This British woman fought with Serbia in World War I

Flora Sandes was the only British woman known to fight in World War I, serving as a nurse and then soldier in Serbia.
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Flora Sandes in uniform, about 1918. Also shown on stamp from British Heroines of the First World War in Serbia.

Very few women fought in World War I. As militaries instituted health screenings for recruits, they generally caught the soldiers with innies instead of outies. “Hey, um, recruit, it shouldn’t look like that.” But a few women found their way to the front and fought anyway. One of them, and the only known British woman to fight, was Flora Sandes, who served with Serbia.

The future World War legend Flora Sandes

Flora was born into a middle-class household in 1876 England. She reportedly shunned normal past times for her gender and wealth and, instead, rode horses, shot guns, drank alcohol and smoked tobacco. She later said that, as a child, she prayed “every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy.” She traveled through the U.K., to Egypt and the U.S. And she joined an ambulance unit before the war.

When World War I broke out, Flora joined a nursing unit destined for Serbia. She treated patients during a virulent typhus epidemic in Valjevo and received Order of St. Sava. Then headed to the front lines to aid soldiers wounded in combat, sleeping rough in hay cots, even in the winter.

During a retreat, the Serbians allowed Flora to become a soldier. Serbia was reportedly cool with women joining up, as long as they could ride and shoot. She was later wounded by shrapnel and bled so badly that it soaked through her stretcher and dripped beneath. For her bravery while defending the country, she received the King George Star. She had risen to the rank of sergeant major and then became the only female officer in the Serbian military.

In the closing days of the war, she treated patients with Spanish Influenza as it swept through the trenches, a fight that continued long after the war.

Flora Sandes after World War I

She left military service in 1922, became a taxi driver, and married. The couple moved to Yugoslavia and enlisted to fight at the outset of World War II. Nazi forces quickly defeated the country, occupied Yugoslavia, and imprisoned Sandes and her husband. The Germans eventually let them go, but her husband died soon after.

After the war, Sandes returned to traveling before settling down once again in England, the country of her birth.

Today, she is remembered for being a trailblazer and stalwart defender of Serbia. Serbia named a street in the capital, Belgrade, after her.