The Badassary of Dorothy Lawrence

In the summer of 1915, a lone British soldier cycled down a country road outside the French town of Albert. His papers identified him as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment, and at first glance he would have seemed quite ordinary: a slightly plump and ruddy-faced boy with short brown hair – no different from the thousands of young men serving on the Western Front in the Great War. But Private Denis Smith was no ordinary soldier. In fact, he wasn’t a soldier at all. He wasn’t even a man.

He was in fact one Dorothy Lawrence, an English journalist who risked everything to report on the horrors of the trenches first-hand. Her story is among the most incredible tales of courage and determination of the Great War.

Little is known about Dorothy Lawrence’s life prior to 1914. Born illegitimately on October 4, 1896 in Hendon, Middlesex, she was adopted and raised by a guardian from the Church of England. By the early 1910s she was working as a freelance journalist in London, selling articles to various Fleet Street newspapers including The Times. When War was declared in August 1914, Lawrence decided to become a war correspondent, but as even male journalists were largely forbidden from reaching the Front, she was forced to find alternate means of travelling to France. At first she applied to work as a nurse for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, but was rejected no less than 12 times on account of having no prior nursing experience. So, in the summer of 1915, armed only with a bicycle and a laundry bag of provisions, Dorothy Lawrence took a ferry across the Channel to Calais and began cycling towards the Front.

Along the way, Lawrence befriended and interviewed a number of French soldiers and civilians, and in her later writings paints a vivid picture of the countryside at war, emphasizing in equal measure the brutality of the occupying German Army and the stoic resilience of the French people. However, upon reaching the town of Senlis, only 10 kilometres from the front lines, Lawrence found her progress suddenly halted:

 During my brief visit, gendarmes [French national Police] became very active on my behalf. I passed about half my time under arrest of regaining freedom! If I cycled two miles out, I was promptly arrested and brought back again! In the whole list of French officials no one renders truer services than the gendarme. Spies! Why, he seems to sleep with that word written on his brain!

It was also here that an idea was planted in Lawrence’s mind, an idea that would prove key to her future success:

I explained [to the soldiers] that I wanted to look around; and just a few won my confidence enough for me to say, “I want to go right into the firing-line.” At least one man suggested that I should go there as a French Poilu [soldier]. Unhappily my English accent might perhaps betray identity; acquaintances and I abandoned that idea.

Instead, Lawrence enlisted the help of the Mayor of the nearby town of Criel, whom she convinced to write a pass allowing her to travel to the town of Bethune, which at that time was located on the front line. However, this did little to convince the French police, and after being stopped several more times Lawrence took to the countryside, sleeping in the woods and haystacks on the outskirts of Senlis. But still she made no progress in reaching the front,

…and it was in order that I should get to the front that I endured insects, heat, delayed baths, and vigilant gendarmes. No information likely to help my project had come so far. In view of this fact I resolved, therefore, on returning to Paris. There I hoped, perhaps that further opportunities might arise for getting “out there”.

In Paris, Lawrence planned to follow the advice of the French soldier in Senlis and disguise herself as a soldier – albeit an English one – in order to more easily infiltrate the front lines. To this end she enlisted the help of two English soldiers on leave, who in her writings she refers to only as her ‘Khaki Accomplices’ to protect their identities.

She states of this,

From Paris cafe’s I chose my first two male assistants. Two khaki soldiers, two amongst thousands with which Paris appeared flooded, soldiers with faces of clean-minded boys; they sat with rather lonesome expressions opposite one of the Paris railway stations. “They’ll do”, I said. By flashed I pick units for any organization I undertake, success depends wholly on types and the personalities of each type… My two new acquaintances, struck with the spirit of sport afforded by this new adventure, agreed straight away to help. They undertook to find my outfit; it must consist of jacket, badge, cap, puttees, shirt, and boots. No light matter for two privates to supply. In subsequent meetings I tried in return to offer them some slight token of my gratitude, showing my companions around Paris and giving whatever scant hospitality lay within my quickly emptying purse.

Ultimately these men also showed her how to wear the uniform properly. She states of this,

Reader, have you ever attempted to include trousers in the way that they should go on a female figure? They do not know the way, and suddenly you realize that neither do you! Unfortunately I could not decently call in masculine assistance; whereas I suffered the usual ignorance of “only child and orphan” who never sees brothers’ discarded “brigs.” I was left alone to struggle with unknown buttons, braces, and the division sum of how to make a big body go into a small size of trousers! Eventually I got in by a series of jumps, jerks, and general tightening up! Puttees proved equally refractory; and I had to postpone putting them on until I could be taught what to do.

Beyond this, they also taught her the rudiments of military drill and marching. In order to disguise her feminine figure and complexion, Lawrence wrapped her body in bandages and wool padding, cut her hair short, and darkened her skin with Condy’s Fluid, a reddish-brown liquid commonly used as an antifungal. To complete the illusion, the Accomplices then provided her with identity discs and papers identifying her as Private Denis Smith,  1st Leceister Regiment, No. 175331, and even forged a pass, signed by an imaginary officer, granting Private smith permission to be absent from his quarters for the following two weeks.

