The most famous female soldier of World War I, Flora Sandes was an Englishwoman who served with the Serbian army and endured their hard-fought retreat to the Adriatic Sea during the harsh Balkan winter of 1915. She was born in 1876 in the Yorkshire village of Poppleton, where her father was the local rector, but by the time war broke out she had moved to Thornton Heath in the Home Counties. Although she ordinarily worked as a secretary, Edwardian middle-class life frustrated her, and she would take whatever opportunities she could to go travelling.

This was the era of Isabelle Eberhardt, the female Lawrence of Arabia, and Edith Durham, whose expeditions in the Balkans brought the Albanian mountains, and the so-called sworn virgins who lived as men among the highland tribes, to British attention. It's not impossible that Durham's books, in particular, might have captured Sandes' imagination, as they have done readers ever since.

Ministering Angel

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb terrorists funded by a secret society within the Serbian military, Austria-Hungary had blamed Belgrade and delivered Serbia an ultimatum, asking for Vienna's investigators to have the run of the country, which was always intended to be refused. Almost oblivious to the Europe-wide diplomatic manoeuvrings which began World War I, the Austrian chief of staff Conrad von Hoetzendorff had gone ahead with his long-planned offensive into Serbia.

In Britain and America, several different volunteer medical units were quickly organised to help the Serbian army. The latter-day Florence Nightingales at first turned down Sandes' application to join them, despite her first aid training, but by August 12 - less than two weeks after the British declaration of war on Germany - she had succeeded in signing on with the seven-woman nursing detachment founded by Mabel Grujić, the wife of the Serbian foreign minister.

Sandes spent her first few months in Serbia with the First Reserve Hospital in Kragujevac, where Grujić's septet were the only nurses to help the Serbian doctors provide for over a thousand casualties, many of whom had endured three-day journeys from the front in carts pulled by pack animals. So short was the hospital of medicine and anaesthetic that Sandes returned to London on a fundraising mission, securing enough money for 120 tons of medical supplies. She brought them back to Kragujevac to find herself in the midst of a typhus epidemic.

At the behest of the Serbian Red Cross, Sandes joined a medical expedition to the isolated town of Valjevo, worst hit by the typhus; in the course of her first month, twenty-one of her doctor colleagues fell victim to the disease, and Sandes survived a less serious bout herself. Hospital staff would refuse to let the new arrivals go to bed early, in case that night proved to be their last.

As the typhus abated over the spring of 1915, and her Serbo-Croatian improved, she and her friend Emily Simmons requested a transfer to a regimental ambulance unit, which the army resisted because it would mean the women going to the front. Her first attempts were unsuccessful, and she went home to Britain in August, but when she returned to Serbia on another nursing engagement that October she was assigned to the ambulance of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, in gratitude for her dedication in Valjevo.

The Great Retreat

Once with the regiment, Sandes lost little time in slipping into a combat role, not as unthinkable a progression in the Serbian army as it would have been on the Western Front. A small number of other women, peasants from the Montenegrin hills where the sworn-virgin tradition also existed to offer them a precedent, had already attached themselves to the army, and Sandes - who helpfully already knew how to shoot and ride - would remember her transition into a soldier as a natural drift.

The Austrian attack that autumn, reinforced by German troops under General Mackensen, occupied most of Serbia and forced the army to evacuate itself over the mountain ranges and into Albania, with the ultimate aim of establishing a government-in-exile on Corfu. Sandes pledged that she would stay with the regiment unless actively sent home; her colonel told her that it would be better for her if she left, but better for Serbia if she remained.

Already, the troops referred to her as naša Engleskinja, 'our Englishwoman'; her presence during the arduous retreat appeared to offer them some proof that Serbia's allies had not forgotten the kingdom. Coming home on leave in 1916, her fundraising drive coincided with celebrations of Serbia's national day - the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo - organised by the Serbian Society of Great Britain, the brainchild of the historian and central-Europe expert R. W. Seton-Watson.

The Great Retreat had already been presented as a second national trial equal to the ordeal of Kosovo; Sandes provided the British press with another colourful story to add to the narrative, and she was duly hailed as Serbia's Joan of Arc.

Later in 1916, she was badly wounded during operations to recapture Monastir, suffering severe injuries to one arm but refusing her colonel's offer to find her a cushy billet well away from the front in which she could recuperate. She was wounded again in the leg on the Salonika Front the next summer, and sent to recover at a Serbian relief camp in Tunisia; she was bewildered during a night on the town with some other convalescents to find that a local girl planted herself on her knee. The Tunisian was quickly made aware of her misconception.

While Sandes was recovering in Tunisia, all-female battalions had been formed in Russia by the new revolutionary government. Sandes herself, however, seems to have preferred to be the exception to the rule: interviewed about Maria Bochkareva's battalions, she replied 'I'd very much like to see it, but I don't think I'd like to be in it.' The several hundred women who walked out of their Petrograd barracks on their first day, having experienced the sharp end of Bochkareva's temper, appear to have agreed.

Naša Engleskinja

After the war ended in November 1918, Sandes set off on a year-long publicity tour to raise money for the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Received as something of a novelty, she had enough fundraising experience to know full well how much interest she would arouse on her lecture tours in full military uniform, and comparisons to Nightingale and St. Joan indeed followed her around the globe.

She dropped into Belgrade in 1919 for the New Year's Eve officers' ball, where the only dance she agreed to join was the men's traditional kolo; King Aleksandar extracted a volunteer doctor from the Salonika Front, Katherine McPhail, from the audience, and persuaded the uncomfortable couple to dance a waltz in front of the royal dais.

She left the Yugoslavian army after demobilisation in 1922, and settled down in Belgrade. although she became uncomfortable in civilian life and experienced the same nostalgia for wartime conditions as many men. She married Yuri Yudenich, a Russian general who had commanded one section of the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the civil war, in 1927, and the couple were briefly interned together when Nazi Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941.

Yudenich died two months after their release, and the British Adriatic Mission helped Sandes return to England in 1946. She herself died ten years later, having never felt comfortable re-establishing her life as a respectable middle-class village lady after the comradeship she found as naša Engleskinja.

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