A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandesby Louise Miller
An authorized biography of the only British woman to enlist as a soldier in World War I—a touching portrait of a woman who was the epitome of the independent, forthright, and determined "new woman"
The only woman to serve as a soldier in World War I, the Englishwoman Flora Sandes became a hero and media sensation when she fought for the Serbian Army/b>
An authorized biography of the only British woman to enlist as a soldier in World War I—a touching portrait of a woman who was the epitome of the independent, forthright, and determined "new woman"
The only woman to serve as a soldier in World War I, the Englishwoman Flora Sandes became a hero and media sensation when she fought for the Serbian Army and pursued a distinguished career in its ranks as officer. This account charts her incredible story, from her tomboyish childhood in genteel Victorian England, her mission to Serbia as a Red Cross volunteer and subsequent military enrollment, her celebrity lecture tours of Europe, her marriage to a fellow officer, and her survival of a Gestapo prison during World War II to her final years in England. A fascinating character of her times and an inspiration to women the world over, Flora Sandes is brought to life and restored to her rightful place in history by this authorized biography compiled with the help of her family, and using hitherto unused private papers and photographs.
- Alma Books
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A Fine Brother
The Life of Captain Flora Sandes
By Louise Miller
Alma Books LtdCopyright © 2012 Louise Miller
All rights reserved.
On 12th August 1914, a mere eight days after war had been declared between Britain and Germany, a group of nurses gathered on the platform at Charing Cross station. Around them swirled bustling crowds of uniformed Territorial soldiers returning from training, Naval Reserve men who had just been called up and civilians wearing little flags on their lapels, clutching the latest edition of the newspapers.1 The eight women were a mixed group. Some, properly speaking, were not even nurses. In the excitement and enthusiasm of the early days of the war all that was needed to lay claim to the title was a uniform, the correct bearing and a patriotic desire to serve one's country.
Among them was Flora Sandes, a tall, thirty-eight-year-old Englishwoman who spoke with a soft Irish accent. She too was not a qualified nurse – she had enjoyed far too privileged an upbringing to have trained for a commonplace career – but her leisured background had given her the time to take up nursing as a hobby. It was one at which she was supremely competent, although at times her unbridled enthusiasm tempered her ability. She had sailed through numerous St John Ambulance Brigade courses. She was also one of the few women who had been trained specifically to give first aid in wartime conditions through her membership of two quasi-military women's organizations, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps.
When, a week before, she heard the news that Britain was at war, she was camping with her family and a couple of friends near Rye in Sussex. Leaving everyone behind, she leapt into her French racing car and sped back to her home in Thornton Heath, then a prosperous suburb of London. That week, she had joined the throngs of women all frantically looking for war work at the offices of the British Red Cross in London's Vincent Square. There she had been put in touch with Mabel Grouitch, the elegant forty-one-year-old American wife of Slavko Grouitch, the Under-secretary of Foreign Affairs for Serbia. Mabel was scrambling to enrol a corps of volunteer surgeons and nurses willing to travel to Serbia with her "Anglo-American Unit" but, in the two weeks she gave herself, her efforts at recruitment had been a disappointment. She was only able to hire those who could leave at a moment's notice and had failed to attract a single surgeon. Short of trained volunteers, she had agreed to interview Flora, who was determined to join the Unit and had argued her case hard. Despite her experience, she had already received her first rejection by the time she sat nervously before Mabel. A day or two earlier she had eagerly applied to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), an assistant attached to a British hospital, fully expecting to be hired immediately. Instead, to her disbelief, the interviewing matron had "snubbed" her. "There are others who are better trained than you. And anyway, the war will only last six months," she told her brusquely.
Although the matron had rejected her on the grounds of insufficient experience, Flora also had the wrong sort of experience. Few hospitals at the time were willing to hire women doctors, let alone a former member of the FANY and Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps, organizations with strong links to the suffrage movement. Her prospective employers would have written her off as a potential troublemaker, unlikely to submit meekly to the discipline of an Edwardian hospital ward. And Flora was anything but meek. But Mabel, desperate for all the competent help she could get, agreed to take her on. She may not have been a nurse, she reasoned, but her training in first aid had been comprehensive. She also needed women who were practical and adaptable, able to serve under potentially gruelling conditions, and Flora was both to a fault.
