Thursday 18 January 2018

Dorothy Lawrence: Journalist & Sapper at The Somme

Dorothy Lawrence was an English journalist who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier in the trenches in France during World War I. Silenced by the government from telling her story until after the war was over, she published a book about her experiences but died in the 1960's after spending over 30 years locked away in an asylum for the insane. 

Lawrence was born on 4 October 1896 in Polesworth, Warwickshire and was the  daughter of Thomas Hartshorn Lawrence and Mary Jane Beddall - a couple who were not married. As an illegitimate child, when her mother died in 1909, Dorothea was adopted by trusted guardians of the Church of England in Salisbury - the wealthy and well-respected Mrs Josephine Fitzgerald and her husband.

By 1911 The radical tactics of the suffragette movement were everywhere , challenging perceptions of what women could do and be. Wanting to become a serious journalist, Dorothy managed to get some articles published in The Times and in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine. Despite the general atmosphere of empowerment, Dorothy’s status as a woman severely limited her career prospects as a  news reporter. Although she contributed regularly to both publications she would not have been allowed her own by-line, and her journalistic work remained limited to light entertainment stories and show business interviews. At the outbreak of war in 1914 she wrote to a number of the Fleet Street newspapers in the hope of reporting the war but was ridiculed by editors who were unable to secure access for their seasoned male foreign correspondents.

Dorothy did manage to persuade the editor of the Times newspaper to help her to procure a passport to get across the Channel to Paris. She sweet-talked a courier into smuggling her bicycle onto the boat, and on midsummer’s day in 1915 she set out for France, aged 19 to volunteer as a civilian employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment - but even here, she was rejected.

Dorothy left Paris and headed for the smaller town of Creil in search of her story. A young woman travelling alone, she was greeted with curiosity and amusement by the large numbers of bored troops waiting to be deployed. She appears to have spent a considerable amount of time hanging around in coffee shops, getting by with a smattering of French and trying to avoid misunderstandings with the soldiers who assumed that she was ‘out for love’. After about six weeks she became tired of the monotonous reality of war behind the lines. She made a resolution: ‘to get into the thick of it – right to the front of the front’. She packed up her bicycle and headed back to Paris.

She decided that the best way to get to where she really wanted to be was to enter the war zone via the French sector as a freelance war correspondent. She was arrested by French Police 2 miles short of the front line, and was ordered to leave the area. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she really get the story that she wanted to write but her gender and youth restricted where she could go and the information she could access. She soon realized that she would only be able to get the story she wanted if she undertook a radical physical transformation.

“ I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish."
She befriended two British Army 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 as the "Khaki accomplices". 

She then began practicing transforming herself into a male soldier, by: flattening her figure with a home-made corset and using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders. She persuaded two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short masculine 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 like them.

Wearing a blanket coat and no underwear, lest soldiers discover her abandoned petticoats, she obtained forged identity papers, re-invented herself as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment, and headed for the front lines.

Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. A narrow escape from a suspicious Gendarme in Amiens Cathedral sent her off course, towards the town of Albert. The skyline of the town was dominated by the shadow of a statue of the Virgin Mary – which the Germans had taken to using for target practice. The Virgin now hung precariously at a 90 degree angle, and the locals held that when she fell so would the town.

Whilst hiding in a dugout, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force Sapper, Tom Dunn, who, beguiled by Dorothy’s mad bravery, offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman among female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in. During her 10 days on the front line, she returned there each night to sleep on a damp mattress, fed by any rations and water that Dunn and his colleagues could spare. For almost two weeks in August 1915, she was able to camouflage herself among Dunn's comrades and spend time in the sniper-infested trenches of the Somme - the only British woman to do so. 

In her later book, she writes that Dunn found her work as a sapper with the 179 Company of The Royal Engineers, who were a specialist mine-laying and tunnelling company that operated within 400 yards of the front line. Lawrence writes that she was directly involved in the digging of tunnels, but this maybe not be true. 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 she was still at liberty and working within the trenches in some capacity.

