Flora Sandes (1876-1956) was an Irish woman who served in the Serbian army during the First World War.
The youngest daughter of an Irish family, Sandes was raised in England where she developed passions for shooting, horse riding and driving her old French racing car. She traveled the world working as a secretary and trained with paramilitary organisations such as the Womens Sick & Wounded Convoy, with whom she served in Serbia in the First Balkan War in 1912.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 Sandes traveled to Serbia with a St. John Ambulance unit of 36 women. She later operated a Red Cross ambulance alongside the Serbian Army’s ‘Iron Regiment’. When in October 1915 the Serbs were forced into mass retreat, she was invited to join the Iron Regiment by their commander, Colonel Milic.
Sandes advanced quickly to the rank of Corporal, known both for fighting alongside the men and treating their wounds, including performing amputations for frostbite victims during the Great Retreat through Albania. In 1916 during the Serbian advance on Bitola, Sandes was wounded by a grenade while charging into a Bulgarian trench, shredding her back and right side from shoulder to knee. She was treated for her wounds in Tunis, recovering so well that she joined her fellow soldiers in visiting a brothel.
Sandes returned to fighting with the Iron Regiment but was wounded again in the summer of 1917. For her bravery she was promoted to Sergeant Major and awarded the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star, the highest Serbian military decoration. Although her injuries kept her from the front lines, she served as an officer even after the end of the war. She was finally demobilised in October 1922, which she resented.
Sandes became an international celebrity during the war and her letters and diaries were turned into a bestselling autobiography. In 1927, she married a Russian cavalry officer. She spent her life in Paris, Belgrade, Jerusalem and Rhodesia before finally returning to England for her final years. She died in 1956 aged 80.