As we approach the 100th anniversary of Armistice day, the story of Flora Sandes, my great great aunt, deserves a retelling. Aunt Flora (her sister was my father’s grandmother), made a unique contribution to the First World War as a nurse, a warrior and a states(wo)man. Born in Yorkshire in 1876, the youngest of eight, Flora’s trajectory was not that of a typical Victorian lady of the day. In fact she could reasonably be described as a badass. To prove this point, the charming website Badass Of the Week characterizes her contributions thus, in measured, academic prose:
“Flora Sandes was a tough-as-shit old British chick who took the stereotypical Victorian attitudes towards women, ram-rodded them down the tube of a howitzer, and blew them straight through the heads of anyone who stood across from her on the battlefields of World War I. This battle axe of a hardass was the only British woman to officially serve as an infantryman in the war, the first woman to ever be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army, and performed so many intense acts of badassitude that she’s now considered a war hero in both her homeland and her adopted country of Serbia.”
She was an iconoclast – working as a trilingual secretary in London, then Egypt, racing sports cars around country lanes, walking across North America, constantly looking for action and wanting to get involved. She was a fiercely independent woman who competed with men on their terms, but was also it seems, very much a woman.
She wrote two autobiographies, one in 1916 and 1926, then Alan Burgess wrote The Lovely Seargeant) in 1963 followed by Louise Miller’s defining biography A Fine Brother in 2012, from which most of this tale comes from, diligently distilled via my father, who remembers her from when he was a boy. Also, of dubious distinction, she had a Wetherspoons pub in Thornton Heath named after her, which was replaced by a Pure gym in May this year despite 3000 signatures in a letter writing campaign to save the pub, and a folk song. She features in an official Serbian video, compulsory viewing for all Serbian school children, and is on a Serbian stamp and also has a street in Belgrade named after her.
She was part Florence Nightingale nurse, part Joan of Arc soldier and part diplomat / statesman.
As a nurse, she wanted to serve in the War and get to the front lines, but wasn’t accepted to go to France as a British nurse as she had no hospital training. She met the American wife of the Foreign Minister of Serbia on a recruiting mission and just a week after the War started was headed to war-ravaged Serbia with six other female volunteers to help in Kragujevac hospital. When she got there she quickly saw the dismal state of the hospital, desperate lack of staff, appalling sanitation, no running water, lice-infested patients lining the corridors and severed limbs in piles. Rather than running for the hills she ran back to the UK – to raise funds for supplies. She wrote a letter to the Daily Mail (during Paul Dacre’s first year as Editor, jk), which raised the profile of her cause, and she gave speeches and did a drive to raise money for the ‘Serbian Relief Fund’. At the same time her friend went back to the US and did the same thing there. By the time 3 months has elapsed, they’d put together 120 tonnes of medical supplies which they took back to Serbia on five railway carriages.
These supplies provided much needed support for struggling hospitals. She took her supplies to Valjevo, the centre of a raging typhus plague epidemic (which went on to kill 150,000 Serbs, due to its mortality rate of 75%). She was warned by the doctors not to go or face near certain death. She ignored the advice and initially acted as a surgical assistant spending all her days amputating gangrenous limbs from Serbian soldiers. Eventually all the staff and the surgeon contracted typhus, leaving her the last woman standing – so then she graduated to chief surgeon aka ‘limb-remover in chief. (I jest but she probably did too…) Then after a couple of days she got typhus and was laid out in a coma for 3 weeks, but somehow survived to fight another day. And fight she did.
As a soldier, undaunted by this brush with death she badgered to get in the army, and achieved this lifelong dream by first serving with the Field Ambulance and being taken on as a newly minted private in the heroically named, ‘Iron Regiment’. Long lists of acts of bravery ensued during a major retreat when the enemy combatants pushed the entire Serbian army and government back over the mountains into Albania during the winter of 1915/1916. This cataclysmic event, the chillingly titled Albanian Golgotha, claimed the lives of 240,00 people (estimates vary, but I’m just grateful I wasn’t there to do the counting), giving Serbia the highest per capita casualty rate of any country in the first world war.
While crossing Albania she was promoted to corporal for various acts of valour (and presumably bloodshed) and then when the Army was regrouping in Corfu, the Serbian Crown Prince personally promoted her to Sergeant.
