|Dorothy poses in army uniform, 1918|
Disguised as a soldier, a middle class girl from Warwickshire fought on the Western Front for the British Army for ten days in 1915. This is her story...
Northern France, Summer 1915: A lone 19-year-old Englishwoman cycles through the war torn French countryside a dozen miles from Paris, provoking plenty of comment ("Not a nurse? Not a uniformed worker, then why here?"). Aspiring journalist Dorothy Lawrence hoped to prove herself by investigating the war at first hand.
Dorothy had volunteered herself as a war-correspondent, only to be fobbed off by sneering editors: "do you suppose we're going to send a woman out there when even our own war-correspondents can't get out for love or money." Undeterred, she decided to prove them wrong: "I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there, I'll go one better," and set out across the Channel.
In Paris Dorothy chose her "first two male assistants," two English soldiers with "lonesome expressions...who badly needed a bit of home," in a café. She somehow persuaded them to smuggle her a uniform, piece by piece, with their washing. "We don't mind helping you kiddy," said one, adding, "You'll never get near enough to be in danger." Later Dorothy recalled the willingness of soldiers to help her: "Ten men eventually shared in this exploit. All gave me help owing to the fact that I behaved like one of their own naughty schoolgirls, and only later I realised how splendidly these man had behaved."
Equipped with "jacket, badge, cap, puttees, shirt and boots" Dorothy bound her breasts and used sacking and cotton to bulk out her shoulders ("Enveloping myself in swathes of bandages like a mummy"). She learned how to march and drill; darkened her pale skin with diluted furniture polish; cut her waist-length hair short; and faked military identity papers under the name of 'Private Denis Smith, 1st Batallion Leicestershire Regiment. She was ready.
'Dressed in an old coat, and wearing no underwear Dorothy cycled out to the Somme'
Dressed in an old "blanket coat" and wearing no underwear, lest soldiers discover her abandoned petticoats Dorothy cycled out to the Somme, her furniture polish tan dribbling down her face, and her uniform dangling behind her bicycle. Dorothy made her way through French and English troops, trying also to look "conspicuously unattractive," to avoid being approached by soldiers. As she was beginning to realise that "the presence of a woman at the front possessed dangers other than death".
|Dorothy's book includes a photograph|
of her dressed in feminine clothing
Along the way, Dorothy met Sapper Tom Dunn, a former Lancashire coalminer. He helped Dorothy set up camp at an old cottage in Senlis Forest ("my own private 'barracks'"). She slept on a soggy mattress, hearing the boom of the guns, bitten by "creepy crawlies". Tom brought her food, sharing his own rations. Within a few days he risked court martial when he helped smuggle Dorothy into the trenches, mingling with crowds of soldiers under cover of darkness.
Dorothy worked alongside Tom, just 400 yards from the German trenches, laying mines in No Man's Land "under simultaneous fire of shell, rifle and shrapnel." However, after ten days, "fainting fits started to bring disgrace on the King's uniform" and worried that Tommy and her "little army" of helpers would get into trouble were she discovered, Dorothy handed herself in to the commanding sergeant.
By now Dorothy was suffering from rheumatism and exhaustion. While suspicious that she was a spy, the "embarrassed" military authorities treated Dorothy chivalrously. "Whatever she has done, she is a lady," remarked one, and the officers fretted that they had no suitable accommodation for "girl-prisoners". Over 25 officers were devoted to finding out just how she had managed to infiltrate the army. "We know you're not a spy. We are just trying to find out what you are?" one told her.
The army failed to get any information out of Dorothy except the bare bones of her story, and they placed her temporarily in a convent. Concerned that other women might try to copy her, they made Dorothy swear not to write about her experiences, although this had been the point of her trip. Handing back her "little khaki outfit" she was sent home to London, travelling on the same boat as Emmeline Pankhurst, who asked her to speak at a suffragette meeting.
Dorothy wrote later: "in making that promise I sacrificed the chance of earning by newspaper articles written on this escapade, as a girl compelled to earn her livelihood." Not until 1919 was Dorothy able to publish her story, and even then it was censored by the War Office and she received little attention. "People today will probably think that I must have been immoral at the Front," she concluded.
Dorothy never became a pioneering journalist. Six years after the end of the war, she was committed to an asylum after accusing her church guardian of raping her. She spent the rest of her life at Friern Hospital in Middlesex until she died in 1964.
You can read the full text of Dorothy Lawrence's book Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: the only English woman soldier (1919) online through Google books.
Find out about other women on the frontline of the First World War on First World War.com