Rebecca Nash, curator of the Royal Engineers Museum explains: 
‘The sappers’ uniform would have given Dorothy some leeway to move around – tunnellers had a kind of right to roam. They were not subject to the same military strictures as infantry soldiers, for example, and would often turn up without the commanding officer of an infantry regiment having been informed.  It was the perfect cover.’
Dorothy Lawrewnces's biographer, Simon Jones, who is also Britain’s foremost expert on the Somme tunnels, is not wholly convinced by Dorothy’s account. He reveals: 

‘I am sceptical of the passages in the book in which Dorothy talks of tunnelling under the front line, but there is no doubt whatsoever that she was in the trenches and that she was disguised as a man.’

The toll of the job, and of hiding her true identity, soon gave Dorothy constant chills, rheumatism, and fainting fits. 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, revealed herself to be a female civilian, and was promptly placed under military arrest. 

Taken to the BEF headquarters and interrogated as a possible spy by a colonel, who declared her to be a prisoner of war, she had a fit of the giggles - ‘I really could not help it,’ she wrote.

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. They did not laugh - but nevertheless, in reports the scene does sound comical.

‘So utterly ludicrous appeared this be-trousered little female, marshalled solemnly by three soldiers and deposited before 20 embarrassed men.’

She did not realize that the derogatory term "camp follower" which they used to describe her, was actually army slang for  a "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."

The men who interrogated her could not understand her real motivations for making the treacherous journey to the heart of the fighting. From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer and further interrogated. The Army was so embarrassed that a woman had breached security and was fearful of even more women taking on male roles during the war if her story got out but Dorothy knew she had the scoop of her life, a story which would set Fleet Street alight - but only if she could get it published. 

On the orders of a suspicious judge, fearing she could release sensitive intelligence information into the public domain, she was ordered to remain in France until after the Battle of Loos. Held within the Convent de Bon Pasteur for 2 weeks, she was  made to swear not to write about her experiences, and had to sign an affidavit to that effect, or she would be sent to jail. 

Sent back to London, she travelled across the English Channel on the same ferry as Emmeline Pankhurst, who asked her to speak at a suffragette meeting and address the ever-growing ranks of women desperate to contribute to Britain’s war effort. 

Once in London, Dorothy tried to write about her experiences for The Wide World Magazine, a London-based illustrated monthly, but she was quickly silenced by the War Office, who invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to stop her. Dorothy was banned from telling her inspirational story either through newspaper articles or public talks until after the Armistice in 1918.  Correspondence held by the Harry Ransom Centre in the University of Texas in Austin includes a letter from Dorothy saying she had had to scrap her first book on the direct instructions of the War Office. The letter is on the headed notepaper of The Wide World Magazine, so there is no doubt that Dorothy was telling the truth.

She later commented:
“ 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.

She drafted a book in the months following her return to London, but burnt it in desperation shortly after. Her physical health went into decline due to ‘septic poisoning’ contracted from dirty water in France; and her mental health suffered too. She later wrote of a ‘nervous complaint’ that caused her to shake so much that she ‘could not easily hold a pen’. These symptoms were perhaps the initial manifestations of an illness that, unchecked and misunderstood, was to consume her. It is possible that Dorothy was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress following her experiences in northern France.

On returning to London with fragile health and without a home or any employment prospects, it would have been quite possible that Dorothy chose to seek help from her former wealthy guardian Mrs Fitzgerald but something terrible had happened between Dorothy and Josephine that led to an irreconcilable rift. Unwell and unable to explain her psychiatric symptoms to those around her, Dorothea eventually confessed everything to Josephine – along with her intention to publish her war story. Josephine offered Dorothy an ultimatum which she did not accept. When Josephine died she left money to numerous ‘godchildren’ – but nothing to Dorothy.

By 1919, Dorothy was living in rented rooms in Canonbury, Islington, had secured a book deal with John Lane Publishers and finally published an account of her experiences: 

Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier.

Although the book was well received in England, America and Australia, reviews were less than favourable, and it was still heavily censored by the War Office.The Spectator Magazine described Dorothy in its September 1919 review of her book as a ‘girlish freak’. With the world wishing to heal itself from the scars of the war, and move forward into the Roaring Twenties, the book did not become the huge commercial success that Dorothy had hoped it would be.

