Captain Flora Sandes

This rather splendid portrait is part of the World War I exhibition at Bath’s Fashion Museum

 Captain Flora Sandes holding a riding whip

My attention was caught by the horse leg handled whip (and the boots, if I’m honest). However, the short biography of the sitter was even more fascinating. (the following owes a certain amount to Wikipedia)

She was Flora Sandes (22 January 1876 – 24 November 1956) was the only British woman officially to serve as a soldier in World War I.

She was the daughter of a Suffolk clergyman. As a child she was educated by governesses, she enjoyed riding and shooting and said that she wished she had been born a boy. As a young woman she learned to drive, and drove an old French racing car.

Sandes trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps, founded in 1907, as an all-women mounted paramilitary organisation, learning first aid, horsemanship, signalling and drill. She left the F.A.N.Y. in 1910 joining another renegade FANY, Mabel St Clair Stobart, in the formation of the Women’s Sick & Wounded Convoy. The Convoy saw service in Serbia and Bulgaria in 1912 during the 1st Balkans War. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 she volunteered to become a nurse, but was rejected due to a lack of qualifications.

Sandes nonetheless joined a St. John Ambulance unit raised by American nurse Mabel Grouitch, and on 12 August 1914 left England for Serbia with a group of 36 women to try and aid the humanitarian crises there. They arrived at the town of Kragujevac which was the base for the Serbian forces fighting against the Austro-Hungarian offensive. Sandes joined the Serbian Red Cross and worked in an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. During the retreat into Albania, Sandes was separated from her unit and, for her own safety, enrolled as a soldier with a Serbian regiment. Following the Balkan tradition of “sworn virgins”, it was not unknown for women to serve in the Serbian army, but Sandes was the only British woman to do so. She quickly advanced to the rank of Corporal. In 1916, during the Serbian advance on Bitola (Monastir), Sandes was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand to hand combat. She subsequently received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star. At the same time, she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major. Also in 1916, Sandes published her autobiography, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army. She spent the rest of the war working in a hospital. At the end of the war she was promoted to the rank of Captain.

She married a Serbian White Army officer, after his death she returned to Suffolk.

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