In the 1881 census for England,  a five year old girl named Flora is to be found residing with three sisters, her mother Sophia and her father, the curate, Samuel Dickson Sandes, at The Rectory in Monewden, Suffolk. The living for the rural parish of St Mary’s was valued at £265 in 1868. The National Archives’ handy currency converter tells us that this sum would be worth about £12,110 in today’s money – not much but then it was a small and obscure parish. By the time of the 1891 census, the family has moved a little cross-county to The Rectory in Marlesford. 

At the next decennial census in 1901, the family is living in suburbia, at St Paul’s Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey. Rev Sandes, now 78, is recorded as “living on own means”, so one assumes that he has retired from the curacy of Anglican souls. Flora is still at home, a 25 year old spinster, described, like her sister Fanny, as a correspondent.  In 1911, the most recent census of England & Wales currently publicly available, the family is still at St Paul’s Road. By this date the Rev Sandes, aged 88, is describing himself as a “retired parson and barrister”. He may have become curmudgeonly with age, or perhaps was registering a minor objection to the exclusion of women from the franchise (in tune with the “No Vote, No Census” protest): either way, the census return, which is neatly completed in most respects, records against the Ages of Females simply “full” against his daughter Flora and the other women in the house (excepting his wife Sophia, who is an acknowledged 78).  The census enumerator, one William Warman, has pencilled in the remarks “will not give ages” and “refuses to give ages and any further information”, his irritation almost audible. 

And as for Flora herself, the column Personal Occupation says: None. Yet five years later Flora Sandes was a Captain in the Serbian Army. 

Flora volunteered for overseas service immediately upon the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914. She was rejected by the Volunteer Aid Detachment but got in to the American Mabel Grujić’s Red Cross Unit on a temporary three-month stint and headed to Serbia. She then returned home to fund-raise before returning in 1915 to join the Serbian Red Cross. She served in Niš, caught typhus in Valjevo, was attached to the Serbian Second Army, and worked as a medical orderly in Salonica and Monastir before making the transition from nurse to soldier. Commissioned as an army officer, she fought at Kajmakčalan before accompanying the retreating Serbs on their long winter march across Albania to safety in Corfu and Bizerte (Tunisia). 

After the War, Flora Sandes lived in Yugoslavia and married a White Russian officer named Judenič (later imprisoned and killed by the Nazis), before returning to England in her sixties. 

Flora Sandes was one of hundreds of British women who volunteered and served as nurses in Serbia during WW1, at places such as Kragujevac, Mladenovac and Valjevo. Some served under the aegis of the Red Cross, others as part of the independent Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service. Most came from relatively comfortable and privileged backgrounds and the contrast between their early life experiences and those of the war must have been acute and unimaginable. 

For those researching an ancestor or family member who was one of those women, there is a significant collection of records in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.

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