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Ep 157: Dorothy Lawrence, the sapper that nobody wanted.

Updated: Feb 6

Hot on the heels of Kit Cavanagh last week, we're back with another fearless lady. This time posing as a soldier in the first World War, in order to get the scoop. Meet Dorothy Lawrence - the only English woman soldier in the Royal Engineering 51st Division, 79th tunnelling company, during the first world war. I love a sentence that claims something is the first, the tallest, the cleanest.... and then follows it up with a very very specific criteria - and my goodness that is specific! Probably way more specific than it needs to be.

Dorothy dressed as a soldier

Dorothy didn't originally plan to be a soldier, nor in disguise. She wanted to be a war correspondent. By 1915 she'd already had a couple of articles published in The Times and Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, but couldn't persuade anyone to send her to France. So off she popped on her own. Her first attempt to get close to the front was foiled and she decided she'd have more luck dressed as a man. So retreating to Paris (by bicycle) she found the first of her "Khaki accomplices" who helped here with clothing and taught her to walk like a man.

Perhaps we've also found the answer to last week's question, how to disguise the fact you are not shaving? She "scraped the pale skin of her cheeks to produce a shaving rash" Ouch!

Did she succeed in getting the front? (Well, obviously, yes, given the title of her book about it.) Listen to the pod to hear Alex flesh out that part of her story.

Here she is in an image said to be between 1910 and 1919. Given she was only 14 in 1910, we can probably guess it's from later. She was just 18 when she set off for France with her bicycle and a small amount of cash. "I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish."

The records of her during the rest of the war are a little hazy. But in 1919 we know she moved to Canonbury in Islington. Perhaps this image is of her around then, with her wartime exploits behind her.

Kit ended her days in an institution - the Royal Hospital Chelsea. So did Dorothy - but less happily. She spent the rest of her adult life in what was then known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Originally sectioned because of her increasingly erratic behaviour, we don't know if it was PTSD from her wartime experiences, or from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Or, as we speculate in the pod, just the fact that she claimed her foster guardian had abused her, could have led others to suggest she was insane.

Her memoir has recently been rediscovered, and her story is gradually emerging in different ways. You can read her own words in Sapper Dorothy as pictured at the top. There are two plays about her: The disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence and Over the Top, and several short films, including

Sapper Smith released in 2018. Another film - Blue Pen, named after the censorship committee in WW1, is more concerned with the silencing of her voice as a journalist.

Dorothy's extraordinary story encompasses so many area's of life. A difficult life lived by an remarkable woman.

Contact us, as ever, here:

And keep a look out on our socials, as announce in the pod, we're going to start asking you which stories you want to hear, in a multiple choice format. Is it multiple choice? maybe it should be called single or double choice.

2 options, 1 choice. Coming soon.

PS. Not the snappiest of slogans. I don't think I've got what it takes to succeed in advertising.

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