She returned to Greece with the army who were determined to regain occupied Serbia. To do so meant eliminating the Bulgarians from a series of mountain ranges towards Monastir. This brutal series of attacks up hill against determined defenders caused tremendous losses to the Serbs. The order was to fight to the last man to take Hill 1212 the last obstacle before Monastir. Flora was part of the brutal combat but was hit by a grenade which exploded hitting the revolver on her hip. Her loyal colleagues crawled back through the snow and enemy fire to drag her bloodied body back to ‘safety’. When her Colonel heard of her plight he contacted the field ambulance yelling blue murder insisting that they save her. By this stage Flora was considered a lucky talisman for the Serbians and a one-woman diplomatic force of nature, apparently inspiring beaten-down Serbs that their allies the Brits, were in among them. One assumes that her banter was first rate too.
Clearly not having the best of days, her handlers loaded her up on a stretcher, whose bearers then got lost in a snowstorm, stumbling around with a broken Flora assuming that this was finally the end. In time the weather cleared and she was deposited in a field hospital. Here she was given a slug of brandy and told not to complain as shards of metal were removed from her lacerated body. They did what they could, leaving 19 pieces of shrapnel in her that were a permanent memento of that wretched day. The other significant memento of that day, awarded in her hospital bed, was the Order of Karađorđe’s Star Serbia’s highest medal, equivalent to our Victoria Cross.
Convalescence and relaxing didn’t come easy. She was sent to Tunisia to recover, and had a few months back in the UK. In Britain she ended up giving well-received speaking tours about her life on the Serbian front lines (thus her role as states(wo)man) and was invited to tea with Queen Alexandra, where to the courtiers’ chagrin she took in her loaded revolver. Antsy to get back to the action she went back to her regiment in 1918, for the final push to clear Serbia of the invaders. Clearly fate had decided she was having it too easy, so she got Spanish Flu, and while recovering took charge of an appallingly run hospital and turned it round. A veritable John Harvey Jones of her day as well it seems.
At the end of the war all Sergeant-Majors were commissioned, except Flora. There was nothing in the Army Regulations allowing a woman to hold a commission. So, naturally, they passed an Act of Parliament specifically designed to allow her to be promoted to an officer.
After such an eventful time in the wars, she probably found civilian life rather pedestrian. She took a year off to go round the world and did speaking tours in her full medal-adorned uniform (she had seven to display). Her trip to Australia saw her visit her older brother, who was the right hand man to the future Edward VIII.
Then she went back to Serbia, where she joined the Border Force. Her sergeant and future husband, Yuri Yudinitch had been a Colonel in the White Russian Army they were both devastated when the Border Force was disbanded and they were jobless. They tried living in England but Yuri’s nyet English meant that Paris was a better bet, so he ended up doing odd jobs there while Flora worked in the Folie Bergère, acting as a ‘big sister’ slash protector to make sure the Tiller Girls were safe. I’m guessing by this stage, she could quite happily play the role of enforcer towards any over-zealous client.
Then she and Yuri went back to Belgrade where Yuri set up a taxi service and Flora taught English. This relatively quiet period didn’t last. The Second World War broke out, and though the Serbian government capitulated, the Serbian Air Force didn’t agree and told Germany where to go. It took ten days for Germany to respond – the Luftwaffe came across and for four days indiscriminately razed Belgrade to the ground, and then marched in. Flora signed up again for action, joined a small, ill-equipped unit. She was imprisoned for a while by the Gestapo, but as the Badass of the Week website colorfully puts it:
“At age 51 she married an ex-pat Russian general who had fought against the Communists, and she loved her Serbian home so much that she didn’t even evacuate it when the Nazis stormed through during WWII. The Gestapo interrogated her a couple times and tried to get her to tell them god-knows-what, and she of course told them to get fucked with a jackhammer until the other end came out their eye sockets. They didn’t press the issue.”
When Tito came in after the war, non-Serbs were not welcome, so she went off to South Africa. Eventually – and perhaps amazingly after all this time – she came back to the UK in her 70s, and our family bought her a small cottage in Suffolk, called Folly’s End (very near where my parents currently live in Orford). She died peacefully in 1956 in Ipswich Hospital, but not before renewing her passport, presuming no doubt that the next adventure was just around the corner.