The Only British Woman to Serve Officially as a Soldier in WW1

Flora Sandes (Courtesy of The Museum of Military Medicine)

Flora was born in Yorkshire, but moved to Surrey when she was a little girl. Here she was taught by a governess and enjoyed the finer things in life. She was particularly fond of horse riding and shooting, often confessing that she wished she was a boy. She took a job as a secretary and quickly learnt to drive. She was keen to experience the world and quickly joined the growing First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). With the FANY she improved her horsemanship, learnt first aid, signalling and drill. She wanted more from the FANY so left to join a similar organisation, The Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy. This organisation looked for opportunities to undertake humanitarian work; they were able to provide Flora with the adventure she craved. The Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy quickly volunteered their support in Serbia and Bulgaria during the First Balkan War in 1912 and Flora went with them.

After a successful period assisting the Serbian Military, Flora jumped at the chance to volunteer to be a nurse on the outbreak of the First World War. Unfortunately the War Office turned her down as she had no formal qualification. This did not stop Flora, she joined Mabel Grouitch’s St John Ambulance unit, largely consisting of American volunteers and rushed to the aid of the Serbian Army once more.

She joined the Serbian Red Cross quickly on her arrival, finding herself posted to the ambulance supporting the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. These soldiers were notorious for their battle prowess and were certain to feature heavily in any battles. The tides of War turned against the Serbian Army and they along with nurses like Flora were forced into retreat.

During this retreat life was difficult for Flora, she was in an alien world and feared for her future. To afford herself the best
possible protection she took the decision to enrol as a member of the Serbian Army. She was no longer there to care for the sick and wounded, she was now a soldier in her own right. Possibly even living out her childhood dreams. The Serbian Army were clearly impressed with Flora and her abilities; she was quickly promoted to Corporal. She would have lived the life of a soldier; she would have had basic rations, irregular access to warm dry beds and regular encounters with the enemy. One such encounter in 1916 was to change Flora’s war once more. In close quarter combat on the Serbian advance to reclaim Monastir, she was severely injured by a grenade.

Following this injury she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major and received one of the highest available Serbian Decorations, The Order of the Karadorde’s Star. She was too badly injured to return to the fighting force; instead she raised money to improve the levels of comfort afforded to Serbian soldiers, particularly those that had been taken prisoner. She knew how lucky she had been to avoid such a fate. At the same time she ran a hospital to support the sick and wounded once more.

Following the War Flora remained in service with the Serbian Army. She became the first woman to receive a commission and retired at the rank of Captain in the 1920s. By 1927 she had settled back into civilian life, however she remained in Serbia. She married Yuri Yudenitch and they lived happily in France and Yugoslavia for many years.

When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 she and Yuri were once more called to action, however the invasion was over before they reached military lines. Shortly after Yuri took ill and sadly passed away, prompting Flora to move back to the Surrey region.

Flora was a strong, courageous and principled woman. Like many hundreds of other women in Surrey she wanted to do her bit to help with the War Effort, but also sought out adventure. Her contributions like the many nurses and VAD’s that worked alongside her greatly contributed to the success of the medical services during the First World War and beyond.

Flora Sandes is just one of the talented Surrey Women featured in Surrey Museums Month 2017. To find out more about the event and other celebrated Surrey Women click here.

Extract courtesy of The Museum of Military Medicine.