On the day the Anglo-American Unit left England, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, at the hands of a Bosnian Serb provided the pretext that it had been waiting for to teach the fledgling but troublesome kingdom a lesson in humility it believed it sorely needed. The dynamic Serb state to its south had been an irritant for years. Flush with its territorial gains from the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, it had served as an increasingly attractive magnet for the large Slav population in the south of Austria-Hungary who desired, if not union with Serbia, then certainly a closer alliance. The Serbs knew exactly what they wanted – the formation of a Greater Serbia within the territories that had formed their medieval empire, including parts of Austria-Hungary. On 28th June 1914, the night of the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian army turned its spotlights threateningly across the Sava River on Belgrade.
The flurry of diplomatic activity in the wake of the murder was unable to prevent Austria-Hungary from issuing an ultimatum designed to be impossible for Serbia to accept. Mabel Grouitch's husband Slavko was one of two representatives of the Serbian government to be handed the ultimatum. Anxious to avoid further warfare after two years of fighting in the Balkan Wars, the government accepted its humiliating terms with only three reservations, which they offered to submit to international arbitration. But these reservations were enough to give Austria-Hungary the excuse they required to declare war, on 28th July. That day, when they lobbed their first shell on Belgrade, they set in motion a chain of events that led to full-scale global conflict.
The train carrying the Anglo-American Unit pulled out of Charing Cross just before three o'clock on a hot summer's afternoon. Flora was waved off by several members of her large and tight-knit family. The youngest child of eight, she was the epitome of the independent, forthright and determined "new woman", with an interest in fast cars, gruelling physical challenges and, above all, travel. A seasoned camper, she had used her experience to prepare herself well for this trip. In addition to her violin, she had packed a tea basket, a portable rubber bath, a hot-water bottle, a campbed, a first-aid kit and all the cigarettes she could carry.
Among the women travelling with her was Emily Simmonds, a spirited, competent and conscientious "private duty" nurse in her early thirties, of British origin but American training. She was newly versed in the latest techniques, having transcended an impoverished upbringing to specialize as a surgical assistant. When war was declared she had been on holiday in Paris. Cancelling her return trip, she had joined the throngs of excited passengers leaving the French capital for London. On arrival, she approached the British Red Cross for work, only to be refused forthwith on the grounds that she was American-trained. Her options curtailed, she volunteered for Mabel Grouitch's Unit to work under the auspices of the Serbian Red Cross, who had no such qualms about nationality.
Mabel had warned the women before they left that they would face a difficult and comfortless trip. They had also been told by all who ventured an opinion that it was "impossible to get a party of women across Europe at that time". Trains throughout France were being diverted for military use, towns were crowded, hotels were full and that August was one of the hottest months in years. They were also travelling on a shoestring budget. Mabel had not been able to find time to raise funds for the expedition and was forced to finance the party herself. Still, the women shrugged off the warnings of discomfort. "We were all very proud of the fact that our boat was the first to cross the Channel after the British Expeditionary Force," remembered Flora.
Early that evening they arrived in Folkestone, lugging their bags from the train to a boat and, once across the Channel, from the boat to a Paris-bound train. They pulled into the dark station, exhausted, at five o'clock in the morning. By the time they caught the 6.16 p.m. train south in the "awful" heat, they had thirty Serbian students with them who wanted to join their country's army but were unable to travel to Serbia through neutral countries without an alibi. When Mabel had visited the Serbian legation earlier that day, the Minister had asked her if she would take the students with her and tell any authorities who asked that they were part of her Unit. After she readily agreed, the students were kitted out with Red Cross armbands.
