|"Although she had been given elementary medical and military training in the Women's First Aid Yeomanry Corps and St John's Ambulance, she had no regrets about leaving nursing for the life of a combatant. Indeed, she relished those times when the savage explosion of her bombs was followed by a 'few groans and then silence' since a 'tremendous hullabaloo' signalled that she had inflicted 'only a few scratches, or the top of someone's finger... taken off'."|
- Joanna Burke, Women and the Military During World War I
Flora Sandes was a tough-as-shit old British chick who took the stereotypical Victorian attitudes towards women, ram-rodded them down the tube of a howitzer, and blew them straight through the heads of anyone who stood across from her on the battlefields of World War I. This battle axe of a hardass was the only British woman to officially serve as an infantryman in the war, the first woman to ever be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army, and performed so many intense acts of badassitude that she's now considered a war hero in both her homeland and her adopted country of Serbia.
Flora was born in Yorkshire, England in 1880something. The daughter of an Irish Anglican vicar, she didn't let a little thing like social convention stop her from being a total tomboy in her youth. Flora typically eschewed barfingly-girly crap like doilies and lace gloves for crazy shit like horseback riding, fencing, and shooting, and after cars were invented she bought a beat-up old French racecar and used to tear ass around her neighborhood like a goddamned lunatic all the time. Of course, back in 1909 racecars probably topped out at about 35 miles per hour, but I think we can still agree that this of course kicks ass.
Despite the fact that she was as knuckle-crackingly hardcore as any boy she knew, back in the 1910s there really weren't a whole lot of options available for English women who wanted to professionally beat the shit out of people all the time. The closest thing she could get to front-line military service was the ambulance corps, which would at least let her work on the front lines of armed conflict, so when it started looking like World War I was imminent she immediately started taking courses in first aid and training herself to be a combat medic. When 1914 rolled around and the Serbian Army in Eastern Europe quickly found itself getting surprise butt-humped by the combined armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria, she was part of one of the first Red Cross teams dispatched to the Balkans to help assist wounded soldiers by running through a bullet-strewn battlefield and dragging their half-dead asses to safety.
In August 1914 Flora Sandes and 36 other nurses arrived at a small town just 50 miles from Belgrade, Serbia, a place which of course is a city well-known for being totally not-dangerous at all. Within a year of being surrounded by artillery shells and constantly confronted with battle and conflict, Flora Sandes had ditched her nursing gig and was decked out in a Sebian Army uniform, running through No Man's Land flinging hand grenades into Austro-Hungarian trenches and charging enemy positions with fixed bayonet. With the situation a few fathoms beyond dire and Serbia fighting for its very existence, the commanding officer of the volunteer division – which was awesomely known as "The Iron Regiment", by the way – officially took her on as a soldier in the Serbian Army. From that point on, Flora Sandes went into every engagement fighting alongside the men, occasionally even administering first aid and field dressings, in her works, "between shots". In just a few months of daring, balls-out (?) combat, she had been promoted from Private to Corporal to Sergeant.
By October of 1915 the Austrians and Bulgarians had finally overwhelmed the outnumbered and exhausted defenders of Belgrade and broken through much of Serbia's lines. Out of options, Sandes was part of the front-line Serbian infantry during the "Great Retreat" across the mountains of Albania. In a months-long march through mud, rain, and the freezing cold of the Albanian winter, with no supplies, no food, and limited clothing, Sandes and the Serbian forces trudged through incredibly difficult terrain, desperately trying to salvage what was left of their army. By the time the Serbian forces regrouped and formed a new defensive line in Greece, the military had lost 40,000 men to shitty non-combat causes. Flora Sandes, however, stood strong, proving yet again that she was just as hardcore as even the most neck-snapping asskickers in her newly-adopted armed forces.
In continued fighting across the Macedonian Front, Sandes further distinguished herself in combat, being promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major within the year. When she wasn't bayoneting people through the eyes or crawling under barbed wire and machine gun fire, she wrote letters home, published a book, and convinced the British government to buy new uniforms to replace the tattered rags her war-weary unit was sporting, a feat that earned her a great deal of respect with her soldiers. Back in England she became a heroine to women across the country for how badass chicks could be in combat, while her comrades knew her simply as "Our Brother".
After several months of intense direct combat, Sandes was seriously wounded while charging ridiculously-fortified Bulgarian infantry positions outside the Macedonian town of Monastir. The 40 year-old infantry sergeant was critically wounded by a grenade while she was involved in hand-to-hand fighting over a strategically-critical hill, yet she still somehow didn't even let getting fragged nearly in half stop her from contributing to the war effort. As soon as she was able to stand up from her hospital bed, she started working as a nurse, and once she was back to full strength she mustered back in with her old unit. By this point the war was over, but everybody still appreciated how tough it was – in June 1919 an act of the Serbian Parliament officially made her the first woman to ever be commissioned an officer in the Serbian military, which is admirable, and she received the King George Star, the highest military honor offered by the Serbian government.
Flora Sandes retired as a Captain and continued living in Serbia, though she was less excited about the grim prospect of a world where people didn't kill each other all the time. At age 51 she married an ex-pat Russian general who had fought against the Communists, and she loved her Serbian home so much that she didn't even evacuate it when the Nazis stormed through during WWII. The Gestapo interrogated her a couple times and tried to get her to tell them god-knows-what, and she of course told them to get fucked with a jackhammer until the other end came out their eye sockets. They didn't press the issue. After her husband died, Flora returned to England, and went on tour across the world talking about her experiences and how awesome it was that time she bayoneted that guy to death at close range. She died in Suffolk in either 1955, 1956, or 1961, depending on what source you're reading at the time, and is now probably one of the great unsung military heroines of all time.
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. HarperCollins, 1998.
Gullace, Nicoletta. The Blood of Our Sons. Macmillan, 2002.
Hazen, Walter A. World War I. Good Year, 2006.
Miles, Rosalind and Robin Cross. Hell Hath No Fury. Three Rivers, 2008.
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