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.
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…
The boys were lonely and homesick, and eager to communicate with fellow Britons. As such, she found it easy to persuade them to help her get a uniform. Over the course of the next week, Dorothy met the men regularly in the evenings, when they would give her “washing” to complete. The “washing” was, each time, a different piece of a uniform in newspaper. One night, it was boots. Another night, trousers until, eventually, Dorothy had a complete set. From there, with the assistance of her two new friends, she forged papers and named herself “Private Denis Smith of the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment.” Soon after, she headed to St. Lazare station, where she managed to convince two Scottish military police officers to help cut her hair.
This was Dorothy’s way. She was skilled at reading people and was able to quickly size up which men would be sympathetic to her cause. She was resourceful, crafting an elaborate homemade corset to flatten her chest and using a diluted pomegranate cleaning solution to darken her pale, girlish complexion. She slept in bombed-out buildings, in cornfields and forests. She biked for hundreds of kilometres, and eventually, she made it to the front.
Dorothy arrived in Albert, an area of the front so dangerous that it was off limits even to authorised war correspondents, and promptly set out to find her next khaki accomplice. She selected a soldier named Tommy Dunn, picked largely because he was roughly her size. Tommy helped her find a place to hide out until he was sure it was safe, and then, when he decided it was time, he took her out with him on the front lines.
Dorothy spent the next 10 days as a soldier. She set up mines. She marched. She mingled with other soldiers. But, unfortunately, her health was suffering. By this point, she had already spent two months trying to get to the front, often sleeping outside in terrible conditions. She was sick with rheumatism, rations were scarce, and all of those things, combined with 10 nights spent under almost constant fire, began to take a toll on her health.
Fearing that her ill health would result in her and her accomplices being found out, she decided to come clean. British authorities, embarrassed by the idea that a girl had somehow managed to infiltrate their ranks, decided to detain Dorothy. She was interrogated by several generals over the course of the next few days. Ultimately, they decided to let her go, but not before forcing her to sign an affidavit swearing not to share her story with the public.
To my lasting regret I failed as a war correspondent. Promises made subsequently to the War Office cut out any usefulness in that direction.
Dorothy abided by their rule until 1919. But then she published a book about her experiences entitled Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Unfortunately, the book was not particularly successful, and despite her moxie, Dorothy was unable to cobble together a career as a journalist. Both her mental and physical health began to fail as the years went by, and she was eventually locked away in a mental institution. She remained there until her death 40 years later.
Dorothy’s life was not a happy one, but it was an important one. Though her efforts as a journalist were not properly appreciated at the time, now, nearly 100 years later, Dorothy’s accomplishments are finally beginning to be acknowledged. Her autobiography has been reprinted, and the Imperial War Museum has included her experiences at the front in their collections. Her desire to break the boundaries set up for her sex ultimately ended in her making a brave contribution to socio-political history.