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Dorothy Lawrence was born in Hendon in 1896. Abandoned by her mother, she was adopted by a guardian of the Church of England.
Lawrence had a strong desire to become a journalist and she achieved some success with a few articles published in The Times. She was living in Paris when war was declared in 1914. Lawrence contacted several British newspapers offering to work as a war correspondent in France. All the editors refused to employ a woman to do what they considered to be very dangerous work.
Lawrence returned to England and in 1915 disguised herself as a man and joined the British Army. Using the name Denis Smith, she served for ten days in the British Expeditionary Force Tunneling Company on the Western Front before her true identity was discovered. The authorities detained her in a French convent until she agreed to swear an affidavit promising not to tell the public how she had fooled the army authorities.
Dorothy Lawrence in military uniform (1915)
On her return to England she settled in Canonbury, Islington. Lawrence published an account of her experiences, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, in 1919.
Dorothy Lawrence died at Friern Hospital, Barnet, Middlesex, in 1964.
(1) In her book, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, Dorothy Lawrence explained why she disguised herself as a man.
I wanted to see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there, I'll see whether I cannot go one better than those big men with their cars, credentials and money. I'll see what I can manage as a war-correspondent.
(2) When Lawrence's disguise was discovered, she was sent to Sir Charles Munro.
We simply don't know what to make of you. One thinks that you are a spy and another says you must be a camp-follower and everyone has his own views on the subject.
(3) Lawrence Marzouk, Girl who fought like a man (20th November, 2003)
Back in 1914, Dorothy was a budding journalist in a male-dominated industry. Universal suffrage was still a dream, but Dorothy, then in her mid-twenties, was determined that not having a vote would not stop her rise as a journalist.
She achieved some success with a few articles published in The Times before the start of the war, but her determination to take her notepad to the front line was met with scorn by male peers.
Numerous attempts to join the Voluntary Aid Department, which sent women to participate in war work, were rejected, so she resorted to guile and subterfuge to achieve her goal.
Leaving with her rickety bicycle, a brown bag and rudimentary French, she boarded a ferry at Folkestone heading to Boulogne, in the hope of reaching the front line disguised as a man.
Despite the expanses of rubble and the rumble of falling shells, Dorothy found the French clinging on to their famous joie de vivre. Passing through Paris she headed towards the war zone, picking up some shooting lessons along the way thanks to amenable French soldiers.
But her journey was halted when she was arrested by French police in Senlis, two miles short of the front line. She was ordered to leave the area and fled to a forest. where rats, squirrels and 'invisible beasties' troubled her. In the depth of night she felt like her blood was freezing. Despite the certainty that she would be plagued by insect bites, she made her bed in a haystack for the night. Her luck changed at the encounter of two British soldiers in a Parisian cafe, who would come to be known as her khaki accomplices.
After receiving a smuggled uniform from the kind soldiers, known as her 'Khaki Accomplices', Dorothy adapted the clothes to conceal her feminine figure, and used bandages to hold down her bosom.