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Flora Sandes (1876-1956)

Ever heard of a British woman fighting on the Serbian front line in WWI? Read on to discover more about this fascinating woman with a true passion for adventure…Bvdy4N0CUAAR8nlFlora was born into a hardworking middle class family from Yorkshire. Eschewing the normal forms of amusement for little girls, Flora adored horse-riding and shooting. She spent hours out of doors, running wild through the woods and fields around her home. Flora wished she had been born a boy so she could become a soldier, but this of course was absolutely impossible at the time. As she grew older, her sense of adventure and desperation to see more of the world could not be abated. As soon as she turned eighteen, Flora used her secretarial skills to travel to Cairo, across British Colombia and the United States. On her return she became of the first women in Britain to obtain a driving license and bought a French racing car. She joined the shooting club and trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

Flora’s first opportunity for adventure was on the horizon. In July 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and the European powers agreed to send support. Flora soon found herself on the way to the front line in Serbia as part of St. John’s Ambulance. Working on the front tending to the sick and wounded, at first Flora communicated using only sign language. By October of the following year however, Flora was fluent in Serbian. She joined the Serbian Red Cross, working for the 2nd Infantry Regiment- known as the ‘Iron Regiment’ because it spent so much of their time at the front. Flora showed such courage and fortitude that she was soon regarded as an invaluable resource for the Serbian troops. The war was going very badly, and as the army was pushed further back through the Albanian mountains, Flora was able to become more and more the soldier she had always dreamt of being.

Flora Sandes portrait with medalWomen were actually allowed to join the Serbian Army, something that would never had been allowed back in Britain. Flora jumped at the first opportunity to join as a private in the infantry. No British woman had ever done so before, so it really was an extraordinary thing to decide to do, in the midst of a war. The Serbs in turn greatly appreciated Flora’s commitment and many skills. She was the utmost professional, game for everything, but also had a humour and humility that endeared her to soldiers from all ranks. For the Serbs she personified Britain’s commitment to help them in their hour of need. Flora was also fantastically brave. She was twice mentioned in Dispatches, and was awarded the Serbian equivalent the Victoria Cross for her bravery during a particularly vicious attack. This attack left her seriously wounded from twenty-eight individual shrapnel injuries down one side. By this time she had been promoted to the rank of Sargeant- Major, and on sick leave in England, raised as much money as possible for her beloved Serbian troops. She returned to the front line in May 1917.

After the war ended Flora became the first woman or foreigner to be raised to the rank of Captain in the Serbian army. It was a huge honour, and Flora was delighted to be given command of her own platoon. In 1922 Flora left the army as the Serbian forces were scaled back after the war. Flora returned to England, but felt very out of place. She said ‘I felt neither fish not flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on woman’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ Living on her army pension, she survived by teaching and writing her second autobiography.

flora-yuri

Flora with Yurie (sandesancestry.net)

In 1927 she married a Serbian called Yurie Yudenitch who had been a Colonel in the White Army and had escaped Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They had met when Yurie was serving in Flora’s regiment, and they had fallen deeply in love. The couple moved to Paris where Flora worked for a time as a chaperone for young ladies at the famous Folie-Bergere bar. Flora and Yurie then moved to Belgrade where Flora worked as one of the city’s first taxi drivers. She also spoke about her experiences in the Serbian Army extensively, lecturing all around the world. She always gave her talks in her Captain’s uniform, which she wore with great pride.

When WWII broke out, having refused to leave Yogoslavia, Flora was arrested and imprisoned by the Gastapo. Flora later recalled of prison life: ‘There were fourteen 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.’  Later one of Flora’s cell mates recalled that she ‘possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully.’  After her release she had to report weekly to the Gastapo. Devastatingly Yurie fell ill soon after her release and died of heart failure.

bhbFlora was forced to endure three and a half years of solitude in Belgrade, cut off from friends and family. When the war  ended Flora was free to return to England, but without her beloved husband, it was a difficult decision. However her sense of adventure had not diminished, and so Flora decided to go and live with her nephew in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She loved living there but was forced to leave after only a few months as the locals were appalled to find her smoking and drinking with the African locals, in a fashion that was deemed totally unacceptable! Flora reluctantly returned to England, where she lived out her remaining years dreaming of more adventures. She even renewed her passport in the months before her death in 1956, in the hope that she might get to explore more of the world.

A real heroine of the First World War!

Categories: 20th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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