Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Dressed in khaki fatigues and splattered in mud, Private Denis Smith looked little different from thousands of other war-weary comrades.
Private Denis Smith. But you can
call me Dorothy.
The boyish face and cropped hair provoked no comments from those at the battlefront. Indeed, no one in the 51st Division of the Royal Engineers (British Expeditionary Force) knew that Private Smith was hiding an extraordinary secret.
He was actually a woman - Dorothy Lawrence - who had come to the battlefield to see with her own eyes what was taking place. In doing so, Lawrence became the only female soldier to fight on the Western Front in the First World War.
Dorothy’s highly unusual story began in Paris at the outbreak of war in 1914. She was desperate to become a war correspondent, but was told that it was a man’s world in which she could play no part. Determined to see for herself the battles taking place in northern France, she decided to disguise herself as a soldier and make her own way to the front.
‘I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish,’ she wrote.
Dorothy wanted to experience war first hand.
She befriended two English soldiers in Paris - who she later referred to as her ‘khaki accomplices’ - and asked them to smuggle her a uniform. They agreed to help and within a week Dorothy had military boots, khaki trousers, braces, jacket, a shirt and puttees.
There still remained the problem of how to disguise her feminine form: she knew that if anyone ever discovered that she was a woman, she would be arrested and sent home with immediate effect.
Dorothy Lawrence: aka Denis
‘Enveloping myself in swathes of bandages, like a mummy, I pulled these swathes taut around my body.’
But her womanly curves remained visible, ‘so I padded my back with layers of cotton wool… my outfit revealed a thick-set and plump figure, finished by a somewhat small head and a boyish face.’
The men also helped her obtain an all-important travel pass that would enable her to reach the town of B├ęthune, which stood right on the front line.
Concerned that she still looked too feminine, Dorothy had one of her accomplices crop her hair and shave her face. ‘Vainly I hoped that boyish bristles would sprout,’ she wrote. A born tom-boy, she was disappointed when this failed to happen. 
To complete her disguise before she set off for the front line, Dorothy coated her face in diluted Condy fluid. Bronzed - and looking decidedly shabby - she now headed for the battlefront.
It was not easy for her to reach the fighting. She was stopped on several occasions by officers keen to know what she was doing so far from her supposed regiment. Yet none of them ever imagined that she was a woman.
Dorothy joined sappers like these
Dorothy eventually secured the services of a tunnel expert named Sapper Tom Dunn who was serving with a Lancashire unit of the Royal Engineers. She admitted her secret to him and asked for his help.
Sapper Tom was amused by her daring and touched by her courage. He and a few comrades agreed to help get her into active service.
They found her a secret hiding place where she could rest up during the day. Only when it became dark would she venture out with the other sappers, digging out tunnels underneath the German lines and filling them with high explosive. The charges would then be set, blowing the German trenches and control centres sky high.
Hygiene was impossible and Dorothy was soon crawling with fleas and lice. ‘Every inch of my body tickled and irritated,’ she wrote. ‘Fleas jumped in all directions.’
Although she faced terrible discomfort, she remained actively involved in tunnelling underneath enemy lines. Shells and mortars rained down on her yet she never once flinched.
Bethune: Dorothy's goal
Her closest male comrade, Sapper Tom Dunn, was extraordinarily impressed with her bravery. He later described how she spent ten continuous days and nights ‘within 400 yards from the Boche front line, under rifle fire, trench mortars and coal boxes’.
The incessant fire, poor food and contaminated water rapidly took its toll. Dorothy fell ill and suffered a series of fainting fits. Fearing that her ruse would be discovered, she presented herself to her commanding sergeant and admitted her deception. He immediately arrested her on suspicions of being a spy.
Dorothy worked in tunnels
like this
Intense interrogation followed. Six generals and twenty officers were involved in cross questioning Dorothy, but failed to prove anything other than the fact that she wanted to join the dangerous world of men.
They forced her to sign an affidavit to the effect that she would never write about her story. And then she was despatched back to London.
Dorothy did eventually write up her extraordinary story and Sapper Dunn even wrote a signed affidavit to vouch for the fact that it was true.
Yet few believed it and she died in obscurity in 1964.
Dorothy’s self sacrifice was lost to history and her story became one of the many forgotten tales of the First World War.

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Maybe it would be better titled "the only known female soldier"

  2. You might be right! Mind you, I've searched and searched and can't find any others!