To save what little funds they had, the women travelled mainly third-class in the relentless August heat, in the spirited company of the students. At every stop, Mabel and her eight nurses – Flora, Emily, Mrs Ada Barlow, Miss Violet O'Brien, Miss Ada Mann, Mrs Rebecca Hartney, Mrs Barber and Miss Grace Saunders – had to push their way through platforms seething with soldiers and civilians, with their baggage and medical supplies in tow. Finding accommodation in the crowded towns along the route was no less of a struggle; the disruption to train schedules played havoc with any attempts they made to plan ahead.
From Paris their sleeping arrangements became increasingly makeshift. They spent some nights sleeping on the floor of their train, wrapped in their overcoats. At other times, they shared rooms in inexpensive and none-too-clean hotels. "Mrs Barlow and I shared a room with four beds. I broke two of them. Bugs galore," wrote Flora in her diary after one particularly sleepless night. But not all nights were so miserable, thanks to the considerable charms of Mabel Grouitch. "Importantly she had very fascinating manners and was extremely pretty," Flora recalled. "We used to get stuck at some little wayward station, with nobody to meet us and nowhere to go, and Mme Grouitch used just to go up to the Military Commander and smile at him, and in five minutes there would be motor cars to fetch us and we'd be taken up to the best hotel in town and everything done for us, and the next morning there would be the Military Commander to see us off all smiles and bows – and bouquets of flowers for Mme Grouitch."
Nonetheless, despite Mabel's best efforts the ad-hoc travel arrangements took their toll on the women. "All looked rather the worst for wear [sic]," Flora reported, before commenting soon after that they were all "hot and cross". They had set out from Paris for Marseilles, from where they intended to catch a ship to Salonika. However, on arrival they were turned away from its busy port, which had been closed to allow Indian troops to land. Mabel Grouitch improvised. She took her nurses by train through neutral Italy while trying to keep the Serbian students quiet and as inconspicuous as possible.
The Italian authorities soon grew highly suspicious at the sight of a small group of Englishwomen in the company of a large group of Serbian men of military age. They first threatened to lock all the women up as "spies", before deciding that the best thing to do would be to get the group out of their country as rapidly as possible. On the second of their two-day trip through Italy, the authorities posted a soldier outside the door of each of their railway carriages, with orders not to allow the women out. "Well, I don't like sitting still too long without moving about," commented Flora, "so I had the presence of mind to give the sentry nearest to me a drink – after that I was allowed to move about wherever I liked."
By the time the group had reached Italy any initial reticence they felt in each other's company had vanished. "Sandy" and "Americano", as Flora and Emily had nicknamed each other, formed an immediate friendship. Flora, at thirty-eight, was the older of the two, round-faced, brown-eyed and a fairly sturdy 5'7". To the other nurses, at first glance, she appeared the picture of propriety. However, her prematurely greying hair was too short to be properly ladylike, she had a penchant for what she called "galumphing" (which almost always involved alcohol) and she smoked far too much.
Emily, at 5'5", stood slightly shorter than Flora. Born in London to an English mother, her home was New York, where she had remained after graduating from the Roosevelt Hospital Training School in 1911. She was slender and attractive, "a blue-eyed, delicate, small-featured, curly-haired, pink-cheeked, soft-voiced slip of a girl". Like Flora, she had seized the chance to join Mabel's Unit. It promised an opportunity to put her training to full use and offered far more variety and excitement than her work as a private-duty nurse, which involved looking after a single patient at a time, could ever give her. Mabel could not provide her with a salary – and Emily was far from financially self-sufficient – but she had placed any pecuniary concerns to the back of her mind as she set out with the others.
Despite their differences in age and financial standing, Flora and Emily found they had much in common. Thoughts of courageous work for the Allied cause were, for the moment, far from their minds and both were determined to enjoy their trip, come what may. And enjoy it they did. "Miss Saunders lost her purse and Americano her reputation – neither ever found again," wrote Flora in her diary as they travelled through Italy.
