The Life of Captain Flora Sandes

The remarkable story of the only Western woman to enlist to fight in the First World War

In 16 November 1916, a soldier of British nationality was seriously wounded while fighting for the Serbs, allies of the British, in some of the harshest conditions of the First World War. Two weeks later, this soldier was awarded the Karageorge Star, the equivalent of the Military Cross and, by the end of the war, would be twice Mentioned in Dispatches for exceptional bravery. But this record, impressive by any standard, was not that of one of the millions of young men who thronged to the ranks of allied armies. It belonged instead to Flora Sandes, a woman from Suffolk, the courageous daughter of a village rector. While other women fought in the Serbian army and elsewhere along the Eastern Front, Flora is the only Western woman known to have enlisted and fought as a member of a regular army in the First World War.

I first stumbled across a reference to the extraordinary Flora Sandes a decade ago, when I still laboured under the impression that women did little more than ‘keep the home fires burning’, while hoping that their husbands, brothers and fathers would return home unscathed from a conflict that saw millions slaughtered. Ten years on, my research into Flora and the hundreds of other British women like her who worked in this forgotten theatre of war has led me to a radically different conclusion, that where women were able to seize the freedom to work as they wished, they proved themselves every bit as competent as their male counterparts. And the only country that permitted them to do this was beleaguered Serbia, desperate for all the competent help it could get.

Serbia gave them the freedom to realise their potential and act scandalously away from the prying eyes of their friends, families and neighbours. Although most volunteers distinguished themselves, there were transgressions, most of which were successfully hushed up in the British press. Life in Serbia for medical and relief workers was a free-for-all: just the kind of environment where a determined English nurse could join the Serbian army.

Flora had always dreamed of being a soldier. While other girls of her age and standing spent their time sewing, painting and dreaming of their wedding day,

Flora read and reread Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, wondering what it would be like to be ‘Storm’d at with shot and shell’. She spent long hours on horseback, galloping through the rolling Suffolk countryside imagining that she was rushing into battle against the Russians at Balaklava, all the while perfecting her field skills by shooting rabbits. Not even a governess nor a stint at finishing school could curb her adventurous nature.

Above Flora inspecting the squad

Although there were many who took a dim view of what they regarded as her wayward antics, her liberal father looked kindly upon his fiercely independent youngest daughter. In 1894, he moved his family to Thornton Heath so that she could train as a stenographer in London. She used the income earned from her newly won secretarial skills and a legacy from a rich uncle as a ticket to adventure. She worked as a secretary in Cairo, camped in British Columbia and, while ‘typing’ her way across America, shot a man in self-defence. In the years before the war, she took part in ‘reliability trials’ with the race car she purchased in 1908 and joined an underground rifle range in London. 

By the time Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, 38-year-old Flora was living at home with her 15-year-old nephew Dick and her elderly father. Her prematurely greying hair was cut too short to be ladylike, she had a penchant for ‘galumphing’ (which almost always involved alcohol) and she smoked too much. The house was ‘in turmoil’, remembered Dick. She ‘knew nothing about housekeeping and could not care less’. Above all, Flora needed a change. Eight days after the declaration of war, she was on her way to Serbia with the first volunteer unit to leave British shores.
While other girls of her age spent their time dreaming of their wedding day, Flora’s ambition was to become a soldier
At a First Aid Nursing Yeomanry camp (bottom right)


In the early months, she worked in military hospitals. Her patients, wounded during the invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary, were among the war’s first victims. At first, most of the conversations she had with them were conducted through sign language. But by the time Serbia faced renewed invasion in October 1915, Flora’s Serbian was fluent enough to enable her to engineer her way into the army. She edged ever closer to the fighting by transferring to a military ‘ambulance’. Then, when Serbia’s defeat meant that no further nursing could be attempted, she picked up a rifle and enlisted as a private in the Serbian army. For Flora, this was to be the start of her rapid ascent through the ranks of the Serbian army.

