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.
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 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.
“ I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”