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Dorothy Lawrence was born in Hendon in 1896. Abandoned by her mother, she was adopted by a guardian of the Church of England.
Lawrence had a strong desire to become a journalist and she achieved some success with a few articles published in The Times. She was living in Paris when war was declared in 1914. Lawrence contacted several British newspapers offering to work as a war correspondent in France. All the editors refused to employ a woman to do what they considered to be very dangerous work.
Lawrence returned to England and in 1915 disguised herself as a man and joined the British Army.
Using the name Denis Smith, she served for ten days in the British Expeditionary Force Tunneling Company on the Western Front before her true identity was discovered.
The authorities detained her in a French convent until she agreed to swear an affidavit promising not to tell the public how she had fooled the army authorities.
On her return to England she settled in Canonbury, Islington. Lawrence published an account of her experiences, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, in 1919.
In 1925 she claimed she had been raped by her guardian. Lawrence was not believed and she was sent to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet. Sapper Dorothy Lawrence
Dorothy Lawrence died at Friern Hospital, Barnet, Middlesex, in 1964.
First World War Encyclopedia (3,250 pages – £4.95)
By John Simkin ([email protected]) © September 1997 (updated January 2020).
I wanted to see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there, I'll see whether I cannot go one better than those big men with their cars, credentials and money. I'll see what I can manage as a war-correspondent.
We simply don't know what to make of you. One thinks that you are a spy and another says you must be a camp-follower and everyone has his own views on the subject.
Back in 1914, Dorothy was a budding journalist in a male-dominated industry. Universal suffrage was still a dream, but Dorothy, then in her mid-twenties, was determined that not having a vote would not stop her rise as a journalist.
- She achieved some success with a few articles published in The Times before the start of the war, but her determination to take her notepad to the front line was met with scorn by male peers.
- Numerous attempts to join the Voluntary Aid Department, which sent women to participate in war work, were rejected, so she resorted to guile and subterfuge to achieve her goal.
- Leaving with her rickety bicycle, a brown bag and rudimentary French, she boarded a ferry at Folkestone heading to Boulogne, in the hope of reaching the front line disguised as a man.
Despite the expanses of rubble and the rumble of falling shells, Dorothy found the French clinging on to their famous joie de vivre. Passing through Paris she headed towards the war zone, picking up some shooting lessons along the way thanks to amenable French soldiers.
For the American politician, see Dorothy Bell Lawrence.
Dorothy LawrenceLawrence c. 1910 to 1919Born(1896-10-04)4 October 1896Hendon, MiddlesexDied4 October 1964 (aged 67–68)Friern Hospital, BarnetResting placeNew Southgate Cemetery, BarnetOccupationJournalistYears active1914–1925EmployerFreelanceKnown forOnly known English woman soldier on the frontline during World War INotable workSapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman SoldierParent(s)Thomas Hartshorn Lawrence, Mary Jane Beddall
Dorothy Lawrence (4 October 1896 – 4 October 1964) was an English journalist who posed as a male soldier in order to report from the front line during World War I. She managed to obtain a Khaki soldier uniform from a friend. as well as getting a false identity. However trench life affected her health, and she later revealed her gender, afraid that if she needed medical attention her true identity would be discovered and those who helped her would be punished. After revealing herself she was suspected of being a spy and was held under arrest until after the battle. She was then sent home under a strict agreement not to publish her experiences. Lawrence slowly began to lose her sanity and in the end eventually ended up dying in an insane asylum.
Lawrence was born in Hendon, Middlesex, of parents unknown. Probably illegitimate, she was adopted as a baby by a guardian of the Church of England.
There is some discrepancy in her parentage. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (which at time of publication in 2004 did not mention details of her life after 1919) reports that Lawrence was born on 4 October 1896 in Polesworth, Warwickshire and was the second daughter of Thomas Hartshorn Lawrence and Mary Jane Beddall.
Wanting to be a journalist, she had success in having some articles published in The Times. At the outbreak of war she wrote to a number of the Fleet Street newspapers in the hope of reporting the war.
Travelling to France in 1915, she volunteered as a civilian employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment but was rejected.
 Deciding to enter the war zone via the French sector as a freelance war correspondent, she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, 2 miles (3.2 km) short of the front line, 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.
