Researched by John Mills. Flora Sandes was the only woman to officially fight on the front line during WW1, having joined the Serbian Army.
Flora was born on the 26th January 1876 in Nether Poppleton, near York, the youngest of eight children. From an early age she exhibited an adventurous nature, a real tomboy, somewhat surprising for the daughter of a vicar! At the aged of 9 the family moved to rural Suffolk. Even her middle class upbringing didn’t dull her desire for adventure. After school she trained as a stenographer in London and scrapped together all her money, and together with the proceeds of a legacy from an uncle she went off to see the world travelling to places like Egypt, Canada and America.
Flora was 38 years old when WW1 broke out and was living in London at the time. She enlisted as an Ambulance Service Volunteer and just 8 days later she was on her way to Serbia with the first volunteer unit to leave Britain. She worked in Military Hospitals and by October 1915 was fluent in the Serbian language. She eventually enlisted in the Serbian Army, one of the few countries in the world that accepted female soldiers. She soon made a name for herself, rising through the ranks to Sergeant within a year. It wasn’t just soldiering that Flora matched her male counterparts. She could hold her own racing cars, shooting, smoking and drinking.
She survived the front line fighting, received a terrible shrapnel wound in November 1916, and even the Spanish Flu. She received Serbia’s highest Military decoration, the ‘Order of the Star of Karadorde’. When the war ended Flora stayed in the Army until 1922. She married in 1927 to Yuri Yudenitch, a soldier 12 years her junior whom she had served with. They lived for a time in France before settling in Yugoslavia. In April 1941 when Germany invaded Yugoslavia Flora donned her uniform prepared to fight for the Yugoslav Army. She was 65 years old! Germany’s victory, however, was swift, just 11 days. Her husband died of heart failure the same year.
Flora was alone and penniless at the end of WW2. She moved to live with her nephew in Jerusalem and then to Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe). She eventually returned to Suffolk and died on the 24th November 1956 aged 80.
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