Flora Sandes was the daughter of a Suffolk rector but as a young girl, she used to dream of being a soldier, spending her childhood galloping through the countryside while pretending she was fighting in battle. Twenty years later, when war broke out across Europe, the adult Flora enlisted for the army in Serbia, one of the allied countries, and in the process became the only British woman to see front line action. She had a typically middle-class childhood that included a governess and stint at finishing school, but rather than dreaming of a steady life with a husband and children, Flora always yearned for adventure.
Flora was 38 years old when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. She signed up to be a volunteer with the ambulance service and within eight days was on her way to Serbia with the first volunteer unit to leave Britain. At first, she worked with the Red Cross but soon enlisted in the Serbian army, one of the few in the world to accept women. She soon moved up the ranks, becoming corporal and then sergeant-major, and didn’t shy away from the action. While engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, Flora was wounded by a grenade while helping to defend her position.
Once recovered, she rejoined the men in the trenches on the front line, fought alongside them as they regained the country they had lost nearly three years before, and survived Spanish influenza. When the war ended she remained in the army, saying “I never loved anything so much in my life”. Four days after the Nazi invasion in April 1941, aged 65, Flora pulled on her uniform and marched off to fight. After the war Flora was left alone and penniless.
After a brief illness, she died at Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital on 24 November 1956 of obstructive jaundice, aged 80.