Captain Flora Sandes: ‘the Serbian Joan of Arc’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Volume 17

73_small_1252848597Flora Sandes (1876–1956) fought with the Serbian army during the Great War, and was awarded the country’s highest military honour. To the soldiers of Serbia she was nashi Engleskinja—‘our Englishwoman’. Flora was indeed born in Poppleton, Yorkshire, but her family background was whollyIrish. How had she ended up fighting in the Serbian Army?

Escape from a humdrum existence

Flora was spirited and independent but worked in a humdrum office position. In August 1914 her application to join the medical service of the British army was rejected, as her medical training was very limited. She then joined six other women who responded to Serbia’s appeal for medical volunteers. Flora was 38 years old and her contract was for three months. The group set out on 12 August, and three weeks later sailed into Salonika on the deck of a cattle ship.
Flora worked in a hospital in Valjevo, ‘the death camp of Serbia’, where she contracted typhus and saw ten of her colleagues die from the disease. Her duties went far beyond her training and she even performed amputations. She asked to be assigned to the ambulance unit of the army and was sent to the 2nd Infantry Regiment, where she endured the same hardships as the soldiers. By autumn 1915 the Serbian army was being routed, and Flora chose to stay with the men in the ‘Great Retreat’ over treacherous mountain terrain through Albania. She earned their respect for her physical endurance and her calmness under fire, and she increasingly came to symbolise the hopes of Serbs that military help would come from the allies. Here she describes the conditions:

‘Scorching days followed by freezing nights, when we lay on the bare mountainside in clothes soaked in perspiration with no covering but our overcoats; incessant fighting, weariness indescribable, but hand-in-hand with romance, adventure and comradeship, which more than made up for everything.’

‘Drifted . . . from being a nurse into a soldier’

Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes playing chess with Serbian comrades during a lull in the fighting. (Sandes family)

Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes playing chess with Serbian comrades during a lull in the fighting. (Sandes family)

After observing her skills in the field, the commanding officer, Colonel Milich, urged her to join the army. Many Serbian peasant women served in the army, so it was not unprecedented. Flora agreed, and the decision was formalised there and then by removing her Red Cross badge and replacing it with brass regimental figures from the Colonel’s epaulettes. Flora wrote: ‘I seem to have just naturally drifted, by successive stages, from being a nurse into a soldier’. She was able to ride and shoot, had a zest for military life, great physical endurance, medical skills and several languages, and therefore was a formidable asset to the regiment. Her books and diaries reveal that her sense of humour was also invaluable in facilitating her integration into a male-dominated world. But it was mainly as the symbol of Allied support that she was held in awe by the Serbs:

‘It was heartbreaking the way they used to ask me every evening, “Did I think the English were coming to help them?” and “Would they send cannon?” . . . I used to cheer them up as best I could, and said I was sure that some guns would come, and that even if they didn’t they must not think that the English had deserted them, as I supposed they had big plans in their head that we knew nothing about, and that though we might have to retreat now, everything would come right in the end. It was touching, the faith they had in the English.’

The remnants of the Serbian army reached Salonika, and Flora went back to England on a fund-raising mission. In September 1916 she published a book about her wartime experiences, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, primarily to raise money for Serbia’s military campaign. To some it seemed that the final bastion of male dominance had been stormed and that women’s roles would be changed forever. She was hailed as ‘the new woman’ and ‘a modern girl’ in the press, and dubbed ‘the Serbian Joan of Arc’. A reviewer in the Daily Express welcomed the book as ‘a wonderful story . . . of thrilling interest’, and praised Flora as an accomplished and courageous woman, while tut-tutting about her choices:

‘The manner in which she conquered difficulties proves that a woman can do things that no mere man would even attempt. We do not hold that it is well for women to join the fighting line, except under very peculiar circumstances. These in Miss Sandes’ case arose, but when they ceased to exist, we think it would have been better for her to have returned to her duties as a nurse and not again to have faced the hardships of a fresh campaign. However, a life of wild adventure must have strong attractions, and once adopted is probably hard to abandon.’

‘A modern day Amazon’

Flora Sandes in June 1956, five months before her death at the age of 80. (Sandes family)

Flora Sandes in June 1956, five months before her death at the age of 80. (Sandes family)

Needless to say, Flora didn’t heed this advice and returned to Serbia. In November 1916 she was severely wounded by a Bulgarian grenade. As she recuperated in hospital, she was promoted to sergeant major and honoured by the award of the Kara George Star, Serbia’s highest decoration for non-commissioned officers. Flora was demobilised at the end of the war and became an unofficial ambassador for her adopted country, undertaking missions to Australia particularly. In 1920 she was received rapturously by the Serbian expatriate community there, and headlines proclaimed her ‘a modern day Amazon’.

Returning to civilian life proved difficult. On social occasions she felt awkward in civilian dress, and her old colleagues were uncomfortable in her company when she was not in uniform. In 1927 Flora married Yurie Yudenitch, a White Russian who had also been an officer of the Serbian army. She published a second book, Autobiography of a Woman Soldier, and was promoted to the rank of captain. After Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, she and Yurie were arrested and imprisoned. They were released after a few weeks on condition that Flora report regularly to the Gestapo. She eventually returned to Suffolk as a widow, and died there in November 1956.
An obituary in the London Times claimed that the personal affection of the Serbian soldiers for her ‘increased almost to idolatry, for under the stress of war she showed all the qualities they most admired—outstanding courage, cheerfulness, and sympathy’. Serbians held vivid memories of Flora Sandes for many years after her wartime exploits. When war reporter Kate Adie was in the Balkans in the 1990s, she heard about her for the first time from an interpreter. Alan Burgess published a romanticised account of Flora’s life, The Lovely Sergeant (1963), and there have been tentative efforts to make a film.  HI

Bryan MacMahon is a local historian living in Stillorgan, Dublin.


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