Lawrence in 1915, secretly posed as a soldier of the BEF
She befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisian café, and persuaded them to smuggle her a khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as the “Khaki accomplices”. She then began practising transforming herself into a male soldier, by: flattening her figure with a home-made corset; using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders; and persuaded two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She darkened her complexion with Condy’s Fluid, a disinfectant made from potassium permanganate; razored the pale skin of her cheeks in the hope of giving herself a shaving rash; and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Finally she asked her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march.
Wearing a blanket coat and no underwear, lest soldiers discover her abandoned petticoats, she obtained forged identity papers as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment, and headed for the front lines.
Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coalminer 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.
During her time on the frontline, she returned there each night to sleep on a damp mattress, fed by any rations that Dunne and his colleagues could spare.
In her later book, Lawrence writes that Dunn found her work as a sapper with the 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers, a specialist mine-laying company that operated within 400 yards (370 m) of the front line. Lawrence writes that she was involved in the digging of tunnels.
 But later evidence and correspondence from the time after her discovery by British Army authorities, including from the files of Sir Walter Kirke of the BEF's secret service, suggest that she did not undertake this highly skilled digging work, but was at liberty and working within the trenches.
The toll of the job, and of hiding her true identity, soon gave her constant chills and rheumatism, and latterly fainting fits.
Concerned that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered and the men who had befriended her would be in danger, after 10 days of service she presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who promptly placed her under military arrest.
Return to England
Taken to the BEF headquarters and interrogated as a spy by a colonel, she was declared a prisoner of war. From there she was taken cross country by horse to Third Army headquarters in Calais, where she was interrogated by six generals and approximately twenty other officers.
 She was ignorant of the term camp follower (one meaning of which is “prostitute”) and she later recalled “We talked steadily at cross purposes.
On my side I had not been informed what the term meant, and on their side they continued unaware that I remained ignorant! So I often appeared to be telling lies.”
From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer and further interrogated. The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security and was fearful of more women taking on male roles during the war if her story got out.
On the orders of a suspicious judge, fearing she could release sensitive intelligence, he ordered that she remain in France until after the Battle of Loos. Held within the Convent de Bon Pasteur, she was also made to swear not to write about her experiences, and signed an affidavit to that effect, or she would be sent to jail.
 Sent back to London, she travelled across the English Channel on the same ferry as Emmeline Pankhurst, who asked her to speak at a suffragette meeting.
Once in London, she tried to write about her experiences for The Wide World Magazine, a London-based illustrated monthly, but had to scrap her first book on the instructions of the War Office, which invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to silence her. She later commented:
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.
In 1919, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and published an account of her experiences: Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Although well received in England, America and Australia, it was heavily censored by the War Office, and with a world wishing to move forward it did not become the commercial success that she wanted.
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 Friern Barnet, north London. She died at what was by then known as Friern Hospital in 1964. She was buried in a pauper's grave in New Southgate Cemetery.
In 2003, Richard Bennett, the grandson of Richard Samson Bennett who was one of the soldiers who had helped Lawrence in France, found note of her within the correspondence files of Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, Kent.
 On further investigation, East Sussex historian Raphael Stipic found a letter written by Sir Walter Kirke about Lawrence.
 Military historian Simon Jones then found a copy of Lawrence's book at the REM and started collecting notes to write a biography.
Her story later became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war. Jones later found that Lawrence's rape allegations were sufficiently compelling to be included in her medical records, held in the London Metropolitan Archives but not available for general access.
References and sources
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Dorothy Lawrence- The Woman in the Trenches
Lawrence in 1915 in her soldier’s disguise. Photo Credit- By Unknown – http://www.thisishertfordshire.co.uk/nostalgia/nostalgia
History is full of women who disguised themselves and fought along their menfolk for causes they believed in. A prime example are the women who inspired the legend of Molly Pitcher during the American Revolution. (For more on this, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/searching-molly-pitcher/ ) According to historian, Elizabeth Shipton, many women made it to the front line as nurses in the trenches or helping those wounded in No Man’s Land. Some women took up arms and called “she soldiers”, but they had to operate in secret. Dorothy Lawrence was one of these. She disguised herself as a man and fought in the trenches along with the men.
