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.
As a young woman, she was attempting to make a living as a journalist in London. A few of her articles were published by The Times, but she had had no real success. When World War I broke out in 1914, she was living in Paris and was determined to cover the war from the trenches. She was laughed out of the office. She tried to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment, but was rejected. In desperation she tried to walk to the war zone and was arrested by French Police in Senlis. Dorothy decided to change her tactics. Befriending two soldiers on leave, whom she referred to as her “khaki accomplices”, she convinced them to smuggle her a uniform by stealing pieces from the army laundry. Dorothy tried on her ill-gotten gains, and found her figure gave her away as a woman. She used a homemade corset to flatten her chest and cotton wool padding to broaden her shoulders. Her two soldier friends cut her hair very short and darkened her skin with Condy’s fluid, usually used as furniture cleaner.. They even had her shave to get a razor burn on her cheeks. Then they taught her to drill and march with the best of them. Complete with fake identity papers, Private Denis Smith of the First Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment was ready to report for duty.
Dorothy cycled to the Somme as her ill fitting uniform got caught in the bike and her fake tan rolled down her face with the rivulets of sweat. On the way she met sapper Tom Dunn. A sapper, also called a pioneer or combat engineer, is responsible for breaching, demolitions, bridge-building and the laying and clearing of minefields. Field defences, road and airfield construction and repair also fell within their purview. As a former coal miner, Dunn was being used as a tunnel expert. He became one of her “khaki accomplices” after she admitted who she was and asked for his help. Dunn helped set her up with a hiding place, an abandoned cottage she called her “private barracks”. Dunn shared his rations with Dorothy and Dorothy worked alongside him as a sapper with the 179 Company troop. They laid mines under fire and shrapnel in No Man’s Land and under the German trenches. Most days she was only 400 yards away from the German lines.
However, after two weeks the high stress, constant fire and poor food and water took their toll Dorothy became ill and started having fainting fits. Afraid her illness would inadvertently reveal her identity and get her friends in trouble, she turned herself into the commanding sergeant and told him the whole story. She was sent to Third Army headquarters in Calais and was closely questioned by three generals. At first she was treated as a prisoner of war, as high command was shocked a woman could infiltrate that far into the lines. They were initially afraid she was a German spy. From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer, and went before a judge. He was afraid her story could possibly reveal sensitive information or inspire other women to sneak over and become soldiers. He had her confined to Convent de Bon Pasteur in France until after the Battle of Loos, and was made to swear she would not write about her experiences, which had to be a blow as that was the entire purpose of why she did this.
On the way back to London, fate took a hand. Dorothy traveled on the same ferry as noted suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst took an interest in Dorothy’s story and at her behest, Dorothy spoke at a suffragette meeting. Dorothy tried to write articles on her experiences, but the War Office invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to scrap the project. Eventually she wrote a book in 1919 called Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Even though the war was over, the book was still heavily censored by the War Office. It was not a commercial success.
Eventually, Dorothy’s mental health deteriorated and she was committed to London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell. Later she was permanently institutionalized at Colney Hatch Lunatic asylum in Friern Barnet, where she died in 1964. She is buried in a pauper’s grave in new Southgate Cemetery. A sad end for such a brave woman.