With no income and no credibility left as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic actions were brought to the attention of the authorities. She privately confided to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian's husband, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and was later deemed insane. Perhaps the rift between Dorothy and Mrs Fitzgerald had occurred because Dorothy had told her guardian about the rape too - but the staunch Christian woman refused to believe her adopted daughter.

Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, Dorothy was later institutionalized at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Friern Barnet, North London. There is no evidence that her rape allegations against Mr Fitzgerald were taken seriously or were ever investigated further. In medical notes her only friend is named as Mrs Fitzgerald of Salisbury but Josephine never made contact with Dorothy again died shortly afterwards. Nowhere in Dorothy’s medical records are any other visitors mentioned.

Dorothy was incarcerated in the asylum for a shocking 39 years until her lonely death in the 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.

Why did Dorothy tragically die alone in a lunatic asylum? It is possible that she was declared insane just because she dared to speak about her rape allegations and was already seen as a dangerous, subversive woman with psychiatric problems. A century ago he word of a wealthy man of the Church would have always been believed over that of a woman and wealthy wives often stood by their husbands for social and financial reasons, regardless of what they did. It is possible that Mrs Fitzgerald could not imagine that her husband could be capable of something so terrible - so the only other explanation in her mind was that Dorothy was mad.

Dorothy's biographer Simon Jones says:

At the time she was committed her account of the rape was seen as delusional, manic behaviour, but if it was true it might go some way to explaining why she did what she did during the 1st World War. We know today that victims of sexual abuse do not value their own well-being – did Dorothy deliberately put herself in danger by going to France? If she understood the danger she was in, she did not seem to fear it. Albert in the Somme in those days was somewhere even the soldiers tried to avoid – they would even deliberately injure themselves – yet she headed straight for it.’
Jones later found that Lawrence's rape allegations were sufficiently compelling to be included in her medical records, which are held in the London Metropolitan Archives but are not available for general access.

In 2003, Richard Bennett, the grandson of Richard Samson Bennett who was one of the other soldiers, along with Dunn, who had helped Lawrence in France, found note of her within the correspondence files of Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, Kent. On further investigation, East Sussex historian Raphael Stipic found a letter written by Sir Walter Kirke about Lawrence. Military historian Simon Jones then found a copy of Lawrence's book at the REM and started collecting notes in order to write her biography.

Her story later became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war. Curator Laura Clouting said: 

‘This was a time when there was no provision for women to join any branch of the Services and they weren’t even able to work in munitions factories. Mostly they were involved in charity fundraising or succumbed to knitting mania. We’re including Dorothy Lawrence because she proved the exception to the rule.’
Finally, over 100 years after Dorothy Lawrence became a Sapper on the Somme, her place in history is finally secured. YTwo plays and a film have been made about her life and her experiences in recent years.

Lizzie Crarer has recently written and directed a 2 handed play called " Over the Top: The True Life Tale of Dorothy Lawrence" with the theatre company The Heroine Project Presents, which aims to give a voice to women from history who have been overlooked or misrepresented. The production toured in the UK between 4th March and 11th July 2016.

Julie McNamara has also written a play called "The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence" which debuted at The Pleasance Theatre, London on 25 & 26 September 2015 and was directed by Paulette Randall MBE. The Cast included Penelope Freeman as Dorothy and Suni La, Gareth Turkington, Simon Balcon, Matthew Gurney and Becky Allen.

  Macnamara also wrote and directed the short film Blue Pen which focuses on ten women journalists whose voices have been silenced through censorship, confinement in institutions and abuse. Although largely set in the present day, the film’s title refers to the wartime government’s practice of censoring letters and reports from the front.

“I was considering the number of women journalists who are disappeared and executed to this day,” says McNamara, who is also the artistic director of Hackney-based theatre company Vital Xposure.“So I began to make an experimental short film looking at censorship and blue pen, and Dorothy Lawrence’s story was the springboard for it. Blue Pen is more an art film than anything else and is not a dramatic film,” says McNamara.

“It begins with truth of Dorothy Lawrence’s story and creates in the audience’s mind an atmosphere of Dorothy Lawrence’s interrogation and what became of her.

“It then moves on to give ten names from the last decade who have each been disappeared, the majority executed, and so the final question you’re left with is: what is it with the dangerousness of women telling the truth?”

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