I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Louise Miller, author of A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes, has kindly agreed to chat about her work.
What first interested you in Flora Sandes?
Louise Miller: I stumbled across Flora’s name purely by accident. I had an interest in the First World War for years and read extensively on military history. Nothing I saw had divested me of the impression that all the significant roles had been filled by men. I assumed that women had only played a peripheral and not terribly interesting part, doing things like “keeping the home fires burning”, stuffing shells and doing traditional “women’s” work like nursing. Then I read a passing reference in a newspaper to a British woman who had fought in the war and I had one of these thunderstruck moments where I knew almost instantly that this would be a turning point for me. It look some time but via Google searches I found out that the woman was Flora. And through my research into Flora’s life, I began to read about all the Allied women who had worked in Serbia & the Balkans during WW1. I also realised that much of what I had thought about the work and role of women during the war was shamefully wrong.
What was the biggest challenge in researching A Fine Brother?
LM: My biggest challenge in researching A Fine Brother was actually finding the time. I work a busy full-time job in finance, so all the research and writing was done on the weekends and the odd hour here and there in the evenings. It took me ten years, also because of another couple of challenges: there is so much information out there about the work of Allied women in the Balkans that it was hard to narrow it down. And also I had to learn how to write for an audience who didn’t necessarily have an academic interest. This is my first book and I hadn’t realised at the outset how very different writing a book is, in terms of style, than writing politics and law papers at University.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
LM: I hope that readers will like Flora, first and foremost. But more broadly I would be pleased if readers came away appreciating that the only thing separating us from the women who travelled to work in Serbia during WW1 is time. They were every bit as modern in outlook as women are today: every bit as adventurous, daring and even every bit as badly behaved. And of course there’s also an obvious feminist subtext to the book. I wanted to demonstrate that, in wartime, women are every bit as competent and brave as men.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
LM: I wish I would get asked more often about Emily Simmonds and Katherine MacPhail. In many ways, their work was as heroic as Flora’s. Katherine’s heroism was quiet and patient. Emily is harder to fathom as only glimpses remain of what she was like, but oh what glimpses they are.
Where will your next book take us? Will you continue to follow the trail of other women who worked in Serbia during the war?
LM: I’m still working in the field of Anglo-Serbian relations during WW1, which I juggle with a full-time job and a small child. I’m now writing quarterly articles for George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh. During WW1, Heriot’s educated twenty-seven teenage Serbian refugee boys. These boys had suffered terribly during the war. Along with several thousand others of their age, they had been forced out of their country, surviving disease and starvation during the famed “retreat” over the mountains of Albania and Montenegro to escape internment by the enemy. One young boy had seen his schoolteacher father shot and killed alongside him. They were in appalling condition by the time they were rescued by the Allies. They were truly survivors: around eight thousand boys just like them died in the mountains. They flourished after their arrival here in Edinburgh both academically and on the sporting field. Despite never having played rugby before, they became rugby champions of their new School. Several played for the First XV, alongside future Scottish internationalists. They all returned home after the War, armed with their education. Many had very successful careers and retained their links with the School all their lives. I’ve traced what happened to several of them. The last one died in 1995, aged 95. He is buried in Zemum, near Belgrade, in his School tie. All the articles are available online. There are fascinating contributions by their descendants and some lovely photographs.
Thank you so much, Louise, for taking the time to share your thoughts. A Fine Brother motivates me to learn more about some of Flora’s friends. You convey such admiration for their work. I have enjoyed our email chat.