Flora and Emily's disregard of proper decorum (and numerous shopping trips) soon incurred the disapproval of their stolid and duty-bound colleagues. When they missed their ship due to a "mistake" at their next stop, Corfu, the other nurses simply left them behind. After they rejoined them in Athens, they did their threadbare reputations even more damage when a bouquet arrived for them from a war correspondent they had befriended. It "nearly caused a battle", recorded Flora. Undeterred, they spent the evening in his company and that of "sundry others", being driven about in the balmy heat of a late summer's evening. The other nurses were so scandalized by Flora and Emily's escapades that the following day they would barely speak to them. There was an "awful frost after last night", Flora noted tersely in her diary.
From Athens the women made the short journey to Piraeus, its busy, industrial port. There they boarded a filthy Greek cattle steamer and piled into one large cabin. The ship travelled north through the Aegean Sea, past the scenic Greek islands, straight into the heart of a raging thunderstorm. "Of the eight who were in one cabin, all were ill; half of them were lying on the floor, and the rest in the bunks," recalled nurse Ada Mann, from Dartford, Kent. "Some of the bunks were full of rainwater. The luggage, which was on one deck, was piled in confusion, large trunks on top of small bags, etc., smashed and broken, and everything was soaked and spoilt in water." Thirty-six hours later, they arrived. "I never want to do another journey like it," commented Flora abruptly.
Flora and Emily's first experience of Salonika was brief. They were overwhelmed more by a sense of relief at having reached the horseshoe-shaped harbour than by the awe that so many felt upon arrival. From the sea, the town was imposing. Graceful white minarets vied with the cupolas of Greek Orthodox churches against a backdrop of rugged hills. Along the modern quayside, dominated by the fortress-like White Tower, hundreds of brightly painted fishing boats were moored, overlooked by hotels, restaurants and cinemas. Once the women stepped shakily ashore they were ushered past the crowded quay and through its narrow, dirty streets to a hotel. This time even Flora collapsed into bed. The shops would have to wait, she thought to herself.
It was now nearing the end of August. After one night's rest in Salonika the women caught a slow train north that took them alongside the marshland that bordered the muddy waters of the Vardar River, over the arid plains and low hills of Macedonian Greece and through the mountains of southern Serbia. They stopped overnight in Ni, Serbia's second largest city, to receive their orders from Colonel Subotic, the Vice-President of the Serbian Red Cross, then climbed back aboard a train for the final leg of their journey. Early in the morning of 29th August, the women clambered off the train at Kragujevac, a town that was rapidly becoming a main hospital centre by virtue of its position astride transportation routes. Sixty miles south of Belgrade, it was also the closest town of any size to the fighting in the north-west. Although the journey had taken them fourteen long days, they had defied the predictions of those who had told them they could never do it. Their success, praised Flora, was due to the "pluck and perseverance" of Mabel Grouitch.CHAPTER 2
"I was the youngest, and the only one to disgrace the family, at least according to my brothers, by being born in England," said Flora, when asked about her childhood. The granddaughter of the Bishop of Cashel, she came from a Protestant Anglo-Irish family from Cork who, while not wealthy, were comfortably off. Her father, Samuel Dickson Sandes, was educated prestigiously at Eagle House School in Hammersmith, Rugby and Trinity College Dublin and eventually followed in his own father's footsteps by graduating from theological college, although he did not succeed in mirroring the latter's success. In 1856, he married Sophia Julia Besnard, the daughter of a prominent Cork family of Huguenot origins with eccentric connections. Sophia's first cousin was Sir Samuel Baker, explorer of the Nile, who, when his first wife died, simply purchased another at a Bulgarian slave market. His brother, Valentine Baker, was convicted of assaulting a woman on the train to Waterloo. After serving a short prison term, he transferred his career to the Turkish and Egyptian armies, where previous convictions for sexual assault were no impediment to promotion.
Excerpted from A Fine Brother by Louise Miller. Copyright © 2012 Louise Miller. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Louise Miller is a debut author. She was recently part of Women Called Courage, a documentary on the work of British women in Serbia during World War I, which was shown on television in Serbia to an audience of one million people.
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