The adventures of an intrepid young woman on the Western Front
It would not be quite accurate to portray Dorothy Lawrence as a bona fide soldier of the British Army. Dorothy was in fact a young woman with great aspirations to embark upon a career in journalism and she knew it would be a coup to give a female perspective of the activities of men on the front line—as it were—from within their own ranks. So she devised a scheme to bring her objectives about and its success was marked by a 10 day stint in the line at Albert in 1915 with the Royal Engineers during the opening stages of the battle of Loos. Dorothy certainly saw action—the trench she occupied lay less than 400 yards from the German front line. She was eventually discovered and the entire story of how she pulled off her subterfuge, her time in the trenches and what befell her thereafter is told in this delightful account. This is a notable account of the Great War from a woman’s viewpoint. Available in soft back or hard cover with dust jacket.
“It won’t do for yer to turn out in daylight yet; wait till the excitement dies down. At present all the men are talking about that meeting with yer. Now they think that yer ’ave cycled miles away from Albert; I said that yer’d gone for food. So don’t come out yet. Afterwards yer can fall into line with me as we march into the trenches for a night shift.”<br>
We agreed on the following plan. Not far distant from the cottage, some Royal Engineers were billeted, together with other units, at one of the largest buildings of the town, formerly a schoolhouse. Outside it, regiments lined up for the trenches, assembling first in the courtyard, where trestle seats were ranged under a big yew-tree! During the daytime the troops used this courtyard as an open-air smoking-room and place of recreation. Swarming through the courtyard at night, the troops gathered into line through the gate of the yard; and on these occasions I was to mix with the khaki crowd and march with these men under cover of the darkness.<br>
One evening here sufficed to prove what constituted the chief danger spots. In front lay the “ditches”—best described by that term. Properly constructed trenches proved too lengthy a task for a tiny army, compelled, perhaps, to move out of its shelter at a moment’s “push”; only later in the war real trenches at Albert succeeded the rough makeshifts that formed the foundations of the finer structures. In the “ditches” the regiments at Albert felt comparatively safe; the supreme danger was centred in the courtyard of the billet where Fritz regularly hailed his high explosives, contained in jam tins called trench mortars, Fritz’s intent being to knock out units on their way to the front line of the trenches.<br>
Variety of danger, in the form of “under fire,” concentrated itself neither outside the billets nor, always, inside the trenches; it focused itself on that narrow stretch of no man’s land, fronting the German trenches, where, approximately 400 yards from the German front line, I put in most of my time as a British soldier. I dispensed no military duty in trenches; as a soldier I divided the ten days and nights either alone in the open of no man’s land, about 400 yards from the Boche front line, under simultaneous fire of shell, rifle, and shrapnel, falling into line outside the courtyard, already described, whence the regiment moved into the trenches, or within one of three dugouts appropriated at night for my own use; throughout several nights I slept alone, under fire, among the ruins, presumably within sight of Fritz, if he had only known!<br>
With the utmost care Tommy gave instructions, as I ate my supper. Subsequently he went off, fearing lest his absence from quarters would create suspicion. He departed, saying:<br>
“Yer won’t be frightened here alone, will yer? After the shift I’ll come back as soon as I can get away.”<br>
Thick darkness set in; and with it “Enemy Hate” raged in earnest. Lying on my mattress, I tried to sleep. It was difficult, though, to get forty winks! Crack! Crack! Crack! Stray rifle-shooting occurred between opposite trenches as soon as a head appeared above cover. Often flashlights failed to illumine targets, and stray shots wandered. “Pong!” I discovered that I was under rifle-fire. One of these shots found its way either inside my dug-out or perhaps struck that jam cauldron. I did not get up to look; without light I could not have found the mark! “Pong!” and then again one more “pong.” Shots dropped about from rifle-fire, missing its aim. But this noise differed entirely from the heavy boom of “Enemy Hate,” directed towards the bending statue.<br>
Three distinct sounds accompany a shell on its travels. One boom signals its emission from the metal mouth. Noise follows, like low whines up windy chimneys, caused as the heavy shell beats back air as it travels through space, and last there occurs a “bang” with simultaneous crash of falling timber or masonry. That is what happens when “Enemy Hate” sends its shells. As bad luck would have it, Fate posted me for ten days and nights in the direct line of fire; shots whizzed by at the Cathedral target, travelling shells passed overhead every few minutes. None happened to fall absolutely on me; the ruins of the dugout showed where shells had already removed the roof.<br>
Rifle-fire penetrated that night either the courtyard or where I slept; also shrapnel fell apparently that night on the cabbage-patch. Through the night, the intensity of the shelling increased till daybreak, dying down as morning approached. Often shrapnel kept direct line over my roof—as I could hear—without falling near where I lay; and on other occasions it just missed the Cathedral by falling nearer the cabbage patch. And it happened to be that cabbage-patch, also the brief stretch of no man’s land, that formed the only intervening space between Boche trench and me!<br>
By morning light I picked up the cap fallen from a shell, together with shrapnel bullets. And, later, I brought back to England that piece of brass, with its decimal figures, also its bullets. Fragments of falling shell made a noise, like hail, as they struck the cabbage leaves or stone-paved courtyard. In fact, there is the sound of several different noises in the progress of one shell; other sounds accompany rifle-fire.<br>
About two o’clock I looked across to the firing-line through limitless black density of starless sky, so pitch the sky appeared that night. As I watched, complete black gave place to sudden illumination, through brightly-coloured star-shells that threw up red lights, varied by purple stars. These stars, poised momentarily in mid-air, fell again with a stream of brilliance, lighting the sky for direct rifle-fire. In this way, killing takes place artistically!