Dorothy was born in Hendon, North London around the late 1880s. Some sources put her birth as late as 1895. Not much is known her parents except that she was probably born to an unwed mother.
Her mother died when Dorothy was around 13 or 14, and she was taken in by a guardian of the Church of England.
In her autobiography, Sapper Dorothy, she describes him as very respected, and said if he would not approve her later shenanigans. She mused,
‘if my highly respectable guardian, living in that dear old Cathedral city, could see me now, they would have forty fits.’
Dorothy later accused this guardian of sexual abuse, but these allegations were not investigated or taken seriously.
Remembering Dorothy Lawrence, the secret soldier who fought in the Somme
Lawrence cycled hundreds of kilometres through bombed-out towns, sleeping rough in ditches, haystacks and abandoned buildings. The heat of the summer was sweltering but Lawrence had decided it was “either the Front or risk death in the effort!”.
She finally reached the frontline Somme town of Albert and, with the connivance of a friendly soldier, fell in with the 179th Tunnelling Division. Lawrence then spent 10 days alternately hiding out in abandoned buildings, setting up mines and mingling unseen with the parades of marching British soldiers.
She had made it. But, suffering from fainting fits that would surely unmask her, she was forced to give herself up.
Interrogated by a band of embarrassed British Army generals, it was decided that the plucky teenager must be prevented from leaking any information to the enemy, and Lawrence was packed off to a nearby convent, where she was forced to sign an affidavit, swearing her to secrecy. She then returned home to the UK.
In 1919, once the war had ended, despite her ill health, Lawrence published Sapper Dorothy, an account of her experience in the trenches. But the book was not a success – The Spectator mocked her efforts as “humorous” and called her “a girlish freak”.
Lawrence’s mental health began to decline. With no family to care for her, the only British woman soldier in WW1 was admitted to an asylum in 1925, where she remained for the next 40 years until her death.
The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.
Dorothy Lawrence – War Correspondent
Dorothy Lawrence was an aspiring journalist who dreamed of becoming a war correspondent. In 1915, she disguised herself as a male soldier and infiltrated the Royal Engineers 51st Division, 79th Tunnelling Company.
Dorothy did not have an easy life growing up. Her mother died when she was in her early teens, leaving her an orphan.
She was taken in by a guardian of the church, and though he was widely respected in the community, according to Dorothy, he was also abusive, sexually assaulting her when she was only a child.
She did not disclose the abuse until more than a decade later, and it appears as though, when she did, she was not taken seriously. In the early twentieth century, there was little chance a woman’s word would hold up against a respected male member of the church.
Despite suffering in her childhood, she did have a burning drive and ambition that kept her going, and though the odds were stacked against her, Dorothy was determined to become a journalist.
Journalism was an unusual path for a woman born in the late 1800s, but Dorothy was nevertheless determined to make her mark, and by 1914, she had moved to Paris, where she was scraping together a living working as a freelance writer.
Perhaps I shall never come back. Anyhow, I mean to get into the very thick of it. And if I die or get killed, well, I die, that’s all.
When World War I broke out, Dorothy made up her mind that she was going to become a war correspondent.
Despite the fact that even seasoned war correspondents were struggling to get access to the front lines, in Dorothy’s mind, this was a chance to become indispensable — to write stories so compelling that the papers, and the public, would have to recognise her ability. Still, no matter how hard she tried, there wasn’t a paper in town that would send a woman to the front lines.
I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there, I’ll see whether I cannot go one better than these big men with their cars, credentials, and money.
Dorothy decided that if no one was going to send her to the front lines, she was just going to have to figure out how to sneak in herself.
This plan seems to have sprouted from a conversation with an editor who made an off-handed comment about how Dorothy’s opportunities would be different if she was able to get to the front.
While even Dorothy knew the editor was not giving her orders, or even necessarily making a recommendation, she nevertheless took it as a challenge.
Dorothy was nothing if not clever, and she used both her charm and her intellect when developing her plan, which evolved over the course of the next six weeks. She began by making friends with two British soldiers in Paris. These were the first of her group of “khaki accomplices,” as she called them.