A Feminist at the Front – An Irishman’s Diary about Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes (right) - probably the first woman ever honoured with a commission as a combatant officer in a European army.  Photograph: City of Vancouver Archives

Flora Sandes (right) - probably the first woman ever honoured with a commission as a combatant officer in a European army. Photograph: City of Vancouver Archives


It might be stretching things to say that Flora Sandes was Irish, even in this month, when associate membership of the club is thrown open to all-comers.  

The strict biographical facts are that she was born in Yorkshire, and also spent early years in Suffolk and Surrey.

But she was descended from a family that had lived for centuries in Ireland, first in Kerry, later Cork, where her older siblings were born. And she often described herself as Irish, long after she had left even England for more distant parts. Then there’s the clincher – she is said to have had traces of a Cork accent all her life. So that settles it – she’s in.

She could certainly have played football for Ireland and, in a later era, might well have wanted to. In her own age, having been born in 1876, she was the stereotypical tomboy who regretted being a girl.  

Less Flora, more fauna, she rode horses, shot things, and learned to drive fast cars as early as possible.  

But as with many of that generation, her decisive moment came in 1914, with the start of the first World War.  

Within weeks of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she was in Serbia, along with other female volunteers intent on setting up a field hospital, to be staffed entirely by women.

Their role model was a Scot named Elsie Inglis, whose motivations probably spoke for them too. When Inglis offered the services of her Scottish Women’s Hospitals organisation to the British War Office, she was advised instead: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”  

In the event, Inglis chose action, abroad. At a time when female surgeons were still a rarity, she was soon an object of fascination and horror in military hospitals on the Continent. After a fact-finding mission to see her work, one French journalist emerged, queasy, and declared: “C’est vrai, elle coupe!” (It’s true, she’s cutting!”)

But as Norman Davies writes in Europe: A History, Sandes took “her career of gender inversion” much further than most. She went on to join the Serbian army and, in the winter of 1915, survived a tortuous retreat from the advancing Austrians and Bulgarians, across mountains, where “mud, snow, hunger, frostbite, typhus, and gangrene” claimed 40,000 lives.  

After that she fought in combat, was badly wounded, won medals for bravery, and finished the war as an officer.  

Reporting her promotion, and reflecting on the brave new world of 1919, The Irish Times suggested it was “possibly the first instance in history of a woman being honoured with a commission as a combatant officer”.

In later life, she married an exiled Russian army man, lived in what became Yugoslavia and, among other revolutionary achievements, drove one of Belgrade’s first taxis. But there was even more to her than that.

And if you’re anywhere around the south Dublin suburb of Stillorgan next week, you can hear the full story of her remarkable life, because it’s the subject of a talk at the Kilmacud Crokes GAA club on Thursday 9th, by historian Bryan McMahon.  

Bryan’s title is “Captain Flora Sandes: An Irishwoman in the Serbian Army in WW1”.   Which he then slightly qualifies by saying she is “best described as Irish-English maybe”. But at a time when we are about to bathe many of the world’s monuments in the colour green, temporarily, I think “Irishwoman” is fair enough. More details are at kilmacudstillorganhistory.ie

Still on the subject of women and war – and indeed surgeons – I’ve been asked to mention again an event both dramatic and charitable that takes place later this month at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.  

It’s a show called And Spring Will Come, which was inspired by the entente cordiale of recent times on these islands, and revisits both the first World War and the Easter Rising through the poetry and prose of many protagonists.  

The words are brought alive again by a talented cast of actors, with the help of art, photography, music, and film.

But the cause is good too.  

First produced last year as part of the Royal College of Surgeons’ contribution to the age of reconciliation, the show has now been revived for a once-off performance in aid of an aptly named charity, Mending our Children’s Hearts.  

This is a physical job for some – especially at Dublin’s Coombe Hospital, where they provide very specialist care to Irish children (north and south) diagnosed before birth with congenital heart disease.  

The March 26th event will help their vital work. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or from friends@coombe.ie