Some days I finished reading this account of an English woman-sergeant in the Serbian army. Specifically, Flora Sandes (1874 – 1956, at age 80), drawn from her first tour experiences assisting the troubled country during WW1 as a medical doctor. Fate soon after turned her road to that of a soldier, then sergeant, then eventually a heroic figure of modern Serbian history.
The memoir draws through her whole first tour, from her arrival to Serbia up to her temporary leave for England for a few months before returning to the front (an event which she looks forward to at the conclusion of the diary). What happens with her after this leave is not chronicled in this work, but Wikipedia skimming says she founded a military hospital and a fund for Serbian servicemen with one Evelina Haverfield (1867 – 1920 at age 53), having to remain serving there after a serious injury in hand-to-hand combat involving a grenade (wow!). She also ascended to Captain after the war and got decorated with seven medals. Finally, she married a fellow officer named Yuri Yudenitch years after the war and settled in Serbia whilst giving lectures on her wartime experience through the commonwealth nations. Unfortunately she still had some tragedy set in store for her in the 40’s, but that goes a bit outside the scope of WW1, so you’ll have to check out her wiki article I’m afraid (hint: The Nazis didn’t like her or her husband).
So it’s exactly what it says on the tin. Compared to standards of that era the prose is… pretty dry. Just “this happened and this happened and this happened” with only enough wordiness to make the sequence enjoyable. So to our modern standards it’s a bit flowery, but only slightly so.
The memoir itself is an interesting in-the-road view into the first modern war, both with regard to its human perspective on combat while also highlighting the more general concerns of a servicewoman during her tour. On that line, let’s get into the first thing most people would think of at “war diary”: in her entire memoir, she personally fights the Astro-Hungarians/Bulgarians in the “taking cover and shooting at them” sense in just one scene within just one chapter. Despite the common perception of war being a constant explosion parade, there’s actually a lot of dull stuff that happens in between the fighting. Instead, what she and her unit most spend time on throughout the book (both as medic and soldier), is marching and relocating from one spot to another. Note that as far as I understand it their propensity for movement was also due to the lackluster armament the Serbians had in WW1 and the strategies that developed through the course of the war.
On that note, she also often wrote of the difficulties of communicating with other sections of the army due to the problems in logistics and communications at the time, the former being a known factor of total war and the latter being especially difficult for rough, early 20th century technology to cope with. These problems also resulted in issues with supplies and organization. From the moment she came to the country things were already extremely hectic and she had difficulties getting a hold of any officer to figure out where to leave, where to get her bed, how to get an orderly, where to get the proper supplies, etc. Although things get worked out into their own order-in-chaos once she got into a unit, the problems in logistics and scarcity of supplies (food of which she by far makes the most note of) become constant through the whole writing.
As well as supplies, many of the commodities of civilian life were severely reduced or simply unavailable during wartime. She mentioned, for example, of “my orderly’s repeated assurances that you could not have a bath in wartime, which I found afterwards to be strictly true.” In part because they were often camping in the wilderness during marches, but also because most of the cities that they managed to get into were extremely ravaged by the war. Abandoned buildings, scarce food, and utilities sold at exorbitant prices by amoral villagers were par for the course. It made a dump yard look like a rose garden.
Curiously, at no point in the memoir does she seem to have or describe any feeling of overwhelming fear, terror, or dread in regards to what’s happening. Instead, her dealings with the wounded and the dead make for a majority of the stories she has to tell. For example, she describes all the dead in the island hospital of Vido, and how there there just wasn’t enough land in the island to bury them all and so had to resort to sea burials. This was a horrible and alien method of internment for a country with no maritime history. There’s one particular story involving a Serbian father in the later chapters of the book that was particularly touching in that regard, but I’d rather not spoil it.
Anyways, another particular point of note is that all the things they go through and all the actions during the campaign are described with admirable discretion and grace. Perhaps this is the signature of a British woman of that era. So while it is an account from a very dire war (Serbia’s ultimate victory ended with losing 27% (60% of male total) of their total population and the front was horrible even by WW1 standards), you get more of a clinical and vaguely pathetic perspective of everything that happened in the war, rather than something overly pessimistic or anything of the sort.
