Why you should care

Many of the world’s armies still believe women aren’t fit to march, fight, kill and lead men – but Flora Sandes was proving them wrong a hundred years ago.

When we imagine women from a hundred years ago, we often mentally dress up a Downton extra — lacy pinafore, ponderous hat, maybe a racy pair of bloomers. Flora Sandes, however, would have made even Sybil Crawley blush.

She may not have been a suffragette or an Emmy-winning heiress, but Flora Sandes deserves recognition as a woman of her time: she was the only British woman to fight as a soldier in World War I.

With women still fighting for combat roles in today’s armies, Flora Sandes is an extraordinary spark of modernity in the bursting open of the twentieth century — one who still goes largely ignored by historians and TV writers alike despite fresh reassessments of the Great War leading up to next year’s Centenary.

In 1914, this unmarried, 38-year-old Yorkshirewoman raced to volunteer as a nurse with women nearly half her age. Maybe not typical Edwardian English behaviour, but Sandes refused to be anything typical. She liked driving French race cars, smoked like a chimney, spoke in her parents’ Irish accent, wore her greying hair boy-short, and was always up for what she called “galumphing” (an apparently multipurpose term for any situation that involved heavy drinking).

At the recruiting office, Sandes was told she did not have qualifications to become a nurse. If this mad woman really wanted to carry on her adventurous life, an officer asked, would she like to go to the Western Front and learn on the job?

She mostly certainly would.

A month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand tipped Europe into a series of kept diplomatic promises that led to the outbreak of war, Sandes and fellow female British volunteers shipped off to a hospital in rural Serbia.

She smoked like a chimney, wore her hair boy-short, and was always up for what she called galumphing.

Caring for wounded Serbian soldiers was exhausting, both in terms of treating their horrific injuries on limited supplies and learning their language, but Sandes was determined to do both. She recalled sometimes going “36 hours on duty without sleep” – but she was nevertheless deeply impressed with the men she encountered. “They have more endurance than any other race I have ever met,” Sandes wrote admiringly in her autobiography.

One day, Sandes went out horseback-riding with a recuperating Serbian soldier who complimented her riding. “What do you want to be a nurse for?” he asked. “Your skills are wasted in the hospital wards. Why don’t you join the army instead?”

Joining the British armed forces as a female soldier was impossible by World War I: compulsory medical exams meant that even dressing as a man à la American Civil War soldiers like Sarah Edmonds wasn’t an option for twentieth century women. It’s tempting only to see Flora Sandes as an exceptional badass who broke down gender roles for good – but her transition into soldierhood did depend on her extraordinary circumstances, historian Bryan MacMahon argues.

Sandes’ experiences with Serbian soldiers had shown her that their army was disorganized, desperate, and needed all the help it could get. Unlike the more regulated, traditional British army, Serbian forces were therefore more amenable to women taking up arms in a combat zone. Total war had made Serbia an environment ripe for breaking social conventions, and Sandes seized her opportunity. On her first night driving the ambulance into combat, a “queer little cuss” of a Serbian girl offered Sandes a grenade and a gun. When she accepted them, she stepped a lifetime away from her stuffy 1914 English recruiting office.

Stopped at a camp one night, Sandes put on a uniform and marched up to a Serbian general. “Will I be a burden?” she asked, ever straightforward.

She slept in mud and snow with her male comrades, led attacks, killed men…

Intriguingly, the general who accepted this foreign woman’s enlistment as a fighter – and history-maker – didn’t even mention her being female. Instead, he remarked that an English recruit would encourage his disheartened soldiers.

Flora Sandes fought in the First World War from 1915-1918. She slept in mud and snow with her male comrades, led attacks, killed men in hand-to-hand combat, was wounded, and swept through promotions up to sergeant major.

While she was treated as one of the guys, Sandes was never content to be simply as good as a man – she was furious when some of her fellow soldiers refused to help starving refugees, and organized their meals herself. She maintained her humanitarian instincts as a professional soldier, a rare combination regardless of gender. After the war, the Serbian army made her an officer in recognition of her ability. She was even briefly recalled to active duty with her officer husband Yuri Yudenitch in World War II.

In peacetime up to her death in 1956, Sandes gave lecture tours around the world. Some venues requested that she dress formally – like a lady, was the implication.

She showed up in uniform. If you wanted the lady, you got the soldier too.

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