I recently stumbled across a reference to Dorothy Lawrence while doing some research into the Great War. I was astounded by her story, and when I mentioned her name to a few friends, I was met with blank stats. Clearly, Dorothy Lawrence is one of the #AmazingWomenInHistory who needs to be remembered, not forgotten.
Dorothy was born in Britain in 1896. Determined to be a journalist, at a young age she had some articles published in The Times. When war broke out, she pestered many people on Fleet Street with the hope of becoming a war reporter. When her calls went unnoticed, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Travelling to France in 1915, aged just 21, she applied to become an employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. When her application was rejected, she decided to enter the war zone as a freelance war correspondent.
However she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, and ordered to leave. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write. “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish.”
Determined, Dorothy befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisien café, and persuaded them to smuggle her khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as “Khaki accomplices.”
Dorothy then began the process of transforming herself into a male soldier, by flattening her figure with a homemade corset, using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders, and with the help of two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She used a disinfectant called Condy’s Fluid to darken her complexion, razored the pale skin of her cheeks to give herself a shaving rash, and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Lastly, she persuaded her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march. She got her hands on forged identity papers, and headed for the frontline, as Private Denis Smith, 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.
After being interrogated as a spy, she was declared a prisoner of war, and taken cross country to Calais and was unknowingly questioned about being a prostitute (or ‘camp follower’) as the term was.Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tunnel-digging sapper Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman amongst female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in and she worked as a sapper (a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.) with the 179 Tunnelling Company. However after ten days in horrible conditions, a few bouts of chills and fainting, and with concern that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered, Dorothy presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest.
The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security. Fearful of more women taking on main roles during the war if Dorothy’s story got out, Dorothy was made sign an affidavit swearing that she would not write about her experiences. Sent back to London, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and only published an account of her experiences after the war, which was still heavily censored by the War Office.
With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet.
Dorothy Lawrence died in 1964. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.