Dorothy Lawrence’s hunger for a scoop drove her to the trenches of the Somme in soldier’s disguise, but her journalistic ambition put her ahead of time.
She was in her 20s when war broke out, a novice reporter desperate to make her name as war correspondent. With no family ties, she was free to go to the front. Her mother (who was probably unmarried) had died when she was in her early teens and she had been raised by a guardian who was prominent in the Church of England.
Dorothy attempted various routes to the fighting front to find fodder for her writing. The War Office and every newspaper she approached turned her down; it was considered too risky an assignment even for most seasoned reporters. In 1915 she applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment, which sent women to work in the war zone, but without success. She managed to get within two miles of the front lines in the French sector, but was arrested by French authorities and ordered to leave.
She decided that the best and perhaps the only way to get her story was to disguise herself as a man. She wrote: ‘I’ll see what an ordinary English girl can accomplish… I’ll see whether I can go one better than these big men with their cars, credentials and money… I’ll be hanged if I don’t try.’
In a Parisian café, Dorothy befriended two British soldiers and recruited them to teach her how to walk like a man and smuggle her a sapper’s uniform, piece by piece. Ten soldiers altogether – her ‘khaki accomplices’ – helped her. She compressed her body with a corset and bulked her shoulders by stuffing her uniform with sacking and cotton wool. She darkened her skin with Condy’s Fluid (a disinfectant), razored her cheeks and cut her long hair short. With forged identity papers, she became Private Denis Smith of the 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment.
Dorothy caught a train to Amiens and then cycled to the notoriously dangerous village of Albert on the Somme. On the way she made friends with Tommy Dunn, a sapper with the British Expeditionary Force, who found her an abandoned cottage to sleep in, brought her his leftover rations and after two days risked court martial to sneak her to the trenches under cover of darkness. The uniform gave her some scope to roam the front lines, as sappers would often turn up without the commanding officer of an infantry regiment having been informed.
She joined his company, the 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers. She later wrote of helping to dig tunnels beneath No Man’s Land and lay mines under fire from shrapnel, rifles and shells. While modern historians have questioned the truth of some details, she certainly served in the trenches.
It lasted less than two weeks, however. She started suffering from rheumatism, weakened from exhaustion and contaminated water. Dorothy decided to hand herself in to the commanding officer – an option preferable to having her true gender discovered when she was unconscious.
Placed under military arrest, she was taken to BEF Headquarters where she was interrogated as a spy and declared a prisoner of war. She later described breaking into giggles under interrogation: ‘I really could not help it…. so utterly ludicrous appeared this betrousered little female, marshalled solemnly by three soldiers and deposited before 20 embarrassed men.’ She was locked in a convent until after the Battle of the Loos out of fears she would release sensitive information, and then made to sign an affidavit promising not to write about her experiences until the war was over.
Back in England, Dorothy was invited by the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to lecture British women keen to join the war effort. But her extraordinary experience did not propel her to journalistic fame, as she had hoped. She had to scrap the first draft of her book after the War Office invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to silence her.
In 1919, she finally published a book, Sapped Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, but The War Office censored it heavily. The Spectator, reviewing the book, dismissed her adventure as a ‘girlish freak’. It did not sell well and she struggled financially.
Several years later, Dorothy was admitted to London County Mental Hospital and divulged a long-held secret: she had been raped by her Church of England guardian. She was declared insane and committed to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, where she remained until her death in 1964. Although the rape story was not officially accepted, it does appear in her medical records. It could explain her apparent lack of concern for her own safety during the war, as victims of sexual abuse victims often do not value their own wellbeing.
Like many minority voices during the Great War, Dorothy’s story has been disregarded for decades. On the 100th anniversary of the war’s commencement, a book was released about her life and her story formed part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war.
Dorothy was one of many women who used the war as a stepping stone to forge a new identity and assert themselves in the public sphere. Though she never achieved the journalistic success she wanted, she showed what women were capable of doing – much to the embarrassment of the War Office.
Research and words by Emily Allison