Flora Sandes (22 January 1876 – 24 November 1956) was a very interesting woman in the First World War. Although she was British, she enlisted into the allied Serbian army and consequently was the first British woman to fight as a soldier during the war.
Flora was born in Yorkshire in 1876 but moved to Suffolk at the age of nine. Flora always dreamed as a child of being a soldier and was always yearning for that bit of adventure that came with it. However as a British woman this was not going to happen. Before WWI she did, however, find herself exploring the world, first working in Cairo, then Canada and across America. Flora wasn’t a young lady when WWI broke out; she was 38 and living in London. At first she applied to volunteer as a nurse with the British Military Hospital but upon rejection decided to join a group of volunteers to go over to Serbia to help a few days after the announcement of war.
After several months of helping with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver she was approached by a Serbian soldier out riding on horseback one day, asking her if she would ever consider becoming a soldier rather than a nurse. This was the first time it could be plausible for her to join as a soldier. In late 1915, an opportunity arose for her to join when the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians started an offensive on Serbia. Flora joined as a private, and her gender did not limit her from front line soldiering, and is remarkable for a woman of that age to be fighting. As the fighting escalated, Flora became badly wounded in a battle in Macedonia by the Bulgarians when she broke her cover to fight back. For this act of bravery, Flora was awarded Serbia’s highest military honour, the Star of Karaƒëorƒëe.
After her recovery‚ shrapnel from a grenade had shredded half the skin on her body‚ she hastily volunteered to go into the trenches to fight alongside the men for their country. By the end of the war, Flora had gained the rank of Sergeant-Major and remained to stay in the military even after the war had ended. What was even more remarkable is when the Second World War broke out in Yugoslavia she put her uniform back on at the age of 65! Unfortunately, her previous war wound put a stop to her plans, and Yugoslavia was defeated within 11 days.
For more information, the BBC have a short video about Flora Sandes.