Dorothy Lawrence: The Woman Who Posed as a Soldier to be a War Correspondent

Mar 29, 2023 0 comments

The First World War was reported from an almost exclusively male perspective, because few female war correspondents were given access to the front lines. Although there were many female reporters, most stayed away from the actual war scenes, reporting instead from field hospitals or focusing on the home front and the war’s impact on civilians. But one brave woman decided to break conformity and went straight to the scene of action disguised as a male soldier. Her incredible story was dismissed for more than 80 years as a folk tale, until her obscure autobiography was discovered in the early 2000s.

Dorothy Lawrence was born in 1896 out of wedlock, possibly in Hendon, Middlesex, but some sources put her place of birth at Polesworth, Warwickshire. After her mother died in 1909, the teenage girl was adopted by a wealthy and respectable Christian family.

When Dorothy grew up, she wanted to be a journalist but making her mark on a male-dominated industry proved to be difficult. She did managed to have some articles published in The Times and in Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, but her determination to take her notepad to the front line was met with scorn by male peers.

At the age of nineteen, Dorothy travelled to France and tried to sneak into the front lines, but was arrested and ordered to turn back. She fled to a forest and spent the night sleeping on a haystack. While fighting mosquitoes and other insects that troubled her, Dorothy made up her mind to disguise herself as a man. “I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish,” she thought.

Back in Paris, Dorothy met two British soldiers and coaxed them to smuggle her with a khaki uniform. They also provided her with forged papers that identified her as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment.

Dorothy used bandages to flatten her bosom and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders. She also cut her hair short, darkened her complexion with Condy’s Fluid, a disinfectant made from potassium permanganate, scraped the pale skin of her cheeks to produce a shaving rash, and added a tan using shoe polish. She also asked her soldier friends to teach her how to drill, march and shoot.

Dorothy Lawrence disguised as a soldier.

With her disguise perfected, Dorothy set out for the British sector of the Somme by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met a British tunnel-digging “sapper” named Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Dunn found her an abandoned cottage in the forest to sleep in. Every night after her work in the trenches, Dorothy would retreat to the cottage to sleep on a damp mattress, and eat any rations that Dunn and his colleagues could spare.

After ten days in the frontlines, Dorothy found the experience too harrowing and fatiguing, and she gave herself up.

Dorothy was at once arrested on the suspicion of being a spy and thoroughly interrogated. Because she was ignorant of military rules and terms, her naivety was mistaken to be stubbornness and her interrogator believed her to be withholding information. After spending several days as a prisoner of war, Dorothy was released. Fearing that she might release sensitive information, a judge forbid her from selling her story to a newspaper. Dorothy would latter regret making that promise: “I sacrificed the chance of earning by newspaper articles written on this escapade, as a girl compelled to earn her livelihood.”

Also read: Martha Gellhorn, The Only Woman Who Landed in Normandy on D-Day

After the war was over, Dorothy tried to put her story on paper and published an account of her experiences: Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. The War Office censored her book and it did not sold too well.

After her return from the war, Dorothy’s physical and mental health went into decline, possibly a form of post-traumatic stress following her experiences in northern France. It was later revealed that Dorothy was raped by her foster father as a teenager. With no home to return to, Dorothy was committed to a mental asylum in north London, where she died an obscure death forty years later.

It wasn’t until 2003 when Richard Bennett, the grandson of Richard Samson Bennett —one of the soldiers who had helped Lawrence in France—found her autobiography while researching his family history at the Royal Engineers Museum. On further investigation, Raphael Stipic, a historian from East Sussex, found a letter written by Sir Walter Kirke, head of the secret service for the British Expeditionary Force, during World War I. The letter mentioned a young woman who dressed in men's clothing in hopes of becoming a war correspondent. Kirke's details pointed unequivocally towards Dorothy Lawrence. Her story is now part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war.

# Girl who fought like a man, Times Series
# Dorothy Lawrence: Journalist & Sapper at The Somme, Hidden Her Stories


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