Instead she was always what she had been born, an Anglican vicar’s daughter, and a product of Ireland and Surrey. If not a boy, she was still able to get a full measure of ridin’ and shootin’ and such like typically English country pursuits. And, in due course, she would become the only English woman to fight on the front lines of World War One. For Serbia.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. She first had to get through finishing school in Switzerland, and with a small legacy from an uncle and the money she earned as a secretary, to pick up fencing and the rudiments of first aid. Also how to drive, which in her case was in her own French roadster, a Sizaire-Naudin to be specific.
With these skills in place she was also able to work and travel abroad, Cairo for income and America for diversion (it is said she had to shoot a man while there).
She was 38 when the first war broke out, and it turned out that her first aid skills were not enough to qualify as a proper nurse, not in England at any rate. This was not what she wanted to hear, and so when the American Mabel Grouitch put it out that she was looking for volunteers, Flora was on it.
Language in the Serbian hospitals was initially something of a barrier (hand signing filled in the gaps), but she got over that in about a year and joined the Serbian Red Cross, driving an ambulance.
By now the Serbian army was in retreat and in the general confusion she was separated from her unit and for lack of anything better to do, and in accordance with her desire to pitch in, she picked up a gun and joined the ranks. Did wonders for Serbian respect for England.
She was promoted to corporal, then to Sergeant, chiefly on account of bravery in the advance on Monastir. She was also gravely wounded by a grenade, and was in hospital for two months. On this occasion she also received the Order of the Star of Karadorde , the highest award Serbia could give her.
What was daily life like? Like any war, brief moments of excitement between long periods of tedium. In a letter home, she wrote: “I am sitting in a hole about 7 feet by 4 feet, and 3 feet deep, with two other officers of my company. We can’t stir out of it from dawn till dark, and even after dark it is not healthy as there are always stray bullets which though not aimed at you, may prove just as annoying.”
By 1917, war wounds effectively put her out of the fighting, and she returned to running a hospital. The war ended in 1918, and she was not relieved until 1922, by which time she was a commissioned officer. She married a former White Army officer, Yuri Yudenitch, and they settled in Belgrade. He was thirty nine, she, fifty one.
She kept busy, driving a cab (the first in Belgrade), speed boats, and traveled to Paris as matron to a dancing troupe. She also followed up her 1916 autobiography with an updated edition in 1927 and traveled widely to lecture on her experiences and drum up sympathy and respect for Serbia.
She and Yudenitch were called up for duty after the Germans invaded in 1941, but too late to be of much help. Yudenitch died that same year (natural causes). Sandes was stuck in Belgrade until the end of the war, first in jail, then effectively under house arrest. After liberation, she moved back to England via South Africa for a bit of quiet. She died in Ipswich in 1956, still smoking and drinking, and perhaps a little less of a eyebrow raiser than she had been in her youth.
For more on this woman, as well as her first hand observation of war in the Balkans (which she is at pains to describe as nothing like the western front) see her own two books, and the recent Louise Miller biography:
F. Sandes, An Englishwoman-sergeant in the Serbian army (1916) ·