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  • Eleanora Gallenzi

A Tribute To Flora Sandes

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

When most people think of women’s roles during the First and Second World War, they imagine them working in factories, on the ‘home-front’, or running Britain whilst the men were sent abroad to fight. This was not the case for Flora Sandes. Even from a young age she was determined to become a soldier. She eventually succeeded, becoming the only Western woman known to have enlisted and fought as a member of the regular army in the First World War.

Flora Sandes was born in Yorkshire in 1876 to a country rector. Since childhood, she yearned for adventure and had always dreamed of becoming a soldier. In her free time, she enjoyed reading poems and books, particularly Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, which she read countless times, and riding on horseback in the countryside, showing no desire to follow societal norms. When war broke out in 1914, Flora saw an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do. At the age of thirty-eight, eight days after war against Germany was declared in August, she travelled to Serbia as a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Service. There, she initially worked as a nurse, but, as her knowledge and understanding of the Serbian language grew, she was able to enlist in the Serbian Army, one of the few that allowed women to fight, as a private.

In the autumn of 1916, Flora fought a succession of fierce battles alongside her male counterparts. On 16th November, however, she was wounded by a grenade as she was defending her position from a surprise enemy attack. Although her wounds were severe, Flora Sandes did not let this hold her back and, once recovered, continued fighting on the frontline and she was awarded the Order of Karađorđe's Star, Serbia’s highest civilian and military decoration, for her bravery. At the same time, she was promoted to Sergeant-Major. That same year, she published her autobiography titled ‘An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army’ to raise funds for the Serbian Army. Word of her story spread back home in England.

She remained in the army even after the war and became the first woman and only foreigner to have been commissioned as an officer and command her own platoon. In late 1922, however, she was demobilised and left to travel between England and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In the meantime, she married Yurie Yudenitch, a White Russian officer, in 1927. Two years later, they moved to the Kingdom and lived and remained there during the Second World War, despite the fact that Yugoslavia had been encircled by the Nazis. At the age of sixty-five, Flora Sandes went off to fight once again, but her plan was cut short by her previous war wound which made it difficult for her to continue. The Germans soon defeated the Yugoslav Army and occupied the country.

On the 24th June 1941, Flora Sandes was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into prison, but was released eleven days later. After that she had to report to an officer of the Gestapo weekly until the end of the summer of 1944, when the Germans were losing the war. The Germans’ place was taken by the Yugoslav Partisans, a Communist-led resistance commanded by Marshal Josip Broz Tito. Flora Sandes saw them as just another group of oppressors and with no one to look out for her – Yurie had died in 1941 of heart failure – she decided to move to Rhodesia with her nephew. Eventually, she returned once more to England where she passed away at the age of eighty, still full of life and the desire to travel and see the world.

Although still celebrated in Serbia – a road was named after her in 2009 and she appeared on postage stamps in 2015 – I feel that her story is still unknown to many people, although this may all change as a film about her life is in the works. Hopefully, all of this will help her legacy to live on and inspire future girls who have the same sense of adventure.


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