Today is the birthday (1896) of Dorothy Lawrence, an English reporter, who posed as a man so as to be able to work as a soldier during World War I. She is the only English woman known to have served in any military capacity as a man in World War I. There are dozens of women who have served in the military, openly or disguised as men, but Lawrence’s is a special case for many reasons. She had no intention of picking up a rifle; she just wanted to report on the war, thinking she would have a great scoop on her hands. In this sense she was hopelessly naïve. The government severely censored news reports for fear that the British public would turn against the war and recruitment would dry up. For example, photos of dead soldiers were forbidden to be published, and events such as the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches would never have come to light were it not for stories leaked to newspapers in the US: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-christmas-truce/ The High Command was in a panic over the Christmas Truce lest British soldiers saw Germans as people rather than the enemy, and, consequently, refused to fight. Lawrence thought she could send back honest reports from the Western Front; instead her fate was tragic.
Lawrence was likely born in Hendon in Middlesex, of unknown parents. She was probably illegitimate and was adopted as a baby by a guardian of the Church of England in Salisbury. Her parentage is under some dispute, however. 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. These details may or may not be erroneous. Regardless, she was adopted as an orphan and grew up in Salisbury.
Lawrence wanted to be a journalist and had 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 but was rejected. In consequence she traveled to France in 1915, and volunteered as a civilian employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Again she was rejected. Then she decided to enter the war zone via the French sector as a freelance war correspondent, but was arrested by French Police in Senlis, 2 miles (3.2 km) short of the front line, and ordered to leave. She spent the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, and returned to Paris where she concluded that it was only in disguise that she could get the story that she wanted to write.
She befriended two British 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, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, The Only English Woman Soldier, as the “Khaki accomplices.” She then began practicing 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 persuading 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 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. She set out by bicycle for the British sector of the Somme. On her way towards Albert on the 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 front line, she returned there each night to sleep on a damp mattress, fed by any rations that Dunn and his colleagues could spare.
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 worked within the trenches with a degree of freedom.
The toll of the job, and of hiding her true identity, soon led to illness including constant chills and rheumatism, and latterly fainting fits. Because she was 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.
Lawrence was 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” (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. She was held within the Convent de Bon Pasteur, and 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. When she was sent back to London, she traveled 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.
In 1919, she moved to Canonbury in Islington, and published Sapper Dorothy Lawrence. 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 behavior 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 institutionalized 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, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.
Lawrence’s story lay dormant for decades, but came to light as part of historical researches concerning the suffragettes on the centenary of their struggles. A number of newspaper articles and other published materials on her life are now available and there a couple of plays produced in 2015 documenting her life, both in the trenches and in Friern Barnet asylum. The best researched is The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence.
I can’t imagine what rations Lawrence’s confidantes managed to smuggle out to her as she hid behind the trenches. I’ve spoken about Great War British rations before, noting that bully beef (tinned corned beef) was a mainstay. But in reality bully beef was the best on offer in the trenches. Worst was probably Maconochie’s stew which the label described as containing the finest beef equivalent to 1 lb on the bone, but was, in fact, mostly fat with unidentifiable vegetables. It was said that it was barely palatable if eaten hot (which was not always possible), but inedible when cold. When opened the can had a deep layer of congealed fat and an unpleasant smell.
These recipes (and ration list) were issued by the army around 1915. Do with them what you will. The biscuits in the first recipe are the hard tack that soldiers were issued.
Allowances per person per day, were: 1¼lb fresh or frozen meat, or 1lb salt meat; 4oz bacon; 20oz of bread or 16oz of flour or 4oz of oatmeal; 3oz of cheese; 4oz of butter or margarine; 2oz of tea, 4oz of jam or 4oz of dried fruit; pinch of pepper; pinch of mustard; 8oz of fresh vegetables or a tenth of a gill lime juice; half a gill of rum or 1pt of porter; maximum of 2oz of tobacco.
Recipe for Milk Biscuit Pudding (feeds 100 men):
Ingredients: Biscuits (15lb), milk (3lb or 3 tins), sugar (5lb), currants (4lb), spice (a packet), candied peel (4oz)
Soak biscuits until soft, about three hours in cold water.
Cut up peel finely. Place biscuits, sugar and currants into baking dishes; add milk and mix well with spice and peel.
Place in oven until cooked. Time: One hour.
Recipe for Brown Stew
Ingredients: Meat, onions, flour, mixed vegetables, pepper, salt, stock.
Bone meat, remove fat, cut into 1oz pieces.
Place 3lb flour, ½oz pepper, ½oz salt in a bowl and mix
Place stock in bottom of cooking vessel and dredge meat in flour.
Peel and cut up onions, wash and peel and cut up the mixed vegetables, add onions and vegetables to meat, mix well together. Barely cover with stock and place in oven to cook.
Stir frequently. Time: 2½ to 3 hours.