The First World War held out the prospect of great adventure abroad for thousands more British women who were keen to “do their bit” for a suitably patriotic cause, just like their brothers. It provided them a chance for them to live and travel independently and work in fields that had hitherto been restricted to men, while its fluid circumstances gave unheard-of opportunities to women with courage and initiative. … Paradoxically, [the British, French and Belgian] desire to “protect” women who did not want to be protected meant that many ended up working in some of the most dangerous sectors of the war. Many would pay with their lives, among them twenty-one British women in Serbia alone. (p 37)
Flora Sandes was a fine brother, the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WW1. Louise Miller does a fine job of telling her story.
Flora “was the epitome of the independent, forthright and determined ‘new woman’, with an interest in fast cars, gruelling physical challenges and, above all, travel.” (p 17) She had a comfortable upbringing (her father was a pastor). “By the time she reached adulthood, Flora showed scant desire to lead the respectable and leisured life that was expected of a woman of her background.” (p 29)
With some voluntary training as a practical nurse, she was ready to sign up with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) when war was declared. So were many other women, and the British Red Cross could afford to be choosy about professional qualifications. Flora quickly shifted gears and joined a private Anglo-American Unit heading for Serbia.
Serbia was ill prepared for war and aid workers were ill prepared for Serbia. Flora and others figured things out and got things done without much officialdom (and often despite the officialdom in place). But Flora realized that she wanted to use her talents for fighting instead of nursing. She took advantage of circumstances to join the Serbian army.
In some ways, the British woman in their midst was a talisman for the men in the regiment. The senior officers protected Flora, but they also let her fight. She, in turn, pulled her weight. She used her negotiating and fundraising skills to acquire things for them they would otherwise not get. She rose through the ranks, was seriously injured in battle and won the Karađorđe Star for bravery.
Miller’s research is comprehensive. Throughout the book, Flora’s actions are set in the detailed context of Serbia and the war in the Balkans. Miller also tracks the work of several agencies providing medical care and humanitarian aid in the area, with whom Flora would have worked from time to time … the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, the Red Cross in several national iterations and Serbian Relief Fund, to name just a few.
The accomplishments of the women in these agencies were nothing short of amazing. Amelia Tileston, Emily Simmonds, Dr. Katherine MacPhail, Elsie Inglis, Evelina Haverfield, Mabel Grouitch, Dr. Isobel Emslie and others deserve to be better known. (Many of them are honoured still in Serbia.) It is easy to understand why Miller could not contain the story to one person. Several are worthy of a full biography.
The women were intelligent, hard-working and resourceful, but not saintly. War often seemed like a game to Flora (although her journals sometimes note that there is no glory in war). Anti-Semitism and other hatreds raise their ugly heads. Miller clearly admires the women, but acknowledges their faults head on:
Although their irrational prejudices and, in some cases, unpleasant temperaments had sometimes made life a misery for those around them, their work had allowed them to transcend their own difficult and divisive characters while lending them a purpose that their leisured and privileged backgrounds had hitherto never been able to give them. (p 258)
Serbia held Flora’s heart for life. She and her husband eventually settled there after the war. When WW2 started, she donned her uniform again and reported for duty.
Read an interview with author Louise Miller.
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