chairs during a dreadfully cold winter to make fires.

During the summer of 1944 Hitler began to withdraw his forces to strengthen other fronts. By late October the capital was clear of Nazis . . . and then the communist-led Partisan movement imposed its grip.

“With great sadness Flora began to turn over the hitherto unimaginable thought that she would have to leave the country that had been her home for much of the last thirty years and for which she had served in two world wars.” She went early in 1945.

After time with relatives in Africa, Flora returned to England in 1946. The family sorted out a cottage in Wickham Market – about a mile from where she had spent much of her childhood.

Grandnephew Arthur Baker recalled that she “did what she wanted to do. She smoked, she drank fairly heavily – things that ladies didn’t do, you know – and she was very funny. She had an interesting sense of humour – not something you’d expect in an old lady”.

As she became less mobile, Flora used a battery-powered electric chair to travel about – often having to be retrieved when the power ran out between villages!

“Yet despite the best efforts of her family and friends they were unable to give her the sort of constant companionship that she had so thrived upon in the army and she reported feeling lonesome in the pages of the diary that she continued to keep,” says Louise. “She also missed Yurie terribly, recalled one of the villagers.”

Flora died at Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital on November 24, 1956, of “obstructive jaundice”. She was cremated at Ipswich Crematorium and her ashes buried in the Garden of Remembrance.

“She had renewed her passport shortly before she died, still dreaming of places to see and trips to take.”

Louise Miller says Flora and those like her established a genuine legacy.

“In an age when women were denied the right to vote, she pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable behaviour – and work – for women. In so doing she became a symbol of what could be achieved and an inspiration to many.”

Today, Serbian nationalism helps keep alive the memory of the British females who worked and often died for the country.

“In 2006 a Serbian film was released about the retreat [with the Serbian Army in late 1915], ‘Where the Lemon Blossoms Bloom’, that featured Flora Sandes. Every schoolchild was sent to see it.”

Louise this week told ealife from Belgrade – which she was visiting for the ninth time – that Flora remains something of a cult heroine, although her fame has waned.

“However, I found out two days ago that a new street in Belgrade has just been named after her – amazing!”

She added: “As for how Flora should be remembered: she was able, by force of character, to do precisely what she wanted. And by so doing, nearly 100 years ago, she managed to achieve something that women today still aren’t permitted to do – go into battle alongside her male comrades.”

n A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes is published by Alma Books at �25. It’s stocked by Aldeburgh Bookshop.

The Miller’s tale

Louise Miller was:

• Born Hastings, 1968

• Grew up in Canada

• Studied international politics at degree level and MA

• 1993: moved to Scotland

• 1997: postgraduate law degree at Edinburgh University

‘Around this time I ran out of money and began working for Charles Stanley Stockbrokers in their Edinburgh office. I’m still there’

• Researched and wrote the Flora Sandes book in her spare time, ‘which is increasingly short as I now have a three-year-old boy, Tom’

• Has seen where Flora nursed (Kragujevac and Valjevo) and parts of Macedonia where she fought

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