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Lady Dorothie's War

Lady Dorothie

Lady Dorothie's War

10 September  - 29 October 2016

The exhibition Lady Dorothie's War traced the daughter of the Earl of Denbigh's journey from the family estate in Newnham Paddox, near Rugby, to the frontline in Flanders.

In 1914, just weeks short of her 25th birthday, Lady Dorothie travelled to France as a member of the Munro Ambulance Corps after completing her training at the Hospital of St Cross.

She was soon sent to Belgium, where she worked as an ambulance driver ferrying wounded soldiers from the frontline to clearing hospitals.

Witnessing death and destruction on a daily basis, Lady Dorothie's bravery was hailed by the French Admiral, Pierre-Alexis Ronarc'h, who published a special Order of the Day on New Year's Eve 1914 commending her "finest example of devotion and disregard for danger."

In 1915 she was awarded the French military honour of the Croix du Guerre and was made a Knight of the Order of Leopold II in Belgium.

A year later, Lady Dorothie became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal by the British Army. In recommending her for the honour, a British commander noted: "She has always displayed a devotion to duty and contempt of danger which has been a source of admiration to all."

Rugby Art Gallery and Museum celebrated her story in Lady Dorothie's War, an exhibition of photographs, letters, journals and mementos from her time on the frontline.

The following blogs accompanied the exhibition


 A birthday in Belgium

The image of the First World War that is etched onto the public’s consciousness is one of parallel trenches in a sea of mud and the untold misery that soldiers in those trenches faced. The reality however is that while this experience was not uncommon it was far from universal. There were many who had good times on the frontline and despite the horror of the conflict, opportunities to enjoy oneself abounded as soldiers attempted to alleviate the boredom and take their minds off the dire situation they were in.

Dorothie was no exception to this and in fact her connections, her status among the men and the independence of her ambulance unit made her a popular and frequent guest at parties and regular recipient of gifts. Dorothie wrote of the following when the French Marins that she had been stationed with since the beginning of the war were moved to another sector in November 1915,
“The Marins have invited us to a farewell party tonight, I foresee an awful orgy of at least 25 courses, 58 divers drinks & many speeches, oo-er. These things take years off one’s life.”
“Well the Marin Doctors invited us to supper last night as I told you yesterday & I am glad to say it was not quite such an orgy as was expected & I got off with only 4 different coloured drinks & a liqueur that was so strong – God knows what – it nearly gave me a heart attack.”
image of postcard to Dorothie

Dorothie herself was the host of many get-togethers that would seem more at home in postcards from a holiday that letters from a warzone. In a house rented from a Belgian refugee, filled with furnished salvaged from deserted towns and villages and on plates bearing the name “Nieuwpoort Hotel” Dorothie entertained Belgians, French and English of all ranks.
“We had two generals to supper last night: the corps & div French Gen. Nice olds birds both. They enjoyed themselves muchly & the old boy Balfourier brought us some heavenly carnations & mimosa which gave a most depraved look to the ‘salon’ in Flanders, war time &all!”
“tonight we are having a binge in his honour at 14 & some of the sailors to dine – great excitement because we have a tin of real cream, a tin of raspberries & a tinned duck we have been saving up in case he came, so won’t we all have tummy aches in the morning my word. Tomorrow, Prince Alexander has bidden me drag him to dine at the Mish. I can but hope he won’t disgrace me by blowing bubbles in his soup.”

Despite all this Dorothie did not like to celebrate her own birthday of October 6th which twice fell while she was in Belgium. In 1914 she was caught up in the retreat from Ghent when birthdays would have been the last thing on her mind but in 1916 she received gifts and messages from home. Her response reveals how although fun could be had on the front there was no escaping the awful truth and the deep grief she felt for the loss of her brother.
“Birthdays are hateful things now so full of memories of Hughie, Mother dear. I hate mine.”
image of Lady Dorothie and Rear admiral Ronarc'h

In her own words

Lady Dorothie Feilding spent almost three years on the frontline and in that time she sent home countless letters, postcard and telegrams over 400 of which are held by the Warwickshire County Record Office.  These letters give us an incredible insight into a life lived one moment at a time and capture everything from the hair raising danger and feats of great courage to the mundane realities and futility of war.

Excerpts from some of those letters alongside photographs taken by, and of, Dorothie barely scratch the surface of her incredible story.

