Lawrence was born in Polesworth, Warwickshire, the second daughter of Thomas Hartshorn Lawrence, a drainage contractor, and his wife, Mary Jane Beddall. In 1914, at the start of the war and aged 19, Dorothy was living in Paris and had a desire to be a war reporter on the front lines, but was unable to get employment because she was a woman, and it was nearly impossible for even male reporters to get to the front line at that time.
She recorded in a later autobiography "I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish." (Lawrence, 41-2). She befriended two English soldiers in a café, and they agreed to give her a uniform which they smuggled into her apartment. She bound her chest, padded her back with sacking and cotton, and her friends taught her to drill and march. She persuaded two Scottish military policemen to cut her hair military style and then dyed her skin using diluted furniture polish to give it a bronzed color. With forged identity papers as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment she headed for the front lines, eventually arriving at the Somme by bicycle.
A Lancashire coalminer named Tom Dunn befriended Dorothy and found her work as a Sapper with the British Expeditionary Force tunnelling company, a mine-laying company within 400 yards (365 m) of the front line, where she was constantly under fire. He found her an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in, and she returned to it each night after laying mines by day. The toll of the job, and of hiding her true identity, soon gave her a case of constant chills and rheumatism. She was concerned that if she was killed her true gender would be discovered and the men who had befriended her would be in danger. After 10 days of service she presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who promptly placed her under military arrest.
She was taken to the British Expeditionary Force headquarters and interrogated as a spy and declared a prisoner of war. From there she was taken cross country by horse to Calais where her interrogation occupied the time of six generals and approximately twenty other officers. She was ignorant of the term camp follower (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." (Lawrence, 161).
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. She was then taken to the Convent de Bon Pasteur where she swore not to write about her experiences and signed an affidavit to that effect. She was then sent back to London.
Back in London she was unable to write of her experiences, which had been her original intent. She later said, "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" (Lawrence, 189). After the war ended she wrote of her experiences, but it was censored by the War Office and not fully published until many years later when discovered by a historian in the archives. Her story became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war.
In 1919, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, but after claiming she had been raped by her church guardian, she was institutionalised as insane in 1925. She died at Friern Hospital (formerly Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum) in 1964. Little else is known of her life after 1919.
- Dorothy Lawrence (1919), Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: the only English woman soldier, Late Royal Engineers 51st Division 179th Tunnelling Company BEF, London:Lane. Available in-full online, includes additional pictures.
- Lawrence Marzouk (2003), "Girl who fought like a man"