Derek Coleman: As Veterans Day approaches, a story of an unusual soldier
Next Monday we have a public holiday for Veterans Day. The actual Veterans Day is, of course, Sunday, Nov. 11. It marks the fact that at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11., 1918, the First World War officially finished when Germany signed an armistice.
It was an end to the greatest clash of arms the world had seen up until that time. More than 68 million people had been in combat. In excess of ten million of them died and 21 million more were wounded.
Every one of these soldiers, sailors and airmen had a story that was worth telling, but I only have room for one of them here. My own grandfather volunteered, served on the front line and was wounded right at the end of the conflict, but it isn’t his exploits I want to talk about today. Instead I have chosen another story, one that even in that huge number stands out because it was so unusual.
The story is that of Flora Sandes, a British woman who was born in Yorkshire, England, in January 1876. She was the youngest of the eight children of a clergyman, and her family were relatively well off.
Flora was a tomboy when she was growing up, learning to ride and to shoot like her brothers. She was educated by a governess and went to a finishing school, then when she was old enough, she learned to drive, buying herself an early type French racing car in which she whizzed around the countryside.
After finishing her education, Flora trained as a stenographer before taking a job as a secretary in Cairo and then visiting Canada and the U.S.
Back in England, she wanted something to do in her spare time, so she joined a military organization, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, known by the acronym FANY. She also volunteered for the Women’s Sick & Wounded Convoy, which saw some service in Serbia in the First Balkan War in 1912.
Sandes returned to England and was 38 years old when the world war broke out in 1914. She immediately tried to volunteer her services as a nurse, but the authorities turned her down because she had no formal qualifications, even though she had some experience.
Flora was disappointed and still wanted to serve. She looked around for a different opportunity and by luck she met a woman called Mabel Grouitch. Mabel was an American from Clarksburg, right here in West Virginia. She too wanted to serve and she was raising a St. John Ambulance unit of seven nurses. Flora joined them as an ambulance driver. Together they sailed off to give aid in Serbia, where much of the early fighting was concentrated.
The unit arrived in the town of Kragujevac, and there Flora joined the Serbian Red Cross, where she worked driving an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment. Her skill on a horse and with a rifle impressed the soldiers she met and she was told she should forget nursing and join the army as a soldier instead. Flora later confessed to a Scottish doctor, Isabel Emslie, that this was exactly what she wanted to do, and the Serbian army was one of the few in the world that accepted female soldiers at that time.
Her chance came in 1915. The Serbs were retreating through Albania, and Flora’s unit disintegrated. Left alone, she asked to become a soldier, and General Milos Vasic granted her wish. She joined the ranks as a private and was soon involved in serious fighting.
Flora proved to be a good soldier and was quickly promoted to corporal and then to sergeant. In 1916 she led men during a Serbian advance and was seriously wounded in the back and right arm by a hand grenade while engaged in hand-to-hand combat. She was rescued by one of her officers and, for her exploits was promoted to sergeant-major and awarded Serbia’s highest military award.
While she was recovering, Flora wrote her autobiography, using the money from the sales to help the army. Despite her wounds, she returned to the front line as soon as she was able and by the end of the war she had become an officer, the first female to do so and the first foreign officer in the Serbian forces. She continued in the Serbian army until 1922, when she was finally demobilized.
Flora moved to Paris and married for the first time at the age of 51. Her husband was an ex-Russian general named Yuri Yudenitch. For a time they toured the world together while she lectured on her time as a soldier. She wore her uniform and medals while giving her lectures but after a time she tired of this and the couple returned to Serbia, by then part of Yugoslavia, where they settled in Belgrade.
It seemed that this was where she would spend her old age. But in April 1941, the German army marched into the country. Flora was 65 years old but she didn’t hesitate; she immediately volunteered to serve again, was accepted and promoted to captain.
She didn’t get a chance to take up arms. The Germans overran the country in just 11 days and she was arrested. That was the end of her military career. She was interred for a time and her husband died a short time later. Flora lived to return to England where she passed away peacefully at the age of 80. Her exploits are mostly forgotten in her native country, but there is a street in Belgrade that is named after her, and Serbia issued a stamp with her picture on it as they regard her as a national hero.
Flora Sandes served the cause of liberty in the front line at a time when women were not supposed to do such things. Today, both men and women serve together to maintain our freedom. On this Veterans Day let us all remember these brave souls who served in the past, just as Flora did, and particularly those who today daily risk their lives to preserve ours.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.