Female Badasses in History: Flora Sanders (1876–1955)
Flora Sanders stands out in military history. She was the only British woman to officially enlist in World War I and the first woman in history who became a commissioned officer in the Serbian army.
Flora Sanders was born in 1876 in Nehter Poppleton in the UK as the daughter of an Irish family. In her youth she enjoyed riding and shooting a lot. On one occasion it is said that she claimed, she would have liked to be born a boy. She also was one of the first women in the area who learned to drive. In her twenties she bought a French racecar, taught herself how to drive and raced around Yorkshire in it.
When World War I broke out in 1914, she was one of the first women to volunteer to become a nurse in the British army. She was rejected due to her lack of qualification but Sanders didn’t give up and joined the Red Cross. She and other Red Cross volunteers set out for Serbia in 1914, which at the time was under military assault by German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops and suffered heavy military and civilian casualties.
Sanders worked with a Serbian army regiment under heavy assault. Her assignment was to run around the battlefield under heavy fire and collect wounded soldiers she had to drag back to safety. When the unit had to retreat to Albania because of the heavy attacks, Sanders was separated. After a two-day trek through the mountains, she found another Serbian army unit and decided to join them in combat. Flora Sanders became the only British woman to enlist in an army in World War I. Because of her apparent skill, she quickly rose through the ranks and in 1916 was awarded the rank of Corporal. The same year, she participated in a Serbian Army attack on Monastir where she was wounded by a grenade while engaging an Austro-Hungarian soldier in hand-to-hand combat. She was brought to a military hospital in Greece, was awarded the rank of Sergeant Major and was awarded the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star, the highest military honor the Serbian Army has to offer.
Unable to continue to fight, Sanders wrote an autobiography in order to make people worldwide support the fight of Serbia against the tri-partie powers. She remained in the Serbian Army until 1922 when she was honorably discharged.
In 1927 she married a former White-Army-General who had fought in the Russian civil war and lived in Belgrad with him. When Nazi-Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Sanders and her husband were both interned in the Gestapo prison in Belgrad. Her husband didn’t survive captivity. After World War II Sanders returned to England where she spent the remaining years of her life delivering lectures about her time in the military. She died in 1955 in Suffolk.
Flora Sanders stands out because she defied military and social convention. Due to her alleged saying she’d rather be a boy, it has been speculated that she might have been one of the first known trans-gender people to fight in a war. That question aside though, Flora Sanders certainly proves to be an example of somebody who didn’t back down when faced with the obstacle of social and military norms.