Oct 042017
 

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