Never has the phrase ‘sisters in arms’ been more poignant and relevant than in the story of three extraordinary Yorkshire women who showed bravery of the highest order amid the horrors of front line life in the Great War.
York-born Flora Sandes holds a unique place in World War One history as the only British woman to fight on the front line. As the UK army did not allow women in the ranks, rector’s daughter Flora signed up with the Serbian Army.
Initially working as a volunteer nurse with the Serbian Red Cross, she enlisted as a soldier and rose to become captain. Flora was among tens of thousands of Serbian troops fighting in 1916 from their base in northern Greece, to try to re-enter their own country, which had been occupied by Bulgarian forces a year earlier.
Her efforts earned her the country’s highest military medal in 1917 and to become a revered figure in the Eastern European country.
Paying tribute, Flora’s great nephew Ben Johnston said: ‘She was the most amazing woman with extraordinary stories to tell.’
Nellie Spindler, from Wakefield, and her Birstall-born colleague Minnie Wood, both volunteered to work for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and were posted to France in 1917.
They worked at No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) which in July moved close to the front line at Brandhoek, Belgium, where they tended wounded soldiers. It was a frequent target for shelling by enemy troops and on 21 August, it was shelled all day during the Battle of Passchendaele.
At 11am, Nellie was hit along with four other nurses by an exploding shell and suffered serious injuries. Nellie quickly fell unconscious and as her colleagues desperately tried to treat her wounds, she was cradled by Sister Minnie Wood, dying peacefully in the arms of her fellow nurse.
Police inspector’s daughter Nellie, aged 26, was buried with full military honours the next day at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery – the only woman among more than 10,000 men. The Last Post was sounded and it is thought that more than 100 officers, four generals and the Surgeon-General attended the funeral. Her headstone bears the inscription:
Minnie wrote to Nellie’s parents: ‘There is one consolation for you; your daughter became unconscious immediately after she was hit, and she passed away perfectly peacefully at 11.20am.’
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War ending, ITV Calendar brought together the great nieces of both nurses. Meeting at the church Nellie attended, St Andrew’s in Wakefield, Margaret Truelove said: “We are very proud of our great aunt and pleased her sacrifice is still remembered.’
Minnie was to be awarded the Military Medal for her actions that tragic day, with the citation stating: ‘This lady never lost her nerve for a moment and during the whole of a trying day, carried out her duties with the greatest steadiness and coolness.’
She was later awarded the OBE, the Royal Red Cross and mentioned in dispatches three times. Her medals are now on display at the University of Salford where a simulation laboratory used in nurse training is named after her.
Nurses of succeeding generations have laid flowers at Nellie’s grave as a tribute to her selfless courage that day amidst one of the Great War’s most brutal battles.
‘I am so proud of what these two ladies did for their profession and their country. Yorkshire should be proud of the courage they displayed,’ says Kathryn, Minnie’s great niece.