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Dorothy Lawrence was an English journalist and war correspondent during World War I (WW1). She disguised herself as a man with the help of British soldiers to serve on the front lines in France. She revealed her gender to her commanding officers after becoming ill and, eventually, wrote a memoir of her experience entitled Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Dorothy Lawrence was forced into an asylum in her later life and perished with little recognition and no obituary.

Youth and Journalism

Dorothy Lawrence was born on October 4, 1896, in Hendon, Middlesex, England. [1]

Dorothy Lawrence grew up with no family and found the courage and strength in herself to try to make something of her life in a world with few opportunities for women to do so.

She did not know her parents and her mother abandoned her shortly after her birth. She was brought up by a guardian within the Church of England and showed a strong interest in journalism. She succeeded in publishing a few articles in The Times, a London-based daily, national newspaper. When World War I started, she wrote to many different Fleet Street newspapers requesting to report on the war.[2]

Lawrence relocated in 1915 to France, where she attempted to volunteer with the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a civilian employee, but they rejected her. She then took it upon herself to enter the war zone as a war correspondent. The French Police arrested her in Senlis, only two miles short of reaching the war’s front line, and ordered her to leave the area. [3] Lawrence slept on a haystack in the forest before returning to Paris. She decided that she must disguise herself in order to reach the front lines, write a story, and “see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish.”[4]

Disguise

Dorothy Lawrence found help from two British soldiers whom she befriended in a cafe in Paris. She needed a complete khaki uniform to blend in and the two army soldiers smuggled her by stealing a piece every laundry service. The two soldiers enlisted the help of eight other men to assist in the completion of her uniform and she referred to them as her “Khaki accomplices” in her memoir.[5]

She used a homemade corset to flatten her chest and cotton-wool sacking to make her shoulders appear larger. Two military policemen from Scotland cut her hair in short, military style. She made her skin darker with Condy’s fluid, razored her cheeks to give the appearance of a razor burn, and finished the look with a shoe polish tan. Her British army friends then taught her how to properly drill and march. She abandoned her petticoats for a blanket coat and received fake identity papers disguising her as Private Denis Smith of the First Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment.[6]

Fighting on the Front Line

Dorothy Lawrence set out for the British sector of the Somme by bicycle. She met a coal miner from Lancashire now working as a tunnel-digging sapper for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) named Tom Dunn on her route to Albert, Somme. Dunn, learning of her identity and plan, offered his assistance since he feared her discovery by the lonely soldiers of the front line. He found her a cottage abandoned in the Senlis Forest and she returned there every evening. Dunn and his fellow sappers kept her fed with spare rations from the military camp. [7]

Dunn also found her work with the 179 Tunneling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers, as a sapper. The Company specialized in laying mines and worked within 400 yards of the front line. Lawrence dug tunnels for the company. This has been debated, however, as information from Sir Walter Kirke, a BEF secret service member, suggested she did not dig, but worked within the trenches.

Lawrence contracted rheumatism and chronic chills due to the physical strain in hiding true identity. She grew concerned as her symptoms worsened. She did not want to endanger the men who helped her if she fell ill enough that her true gender was discovered. After only 10 days of service, she revealed her identity to her commanding sergeant and he immediately put her under military arrest. [8]

Returning to England

At colonel at BEF headquarters interrogated Dorothy Lawrence as a spy and they declared her a prisoner of war. He sent her to the Third Army headquarters based in Calais.[9] Six general and almost 20 officers interrogated her, but she did not understand the idea of a camp follower, a prostitute, but they did not believe her.[10]

The British army ordered Lawrence remain in France until the Battle of Loos since they feared more women impersonating men if they heard her story and the threat of her releasing sensitive information. They also made her swear by and sign an affidavit to never write about her experience or she would be imprisoned.[11] She met famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst on her ferry home across the English channel.[12]

Lawrence did attempt to write about her experience in London for The World Wide Magazine, a London-based, illustrated monthly magazine, but the British War Office invoked the 1914 Defense of the Realm Act to keep her quiet. She later realized, “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.”[13]

Later Life and Death

Many historians agree her unconventional career choices and confession of rape by her church guardian may have caused the War Office or other British authorities to encourage her forced commitment to an asylum .

Dorothy Lawrence moved to Canonbury, Islington in 1919 and published Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier.[14] It was heavily censored by the War Office, but still well received by readers in America, Australia, and England. It did not become a commercial success, and she found it difficult to find jobs as a journalist.

In 1925, her situation became more desperate with no income and no job prospects and someone informed authorities of her erratic behavior. She confided in a physician that her childhood church guardian raped her as a teenager, and since she had no family, they took her into their care. They later deemed Lawrence insane and she was committed to the Hanwell, London County Mental Hospital in March of that year.[15] She was transferred what became known as the Fiern Hospital and died there in 1964.[16] Dorothy Lawrence is buried in an unmarked grave in New Southgate Cemetery and received no obituary.[17]

References

Bibliography


Lawrence, D. (2010). Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, Late Royal Engineers, 51St Division, 179Th Tunnelling Company, B. E. F. United States: Nabu Press.

Marzouk, L. (2003, November 21). Girl who fought like a man. Times Series.[1]

Newby, J. (2012, July 28). Dorothy Lawrence: The Woman who Fought at the Front. Writing Women’s History.[2]


Oliver, S. (2014, January 12). She fought on the Somme, so why did Dorothy die in a lunatic asylum? Daily Mail.[3]

Footnotes

  1. Marzouk, 2003
  2. Oliver, 2014
  3. Marzouk, 2003
  4. Lawrence, 2010
  5. Lawrence, 2010
  6. Oliver, 2014
  7. Newby, 2012
  8. Oliver, 2014
  9. Oliver, 2014
  10. Lawrence, 2010
  11. Marzouk, 2003
  12. Newby, 2012
  13. Lawrence, 2010
  14. Lawrence, 2010
  15. Oliver, 2014
  16. Newby, 2012
  17. Oliver, 2014

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