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Flora Sandes, the only British woman who served as a soldier during WWI & was awarded the highest decoration

Tijana Radeska
Flora Sandes
Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes was the only British woman who served as a soldier during the WWI; she was an officer of the Royal Serbian Army. It all began when she traveled the Kingdom of Serbia as a St. John Ambulance volunteer.

In sight of the tragedy of the war happening there, Sandes enrolled in the Serbian army, and very soon she got promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major. After the war, she got the rank of Captain and was decorated with seven medals.

Sandes was born in 1876, in Nether Poppleton, Yorkshire, as the youngest daughter of a former rector of Whitchurch. She was raised as a middle-class girl who received her education from governesses. However, nothing could calm or discourage her wild spirit. No matter how lady-like the education she had received had been, Flora loved to ride and shoot, and had said that she regretted not being born a boy. Besides riding and shooting, Flora later also enjoyed drinking and smoking.

Sandes in Serbian Army uniform, ca. 1918.

Flora moved to London as soon as she could and worked as a secretary. Soon after, she left the UK because of work she had in Cairo. After Egypt, Flora traveled to Canada and the USA, where apparently she shot a man in self-defense. When she arrived back home to England, this tomboy woman bought herself a French racing car and a membership in a shooting club. In her spare time, Flora trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), where she learned first aid, horsemanship, signaling, and drill.

With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Flora signed up as a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Service and traveled to Serbia. There she nursed wounded soldiers and after a year, she was fluent in Serbian and was transferred to the Serbian Red Cross. She started working with a Serbian infantry regiment on the front line. As the Austro-German forces advanced, the Serbian Army needed more soldiers on the fronts, and Flora saw an opportunity to enlist, as the Serbian army was one of the rare armies that allowed women to join up to fight.

General Dietrich’s Russian brigade on the march in Macedonia 1916.

 

Flora was soon promoted to Sergeant-Major. During the Battle of Bitola, in Macedonia, Flora was severely wounded by a grenade and suffered extensive shrapnel wounds to her body and a broken arm. She was awarded the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star by the Serbian government for her bravery, which is the highest decoration of the Serbian Military.

Flora Sandes received the Order of Karađorđe’s Star in December 1916.

 

Despite the injuries, Flora loved her time in the army. In 1916, she published a book, “An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army” about the Serbian cause, the war, and her time in the country. When she got back home in England, Flora Sandes became quite a celebrity. In 2009, a street in Belgrade was named after her.

In 1927, Flora returned to Yugoslavia and married Yuri Yudenitch, a fellow officer, and former White Army general who was twelve years younger than her. They lived together in the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia and traveled in the UK, France, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where Flora gave lectures on her wartime experiences.

 

The Grand Cross Medal of the Order. Photo credit

When the country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, despite being 65, Flora enlisted to fight and was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo when the Yugoslav army was defeated. Her husband sadly died in 1941.

Sandes on a 2015 stamp of Serbia.

After the war, even though she was penniless, Flora went traveling. She traveled to Jerusalem with her nephew and then she went to Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe).

Read another story from us: Marine PFC Found Clutching a Sword and Surrounded by 13 Dead Japanese Soldiers

She spent her last years in Suffolk where she died in 1956, at the age of 80.