Thus disguised, Lawrence left Paris in mid-August 1915 and made once more for the front. Despite being stopped by a number of British Military Policemen and French Gendarmes on account of her strange appearance, Lawrence eventually reached the town of Albert, where preparations were underway for the upcoming Battle of Loos. Here, Lawrence made the acquaintance of one Sergeant Thomas Dunn of the Royal Engineers, who, upon learning of her secret mission, agreed to assist her for the duration of her stay. Sergeant Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of town and regularly brought her food and other provisions.

Over the next week, Lawrence spent most of her time in the trenches alongside the other men.

She states of her time there, “I dispensed no military duty in the trenches; as a soldier I divided the ten days and nights either alone in the open of no man’s land, about 400 yards from the Boche front line, under simultaneous fire of shell, rifle, and shrapnel, falling into line outside the courtyard, already described, whence the regiment moved into the trenches, or within one of three dug-outs appropriated at night for my own use; throughout several night I slept alone, under fire, among the ruins, presumably within sight of fritz, had he only known.”

Soon, however, the rigours of living and working in the trenches began to take its toll on Lawrence, and she began suffering frequent fainting spells:

I thought, “If I am knocked out by Fritz in the trenches, or only temporarily unconscious through faintness, there is no doubt that my sex will become known; and what will happen at that rate to my little army of khaki accomplices?”

Thus after spending nearly ten days in the trenches, Lawrence asked Sergeant Dunn to reveal her secret to his commanding officer so she could safely make her way out of Albert. Instead, she was promptly arrested and brought to the local regimental headquarters, where the sight of a woman in uniform caused a considerable confusion.

My manner of coming into the Colonel’s presence proved disarming in its effect, I must say. There I stood and I burst out laughing! Really I could not help it! So utterly ludicrous appeared this betrousered little female, marshalled solemnly by three soldiers, and deposited before twenty embarrassed men.

The next few days saw Lawrence bounced from headquarters to headquarters and interrogated by dozens of military intelligence officers, who tried in vain to prove that she was a spy.

Cross examination took place for about the sixth time already; unhappily my sense of humour was aroused, thanks to the appearance of my latest judge, whose normal occupation in war-time was to examine German prisoners! As I happened to be neither German nor spy, he proved rather unsuitable for examining an English girl. Anyone neither spy nor German appeared utterly to baffle his powers.

Finally, Lawrence was brought to 3rd Army Headquarters at St. Omer, where for three days she underwent Court Martial presided over by General Charles Munro. In the course of these proceedings, in addition to being charged with espionage Lawrence was accused of being a “camp follower” – military slang for a prostitute. Lawrence being ignorant of the term,

…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.

While Lawrence was acquitted of all charges, it was decided that she should be imprisoned for the duration of the Battle of Loos, in case she had acquired information which could be valuable to the enemy, although she did attempt to argue with the need for her detainment, stating to her captors, “No one possesses means to extract information from a woman.”

In the end, she was taken to the nearby Convent de bon Pasteur and held there for several weeks before finally being allowed to return to England. Shortly before returning home, however, Lawrence made an agreement that completely undermined her ability to profit from her exploits:

In an embarrassing interview with [an officer] I promised not to divulge any information till I got permission. In making that promise I sacrificed the chance of earning by newspaper articles written on this escapade; as a girl compelled to earn her livelihood, I lost, temporarily anyhow, all material gain by that promise.

As for her return home, it was less than ideal. She states, “No friends knew that I had come back; and my own house had been let to foreigners. So I had homelessness as immediate prospect! I had to think. Eventually I solved the problem. On some friends I would pay a call; perhaps they could put me up for the night. So I went my way – at home without a home, yet just “home” from the front.”

For the remainder of the war Lawrence worked as a farm labourer for the Women’s Land Army, until the signing of the Armistice in 1918 at last allowed her to write an account of her exploits in France. This was published in 1919 as Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, the Only English Woman Soldier.

The book, however, failed to find an audience, as by this time the British public, weary after four years of war, was keen to put the conflict behind them. Without income or credibility as a journalist and her personal situation deteriorating, Lawrence’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, until in 1925 she was declared insane and committed to Colney hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet, North London. Here she remained for the rest of her life, dying in 1964 at the age of 68. She now lies in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery.

As to her audacious exploits during the war, Lawrence herself best summed up her gumption by a statement she gave shortly before departing for France: “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish.”

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Expand for References

Lawrence, Dorothy, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, the Only English Woman Soldier, John Lane Company, NY 1919

Dorothy Lawrence, Spartacus Educational, https://web.archive.org/web/20140320202401/http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWlawrenceD.htm

Dorothy Lawrence: the Woman who Fought at the Front, Writing Women’s History, July 28, 2012 https://web.archive.org/web/20140112184548/http://writingwomenshistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/dorothy-lawrence-woman-who-fought-at.html

Marzouk, Lawrence, Girl Who Fought Like a Man, The London Times, November 20, 2003 https://www.times-series.co.uk/nostalgia/432132.girl-who-fought-like-a-man/

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