Similarly, through all the things they experienced, the hunger, the discomfort, the situations they faced, the logistic issues and bureaucratic frustrations, the occasional celebrations like Serbian Christmas or Slava day they tried to enjoy amidst wartime, all the things that accompany the extraordinary incidents of war and the sense of trying to simply live with your buddies through an ugly situation… you can really sense that this is pretty much the spirit of a young person experiencing her time in the war. In fact when someone asks her why she decided to join them- I think this was after many camping nights of hunger and marches and the fighting she took part earlier that day – she had this to say: “I lay on my back looking up at the stars, and, when one of them asked me what I was thinking about, I told him that when I was old and decrepit and done for, and had to stay in a house and not go about any more, I should remember my first night with the Fourth Company on the top of Mount Chukus”.
This of course aside from resolve of wanting to help the British allies in the war. And on that note, you can tell through the book that she has a really deep appreciation of the Serbian people –which as you’ll see below was very much corresponded-, and you can often hear her comments remarking on various small (and not so small) acts of discretion, kindness and gentleness on the part of various members of the Serbian military –both soldiers & officers and the civilianship. She spares no ink to point out how, despite this conception of them as violent and beastly, she never really felt unsafe at being the only woman among a group of Serbian soldiers, even going as far as to say that she “felt safer in Sarajevo than in Liverpool.” And you really get a sense of that gentlemanship not only thanks to the nigh-uncountable incidents of all the attentions they give to her, but to the enthusiasm of her orderly (generally offering her a blanket or asking her if she’s fine if they find her awake at night) and many other instances.
Whether they make an exception for her due to her gender or nationality is never quite talked about in the book, and while you might get some suspicion of that, you get a sense that the Serbians were simply (at least in her eyes) considerate and noble people. And a very dedicated and sacrificed, not only to their English guest: There were more than a few occasions where a hungry soldier would refuse food so that another soldier would have something to eat in time of dire need or simply because he didn’t want to feel like he was hogging it all. So the book is permeated with a feeling of the Serbian nation as compromised of a gentle and disciplined people, though very unfortunate in both situation and equipment.
So on the topic of her being a woman in the war… it is was unusual, and they made an exception for her due to her level of participation and their level of esteem for her. But she didn’t make many mentions of the gender topic aside from some vague asides. For example, when she saw some English Tommies at a regrouping area, she got a bit embarrassed and afraid that they would laugh at the sight of a woman dressed as a sergeant, but instead she was pleasantry surprised when they were happy to see her, shaking her hand and hugging her and all the niceties of a time probably now gone by. The Serbians made about as much mention of her gender as she did. The Serbian soldiers behaved more or less similar to the Tommies, but whether that was because of their kindness and formality -or because of all the things they went through with her making her one of their own- you never really get the feeling that they were ever too closed to her, and even from the beginning they pretty much accepted her as one of their own.
That said however, she ended up as far more than a valiant but “mere” soldier. Such was her capacity in organization and as an officer (and such was the devotion the soldiers of the unit had for her) that the penultimate chapter of the novel concludes with a letter of gratitude from the entire unit. My own words can’t possibly make justice to such a noble event, so I’ll leave that unspoiled as well.bbSuffice to say that the heartfelt language of such a moving letter made for a perfect note to signal the conclusion of this memoir. It’s held up and signed by all the soldiers of the regiment as one, by a committee of various officers in the regiment, and finally by the Commander of the company himself.
But the actual ending somehow manages to top that! At the very end of the novel –right before she took a short leave to Britain for getting supplies and publicizing this very book to gather support for Serbia- she’s ascended to Sergeant in the Slava day celebrations by none other than the King of Serbia himself. Needless to say that the celebration is nothing short of magnificent, and Sandes’s narration does more than justice to such an important event of Serbian culture. Throughout the entire –if somewhat short- memoir, not only you get to experience a personal perspective of WW1 (and get to learn more about the Serbian side of it on the way) but also the personality of this very noble and downright heroic young woman.
So it was a very engaging read. Not only because of the experiences she had but because of the person she was. And because of the enthusiasm and gentleness with which she described not only the Serbians, but almost all of the people she had met.
As a final note, I’d like to thank miss MaryAnn, the Librivox reader of this book. She was simply perfect. Her reading not only felt like Flora Sandes herself, but the rhythm and beauty of her narration deeply enriched this already amazing material. And I’d specially like to thank her for her concluding commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. That was really unexpected and it was by far one of the most moving moments I’ve ever had with Librivox, and it’s the kind of things that make Librivox one of my favorite places of the internet.
Once again thank you for that, and thank you for reading.
 Check out this link to get an idea of what things were like.