Flora Sandes was born on 22 January 1876 in Nether Poppleton, Yorkshire. The youngest daughter of Irish rector Samuel Dickson Sandes and his wife Sophia Julia, Flora was an adventurous child who enjoyed riding and shooting and often claimed that she wished she had been born a boy.
On finishing her education, Flora took a job as a secretary and trained with the ‘First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps’ in her spare time. The Corps was an all-women mounted paramilitary organization that taught first aid, horsemanship, signalling and military drills. In 1910 Flora left the Corps to join the newly formed ‘Women’s Sick & Wounded Convoy’ where she got her first taste of service on the front line. The Convoy served in the first Balkan War in 1912 where Flora saw active service in Serbia and Bulgaria
When World War 1 began in 1914, Flora immediately volunteered as a nurse but was turned down due to her lack of formal qualifications. Undeterred, she instead joined a St. John’s Ambulance unit and left for Serbia with 36 other women to try and aid those affected by the fighting on the Eastern Front.
Flora joined the Serbian Red Cross and worked in an ambulance attached to the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army but was separated from her unit during a desperate retreat into Albania. Lost and alone, she enrolled as a soldier with a Serbian regiment for her sown safety.
While it was not unheard of for women to serve in the Serbian army, it was unusual and Flora was the only British woman to do so. She proved to be a capable soldier and quickly rose to the rank of Corporal.
Flora was seriously wounded during the Serbian advance on Bitola in 1916 where she was hit by shrapnel from a grenade and injured in intense hand to hand fighting. For her bravery, the Serbian government promoted Flora to the rank of Sergeant Major and awarded her the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star, Serbia’s highest military decoration.
Now unfit for combat due to the extent of her wounds, Flora spent the rest of the war running a hospital and publishing her memoirs. Entitled “An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army” they went on sale in 1916 and the Flora dedicated the proceeds to the Serbian war effort.
By the end of the war Flora had risen to the rank of Captain, making her the first British woman to ever hold a commission. She was finally demobilized in October 1922 and married fellow officer, Yuri Yudenitch, in 1927. The couple remained in Belgrade until Yuri’s death during the German invasion of 1941. Flora returned to England and spent the last years of her life in Suffolk.