Flora Sandes is perhaps the most well known person to have lived in Marlesford.
Coming from Marlesford, Suffolk, Flora was the only British woman officially to serve as a soldier in World War 1.
Initially a St Johns Ambulance volunteer, she travelled to Serbia, where she was formally enrolled in the Serbian army. She was subsequently promoted to the rank of Sergent Major, and, after the war, to Captain.
Flora and her parents are commemorated in Marlesford Church. The brass plates below can be seen in the church (note the year of death on the plate is inaccurate, it should be 1956).
Flora Sandes was born on 22 January 1876 in Nether Poppleton, Yorkshire, the youngest daughter of an Irish family. Her father was Samuel Dickson Sandes (1822–1914), the former rector of Whitchurch, County Cork, and her mother was Sophia Julia (née Besnard). When she was nine years old, the family moved to Marlesford, Suffolk; and later to Thornton Heath, near Croydon, Surrey. As a child she was educated by governesses. She enjoyed riding and shooting and said that she wished she had been born a boy. She learned to drive, and drove an old French racing car. She took a job as a secretary. In her spare time Sandes trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps, founded in 1907, as an all-women mounted paramilitary organisation, learning first aid, horsemanship, signalling and drill. She left the F.A.N.Y. in 1910 joining another renegade FANY, Mabel St Clair Stobart, in the formation of the Women's Sick & Wounded Convoy. The Convoy saw service in Serbia and Bulgaria in 1912 during the 1st Balkans War. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 she volunteered to become a nurse, but was rejected due to a lack of qualifications.
Sandes nonetheless joined a St. John Ambulance unit raised by American nurse Mabel Grouitch, and on 12 August 1914 left England for Serbia with a group of 36 women to try to aid the humanitarian crises there. They arrived at the town of Kragujevac which was the base for the Serbian forces fighting against the Austro-Hungarian offensive. Sandes joined the Serbian Red Cross and worked in an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. During the difficult retreat to the sea through Albania, Sandes was separated from her unit and, for her own safety (namely to get food rations), enrolled as a soldier with a Serbian regiment. Following the Balkan tradition of "sworn virgins", it was not unknown for women to serve in the Serbian army, but Sandes was the only British woman to do so. She quickly advanced to the rank of Corporal. In 1916, during the Serbian advance on Bitola (Monastir), Sandes was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand to hand combat. She subsequently received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe's Star. At the same time, she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant major.
Also in 1916, Sandes published her autobiography, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, based on her letters and diaries. She used this account to help her raise funds for the Serbian Army. With Evelina Haverfield she founded the Hon. Evelina Haverfield's and Sergt-Major Flora Sandes' Fund for Promoting Comforts for Serbian Soldiers and Prisoners. Unable to continue fighting due to her injury, she spent the remainder of the war running a hospital. At the end of the war she was commissioned as an officer (the first woman to be commissioned), and was finally demobilised in October 1922.
In May 1927, Sandes married Yuri Yudenitch, a fellow officer and former White Army general.The couple lived for a time in France, but afterwards returned to Serbia (which by this date had become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and settled in Belgrade. Among other jobs, Sandes drove Belgrade's first taxicab. Also in 1927, she published a second autobiography. She lectured extensively on her wartime experiences in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada and the United States. She wore her military uniform while delivering her lectures.
When Germany launched its attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941, Sandes and Yudenitch were recalled to military service, but the invasion was over before they could take up any military duties. They were briefly interned by the Germans, before being released on parole. Yudenitch fell ill, was removed to hospital, and died there in September 1941.
Sandes subsequently returned to England. She spent the last years of her life in Suffolk, where she died in November 1956.
In popular culture
- Our Englishwoman, a television film based on the biography of Flora Sandes and directed by Slobodan Radovitch, was produced in 1997 by the Serbian broadcasting service RTS.
For more information on this incredible woman search 'Flora Sandes' on the internet.