An enterprising grad writes the story of the only woman to serve as a soldier in WWI
Louise Miller, Artsci’90, spent 10 years researching and writing her debut book, A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes (www.almabooks.com). That decade of research and Miller’s meticulous attention to detail are evident in this beautifully written biography of the only British woman to serve as a soldier in WWI.
Louise Miller is English-born, but she grew up on Earl Street in Kingston and attended Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute before graduating from Queen’s and then McGill. Her mother, Caroline Miller, was a Queen’s professor of sociology, while her dad, Tony Miller, was a former Royal Air Force mountain rescue pilot, member of the British National Parachute Team, and a professor at the Royal Military College.
Louise moved to Edinburgh in 1995, earned a law degree and settled into her career. “In 2002,” she says, “I was on an airplane when I stumbled across a reference to a nameless English woman who had served as a combat soldier in WWI.”
Intrigued, she began researching and before long realized she’d found the little-known story of a remarkable character.
Flora Sandes was the eighth child born into a genteel Yorkshire family in 1876. By all accounts, she was a spirited tomboy who said she wished she’d been born a boy. In her late teens she became a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, race-car driver who taught her dog to smoke, and usually did whatever she wanted.
In 1905, Sandes traveled to British Columbia, where one of her brothers was working as a mining engineer. It was there that she learned many useful practical skills such as shooting, hunting, and fishing, that served her well later in her career.
Flora Sandes was on a camping trip when war was declared in 1914. She was said to have jumped into her French racing car and rushed off to enlist. Turned down by the British military, Sandes was undeterred. She joined up with an American woman who was gathering Red Cross volunteers to work in Serbia.
Sandes showed remarkable courage serving as a nurse and caring for wounded and dying soldiers in Serbia with almost no medical support or supplies. However, serving in the Red Cross was scarcely enough for her. In 1915, at age 39, Sandes enlisted in the Serbian Army, where she eventually became an officer, a captain, and a decorated military hero.
Over the course of a long and colourful life, Flora Sandes never ceased to surprise. She survived a Gestapo prison in WWII, traveled and lived all over the world, was notorious for drinking and carousing, wrote two autobiographies, married a Russian sergeant, was an overbearing and difficult houseguest, and eventually returned to England for her final years. Although she was penniless, she was always audacious.
A Fine Brother has had enthusiastic reviews in The Times and The Scotsman and on the BBC. It was the runner-up for the H W Fisher Best First Biography Prize and will be out in paperback in the UK in June. The book is being translated into Serbian and will be published by Serbia’s biggest publisher later this year.
Louise Miller, who is married with a four year-old, continues to work full-time, but she’s been thinking of a possible new book. “I’ve found another character,” she says. “A very different kind of character in a very different setting, but nonetheless, a remarkably sympathetic character.”