We join the British Legion in celebrating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) who became the British Army’s first all-female unit on 7 July 1917.
The role of women in the Armed Forces has developed over the last 100 years and one woman from Thornton Heath was at the forefront of these changes.
Weatherspoons pub on Ambassador House is named after that brave woman – Flora Sandes. No doubt if she were around today not only would she not object but she would be honoured sto have a pub named after her as she was “over-fond” of alcohol and cigarettes!
Flora Sandes was the only British woman to serve as a combat soldier in the First World War. Wounded fighting as a sergeant with the Serbian army in 1916, she was awarded the country’s highest honour for bravery and became a national hero.
Flora Sandes did not want to be a girl. Each night as a child, the rector’s daughter would pray she would wake up a boy. She grew up with a passion for shooting and riding and dreamed of being a soldier.
Flora moved to Thornton Heath, South London, in 1895, becoming a secretary and joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. In London in 1908, she became one of the first women to get a driving licence and bought a fast French car. With her blonde hair short, she called herself “Jack”.
Flora was 38 when, in July 1914, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and it was everything she had been waiting for. She paid her way to Serbia to work as a nurse and by October 1915, with the Serbian army losing ground, she announced she wanted to fight. Flora was enlisted as a private – the only British woman to fight in the First World War.
Showing impressive courage in battle, Flora was promoted to sergeant. In November 1916, in hand-to-hand fighting near Monastir, she was badly wounded by a grenade, suffering a shattered arm and 28 shrapnel wounds.
She was awarded the Order of the Star of Kara?or?e, Serbia’s highest decoration. Her exploits made the papers, turning her into a celebrity.
She later married a Belarussian colonel Yurie Yudenitch – 12 year’s her junior – and lived to the ripe old age of 80.