Wednesday 11 November 2015

Sapper Dorothy Lawrence.

Dorothy Lawrence
I wrote and presented this piece at Finchley Literary Festival 2014. The event took part in Friern Barnet Community Library which is situated over the road from the former Colney Hatch Hospital, later renamed Friern Hospital. It was a flagship Victorian asylum, housing up to 3,500 patients. It closed in 1993 after which it was converted into luxurious apartments.

This is the story of a patient who died there in 1964 - but 50 years earlier she had done something quite remarkable. This is her story. I thought today was a fitting day to post it.

My name is Dorothy Lawrence. I think it’s 1964. Living in Colney Hatch Hospital – the loony bin – makes it hard to keep track. I’ve been incarcerated for 39 years. The warders see me as a mad old woman, someone who’s done nothing. I doubt they’d believe my story. Will you?

It’s fifty years now since the war broke out. I wanted to be a war correspondent. I was making my way in journalism – yes that surprised you didn’t it, but I’d had articles published in The Times, so I approached the Fleet Street papers but they sneered "do you suppose we're going to send a woman out there when even our own war-correspondents can't get out for love or money."

Well, I’d be hanged if I wouldn’t prove them wrong: "I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents can’t get out there, I will."

So the summer of ‘15 saw me cycling to the war zone 15 miles from Paris on a ramshackle contraption that cost £2 plus another £3 to get it over to France. I made it to a French base camp just as the mudguard fell off.

From there I headed for Paris where there were plenty of English soldiers. I saw a couple of khakis and just had that instinct they’d be the ones to help me. ‘Hello, boys,’ I said and soon we were chatting like old friends. When they heard my plan, bless them, they gave me all the help I needed.

They got me kitted in out in uniform complete with cap, badge, puttees the lot. Bit by bit they brought it to me disguised as parcels of washing. I’ll tell you something - men’s trousers weren’t made to fit women and of course there was the top half. I had to flatten that lot  by bandaging myself like an Egyptian Mummy. Then I added padding for muscles! I ended up looking rather stout, but like a stout boy.  They taught me how to walk like a man and to march.

As Pt Denis Smith
Later I got my hair cut in the military style and even got the barber to run the razor over my face to encourage bristles but none grew. I used diluted Condys fluid to make my skin look manly – but actually it just looked like dirt.

I looked like a boy but I had to have proof. Those lads did me proud and soon I had my identity. I was Private Denis Smith. No 175331 1st Leicestershire Regiment.

They even got me the paperwork to get me to Bethune. I travelled as a woman – wearing a hat to hide my short hair but I left my corsets behind!

It was meeting Sapper Tom Dun that made it happen though. After hearing my plan, he got me joined up – drafted into the Royal Engineers, complete with RE badge. We found a deserted cottage for me to hide in. As Tom went off I changed into my uniform – I was soon itching all over – no wonder, the place was alive with fleas.

The first night I discovered why the place was abandoned. It was under constant enemy bombardment. Tom smuggled some rations to me. The next evening remembering Tom’s exact instruction, I went under cover of darkness to the yard where the men gathered and mingled for the night shift. I was one of them. I helped lay mines in the trenches. Ten nights I did that - under fire 400 yards from the enemy front line. Sleeping poorly by day in the damp cottage didn’t do me much good though and the rheumatics soon began to affect me as did my irregular rations.

Fainting fits bring disgrace on the King’s uniform and I knew if I ended up in hospital my cover would be blown. I couldn’t risk it because my kahki accomplices would be at risk too. So I turned myself in.

I told them who I was and just didn’t say much about those khakis.

They arrested me of course – saying I was a spy. They interrogated me but eventually I managed to convince them I was no spy but an English woman. We spoke at cross purposes for a while because I didn’t know what they meant when they asked me if I was a camp follower. I’d said yes.

They were furious that a woman could penetrate that most masculine of worlds and I had to promise to write nothing of my experiences to the papers for the duration of the war at the risk of imprisonment. But the fact is, I was the only woman to serve on the front line in that terrible war.

Years later when I told my doctor about what had happened to me as a child, when I was a ward of a churchman, I wasn’t believed. And because he knew my story of the trenches, he knew I had been a most effective liar. My insistence decided my fate: men of God did not violate young girls. To say otherwise proves I must be mad so here I am, imprisoned in Colney Hatch, and here I will be until my death.

Dorothy was buried in a unmarked paupers' grave in New Southgate Cemetery.