Visible Women

Remembering Dorothy Lawrence, the secret soldier who fought in the Somme

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of teenager Dorothy Lawrence, who disguised herself to fulfil her dream of becoming the first female war correspondent. 

How far would you go to get the career you’d always wanted? In June 1915, almost a year after the outbreak of the First World War, an 18-year-old wannabe reporter called Dorothy Lawrence boarded a boat bound for France, armed only with a bicycle, a notepad and a little bit of money.

Born in 1896 in Hendon, Middlesex, Lawrence was orphaned at 13 and brought up by a guardian of the Church of England. She had a burning ambition to become a journalist, but because she was a woman, she was turned down by every Fleet Street newspaper she applied to as a war correspondent. 

Dorothy came up with a cunning plan: go to France, find some things to report on, send insightful articles back to The Times and become a celebrated war correspondent. But it didn’t go quite like that.

Once in Paris, Lawrence discovered it was harder to get a decent story than she had anticipated. She hung out in cafes trying to get titbits of information from bemused soldiers who thought she was on the lookout for a different kind of titbit. 

Deciding she had to get into the thick of war if she was to bag any bylines, Lawrence acquired a set of forged papers, cropped her hair, got hold of a uniform and flattened her figure with swathes of bandages. And, just like that, Private Denis Smith climbed on his bicycle – and set out for the Front.

Men resting in shallow dugouts during the Battle of the Somme.

Lawrence cycled hundreds of kilometres through bombed-out towns, sleeping rough in ditches, haystacks and abandoned buildings. The heat of the summer was sweltering but Lawrence had decided it was “either the Front or risk death in the effort!”.

She finally reached the frontline Somme town of Albert and, with the connivance of a friendly soldier, fell in with the 179th Tunnelling Division. Lawrence then spent 10 days alternately hiding out in abandoned buildings, setting up mines and mingling unseen with the parades of marching British soldiers.

She had made it. But, suffering from fainting fits that would surely unmask her, she was forced to give herself up. Interrogated by a band of embarrassed British Army generals, it was decided that the plucky teenager must be prevented from leaking any information to the enemy, and Lawrence was packed off to a nearby convent, where she was forced to sign an affidavit, swearing her to secrecy. She then returned home to the UK.

In 1919, once the war had ended, despite her ill health, Lawrence published Sapper Dorothy, an account of her experience in the trenches. But the book was not a success – The Spectator mocked her efforts as “humorous” and called her “a girlish freak”.

Lawrence’s mental health began to decline. With no family to care for her, the only British woman soldier in WW1 was admitted to an asylum in 1925, where she remained for the next 40 years until her death.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here

Main illustration: Josie Jammet. Image: Getty Images