She had been waiting all her life for excitement such as this. In the autumn of 1916, she fought in a succession of savage battles in the mountains of Macedonia to free a corner of their country from occupation. What happened on the bitterly cold, snowy morning of 16 November was widely reported in papers around the world. Flora was wounded by a grenade while helping to defend her position. Bleeding and unconscious, she was rescued by a lieutenant in her company who risked his life to crawl out under fire to drag her back to safety. For her exceptional bravery under fire, she was awarded the Karageorge Star. 

Flora was seriously wounded. Shrapnel had shredded the flesh of her back and the right side of her body from shoulder to knee. Her right arm had been broken and badly lacerated. But once recovered, she rejoined the men in the frontline trenches, fought alongside them as they regained the country they had lost nearly three years before, and survived Spanish influenza.

In the autumn of 1916 Flora fought a series of savage battles and was seriously
wounded by a grenade

At the end of the war she remained in the army. ‘I never loved anything so much in my life,’ she said. She became the first woman and only foreigner to have become an officer, after which she was given her own platoon. Flora ‘could be seen every day goose-stepping with her recruits over the cobbles of Belgrade’, wrote an observer. But in 1922, she was demobilised as the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) stepped back from its war footing. ‘I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of the army,’ she said. ‘The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’
Below Flora playing chess with comrades

Above right Flora in Serbia circa 1934

She spent the first years after demobilisation drifting between England and the Kingdom, often accompanied by Yurie Yudenitch, a handsome, educated White Russian (Belarussian) officer, 12 years her junior, who had served under her as one of her sergeants. They married in 1927. Two years later, they made the now Kingdom of Yugoslavia their home.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, although British citizens had been warned to leave Nazi-encircled Yugoslavia, Flora remained. The Nazis invaded in April 1941; four days later, aged 65, Flora pulled on her uniform and marched off to fight. Within days, though, her old war wound put an end to her plans. It took only 11 days for the Germans to defeat the Yugoslav army and occupy the country. 

The Gestapo caught up with Flora on 24 June. That night, she was arrested and thrown into a cell in Belgrade. ‘There were 14 women in that room – British and Serb. There were also streetwalkers and so on, but we were bound together by our common misfortunes and became good comrades,’ Flora later recorded. ‘She possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully,’ wrote one of her fellow prisoners. After only 11 days, she was released. For the rest of the war, she had to report weekly to an officer of the Gestapo, Huber, but as the weeks went by, something that might have passed for friendship if circumstances had been different arose between them. 

For three and a half years, Flora remained in German-occupied Belgrade. It was a long and lonely time. In September 1941, her beloved Yurie died of heart failure. Cut off from her family and friends and alone with her thoughts, she suffered his loss keenly during what must have seemed like an interminable wait for Allied victory. But by the end of the summer of 1944, Flora knew the Germans were losing the war. ‘I’ve come to say goodbye,’ Flora said to Huber during a visit to his office. ‘And where do you think you’re going?’ he demanded, spluttering with indignation. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ ‘No,’ she smiled, ‘but you are.’

By late October, Tito’s partisans had chased the last Germans from Yugoslav territory. But it soon became clear to all but the most ardent communists that they had exchanged one set of oppressors for another. Impoverished and with no one to look out for her, Flora took the difficult decision to leave the country for which she had fought two world wars. In July 1945, she went to live in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with her nephew Dick, who was now a policeman. Three months later, Dick was hauled in before his superiors and was told she had to go. ‘She had been fraternising with the African peasant population, sitting around an open fire and drinking beer made from sorghum,’ remembered Dick’s daughter. 

Flora at home in June 1956

Flora was driven to the railway station, where she began the long trip home to Suffolk. As the years passed, her old wounds caught up with her and she took to using an electric wheelchair to travel between the local villages. She would set off, white hair streaming behind her, as she pushed it to its full speed. Increasingly nostalgic for the war, she lived for the annual gathering of the Salonika Reunion Association, for whom she was a heroine. After a brief illness, she died at Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital on 24 November 1956 of ‘obstructive jaundice’, aged 80. She had renewed her passport shortly before she died, still dreaming of places to see and trips to take.

Roll of Honour