Sandes, Flora (1876–1956)
Sandes, Flora (1876–1956)
English nurse and soldier considered a hero of World War I. Born in Poppleton, outside of York, England, in January 1876; died in Suffolk, England, in November 1956; youngest of eight children; attended finishing school in Switzerland; married Yuri Yudenitch (a Russian colonel), in 1927 (died during World War II); no children.
The only British woman to fight in the trenches during World War I, Flora Sandes was a hero of the Allied Serbian Army and as such was awarded the Kara George Star, the highest Serbian military award (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross). Commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1919, by a special act of the Serbian Parliament, Sandes also served briefly in World War II, during which she escaped from her Gestapo captors. She later returned to her roots in rural England, where she died in obscurity in 1956.
Sandes, the youngest of the eight children of a vicar, was born in 1876 and grew up near Ipswich in Suffolk, where she prayed nightly that she might miraculously be changed into a boy. As a child, she eschewed dolls and frilly dresses, much preferring to romp in the woods with her brothers. Several years of finishing school in Switzerland during her teenage years did nothing to quell her adventurous spirit. Returning to England, she joined the Ladies Nursing Yeomanry and the St. John Ambulance Brigade, where she received some medical training, although with war on the horizon in 1914, she was turned down for hospital service. Still eager for action, she volunteered with six other Red Cross nurses to travel to the tiny Balkan kingdom of Serbia, to aid the allied army there. After serving for four months without the supplies needed to nurse the wounded, Sandes returned to England to solicit funds and equipment. Upon her return to Serbia, she was stricken in a typhus epidemic, but was among the few to survive.
When Germany and Bulgaria entered the war against the Serbs in 1915, Sandes' medical unit was abandoned and only serving soldiers were allowed to remain with the army. Seeing this as an opportunity, Sandes made a request to join the Serbian Army as a private. Because Serbia and Britain were allies, and Serbian women were allowed to enlist in their country's forces, she was granted her wish. Over the course of the next seven years, during which time she was promoted to sergeant, she endured mountain warfare and front-line battles. In 1916, fighting close to the Bulgarian lines, she was severely wounded by a grenade and sent to Greece, then to North Africa, for surgery. Discharged from the hospital in 1917, Sandes refused a desk job to return to the front line. She served only six months before her injuries forced her to head back to England for further surgery. While convalescing, she formed the Serbian Comforts Fund in London, and published an article on the plight of the Serbs in the Morning Post. In 1918, Sandes rejoined the army for the final push to victory. Just before the Armistice, she was stricken with the "Spanish Flu," then killing thousands upon thousands across the globe, from which she also made a miraculous recovery.
After the war, Sandes served in the Serbian Army until 1927, when she was discharged and married Yuri Yudenitch, a former colonel in the
tsar's Imperial Guard who had escaped from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and joined the Serbs. The couple went to live in Paris, where Sandes took a most unlikely job as wardrobe mistress and chaperon to the Tiller Girls , a female dance troupe who appeared at the Folies Bergére in Paris.
During the 1930s, Sandes and her husband returned to England, then drove across Europe and into the former Serbia, now part of the new federation of Yugoslavia. They settled in a country house outside Belgrade, where Sandes gave English lessons and Yuri ran a taxi service. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, once again plunging the country into war, Sandes, then in her 60s, was accepted back into the army as a captain. The advance of the Germans was so swift, however, that she and Yuri were captured by the Gestapo. Yuri died in 1941, but Sandes, who escaped, stayed in Belgrade, giving English lessons during the enemy occupation.
Following the liberation in 1945, Sandes returned to England, eventually settling into a cottage near Wickham Market. Memories of her soldiering days would return when least expected. "Sometimes now when playing family bridge for threepence a hundred the memory of those wild nights comes over me, and I am lost in another world," she wrote. "Instead of the powdered nose of my partner I seem to be looking at the grizzled head and unshaven chin of the Commandant, and the scented drawing room suddenly fades away into the stone walls of a tiny hut lighted by a couple of candles stuck into bottles and thick with tobacco smoke, where five or six officers and I sit crowded on bunks or camp stools." In her later years, Sandes was plagued by her war injuries, although a motorized wheelchair allowed her to get around quite well. At age 80, she entered Ipswich hospital, where she died in November 1966.
"Flora Sandes," in This England. Spring 1988, p. 14.
Uglow, Jennifer, ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1982.
Burgess, Alan. The Lovely Sergeant. Heinemann, 1963.
Sandes, Flora. The Autobiography of a Woman Soldier. H.F. & G. Witherby, 1927.
——. An English Woman Sergeant in the Serbian Army. Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts