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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Dorothy at the Front!

Pressure from women for their own uniformed service to assist the war effort began in August 1914. After a War Office investigation which showed that many jobs being done by soldiers in France could instead be done by women, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established in December 1916.

In April 1918, the WAAC was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was formed in November 1917 and the Women’s Royal Air Force was set up on 1 April 1918. In total, over 100,000 women joined Britain’s armed forces during the war.

Unofficial service Even before the formation of the women’s services, some pioneering women made their own way to the front to help the war effort. In 1914, when the War Office turned down an offer of help from Scottish doctor Elsie Inglis with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still’, she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals on the fighting fronts. Inglis herself went to Serbia to treat the sick and wounded.

Unofficially Official The only woman soldier enlisted in the British Army managed the feat by passing herself off as a man! Dorothy Lawrence, a 20-year-old ambitious journalist, joined in 1915 the B.E.F. Tunnelling Company using the alias Denis Smith, aided by some sympathetic men.  She gave herself in after only 10 days worried about the safety of these men. 

Taken to the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) headquarters and interrogated as a spy by a colonel, she was declared a prisoner of war. 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. She was ignorant of the term camp follower (one meaning of which is "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."

From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer and further interrogated. The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security and was fearful of more women taking on male roles during the war if her story got out. On the orders of a suspicious judge, fearing she could release sensitive intelligence, he ordered that she remain in France until after the Battle of Loos. Held within the Convent de Bon Pasteur, she was also made to swear not to write about her experiences, and signed 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.

Once in London, she tried to write about her experiences for The Wide World Magazine, a London-based illustrated monthly, but had to scrap her first book on the instructions of the War Office, which invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to silence her. 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".

In 1919, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and published an account of her experiences: Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Although well received in England, America and Australia, it was heavily censored by the War Office, and with a world wishing to move forward it did not become the commercial success that she wanted.

With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Friern Barnet, north London. She died at what was by then known as 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.

In 2003, Richard Bennett, the grandson of Richard Samson Bennett who was one of the soldiers 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 to write a biography.

Her story later became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war. Jones later found that Lawrence's rape allegations were sufficiently compelling to be included in her medical records, held in the London Metropolitan Archives, but not available for general access.


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