How one woman successfully hid her identity and joined the fight during World War I, as excerpted from When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain by Giles Milton, which is the basis for a new podcast, Unknown History.
Dressed in khaki fatigues and splattered in mud, Private Denis Smith looked little different from the thousands of other war-weary comrades.
The boyish face and cropped hair provoked few 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.
From Dorothy to Denis
Dorothy’s 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 witness the bloody fighting in Northern France, she decided to disguise herself as a soldier and make her own way to the front.
She befriended two English soldiers in Paris—she later referred to them as her ‘khaki accomplices’—and asked them to smuggle her a uniform.
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 Béthune, which was right on the front line.
A “Man’s Work”
It was not easy to reach the fighting. On several occasions Dorothy was stopped by officers who demanded to know what she was doing so far from her supposed regiment. Yet none of them ever imagined she was a woman.
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 did she venture out with the other sappers, digging tunnels underneath the German lines and filling them with high explosive. The charges would then be set, blowing the German trenches and control centres high into the sky.
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.
What later happened to Dorothy? To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our new podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.