19th November 1915
‘This morning a little review in the dunes at which H d’Oissel said goodbye to the Marins, a march past Zouaves & Marins etc with their flag & it made me very sad indeed to realise it was the last time they would ‘defile’ anywhere anymore. I just love my Marins & get sadder & sadder as it is time for them to leave. In a fortnight there will only be the one battalion & a few odd people left to represent the brigade flag. It will be nice to have just a few ‘Poms Poms Rouge’ about the place still.’
image of soldiers relaxing

image Dorothie and dog Charles

26th June 1915
‘I never have a dull minute here with Charles. Life at the front is full of excitement with him about. He bit Dr Jelly yesterday while being given a slug! His journal is roughly as follows:   1st Day – 3 got fights Folkestone.
2 – 1 cat Boulogne
3 – 1 fit on D’s bed in Furnes at 3am & frightened her to death
4 – Sufficiently recovered to get run over by a car in Dunkirk, came out smothered in oil & appeared by the exhaust in some mysterious way. Was bathed on return much to his indignation & threatened to have another fit, however compromised & was sick under the table instead.
5th day – went out to the dunes with me & found something perfectly appalling to roll in, a 6 month old Hun at least he must have dug up I feel sure. Nothing else could have been so ‘lasting’ or entirely satisfactory from his point of view.
But all the same Charles is a dear & the joy of my life, it was a real brainwave to bring him. The swiftness with which he hops on the car the moment an obus appears would do credit to his missus!’

image of Dorothie in house damaged by war

22nd October 1914
‘War is an utterly incomprehensible horror & how we should want to bring it on ourselves I can’t conceive. But it’s worse from far from a distance, than actually near it. Somehow it doesn’t frighten me so much when you understand it a bit – I was far more miserable over people in it when I was at home.’

1st May 1915
‘It’s worth doing a great deal, & giving up much to be allowed to work near the lines, right at the heart and pulse of things. Even if at times they should be terrible & horrible things. Every little bit one can do to help up here, seems to count so much, because it is immediate help & therefore has far more value, & above all it’s the marvellous and touching gratitude (far out of proportion to what one does) that one meets on all sides, that helps one so to bear one’s own sorrows & worries, great or small. But it’s quaint little ways the men have of showing their gratitude that often gives me a lump in my throat. Sometimes it is the letters they write you afterwards. Sometimes it is just hot & crumpled bunch of flowers from deserted gardens & very rare to find, tied together with a bootlace or piece of telephone wire so carefully & tightly that they are almost squeezed out of recognition. Often it has been the mute thanks in a man’s eyes as his life ebbs away,’
image of Lady Dorothie in ambulance driver's uniform

In the words of others

For men writing home and journalists filing stories Lady Dorothie was someone that those who encountered her on the front line could not help but write about. At first it was the perceived incongruity of a young woman in a warzone that was subject to comment but as time went on it was her bravery that stole the headlines and her kindness that stole hearts.

Dorothie and her exploits regularly made it into the pages of the Rugby Advertiser and Observer;
‘King Albert has conferred the Cross of the Order of Leopold on Lady Dorothie Feilding for Red Cross services which she has rendered on the battlefields in the north since the beginning of the war. The Rear-Admiral commanding the French Marine Fusiliers, with whom Lady Dorothie has done much work, mentioned her in his brigade order for “Giving to all almost daily the finest example of contempt of danger and devotion to duty” – Reuter.’ Rugby Advertiser 29/04/1915
image of Lady Dorothie in Rugby Advertiser

Her contribution was so remarkable that it was reported far and wide. In an article for the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine read by millions of Americans, Arthur H Gleason wrote the following;
 ‘One of our corps was Lady Dorothie Fielding, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. She had all the characteristics of what we like to think is the typical American girl. She had a bonhomie that swept class distinctions aside. Her talk was swift and direct. She was pretty and executive, swift to act and always on the go. One day, as we were on the road to the dressing stations, the noise of guns broke out. The young Belgian soldier who was driving her stopped his motor and jumped out. “I do not care to go farther,” he said. Lady Dorothie, who is a skilful driver, climbed to the Front seat, drove the car to the dressing station and brought back the wounded. I have seen her drive a touring car, carrying six wounded men, from Nieuport to Fumes at eight o'clock on a pitch-dark night, no lights allowed, over a narrow, muddy road on which the car skidded. She had to thread her way through silent marching troops, turn out for artillery wagons, follow after tired horses. She was not a trained nurse, but when Dr. Hector Munro was working over a man with a broken leg she prepared a splint and held the leg while he set it and bound it. She drove a motor into Nieuport when the troops were marching out of it. Her guest for the afternoon was a war correspondent. “This is a retreat," he said. “It is never safe to enter a place when the troops are leaving it. I have had experience.” “We are going in to get the wounded,” she replied. They went in. At Ypres she dodged round the corner because she saw a captain who doesn’t believe in women at the front. A shell fell in the place where she had been standing a moment before. It blew the arm from a soldier. Her nerve was unbroken, and she continued her work through the morning. Her notion of courage is that people have a right to feel frightened, but that they have no right to fail to do the job even if they are frightened. They are entitled to their feelings, but they are not entitled to shirk the necessary work of war. She believes that cowardice is not like other failings of weakness, which are pretty much man's own business. Cowardice is dangerous to the group.’ The Saturday Evening Post 08/05/1915

Image of Saturday Evening Post

In a letter home Quartermaster Maurice Faivre described a scene he witnessed involving Lady Dorothie....

image of Lady Dorothie in front of ambulance

‘A handsome English woman, Ms. Dorothee, arrived everyday with an ambulance to pick up our wounded. She is not easily intimidated and slaloms her vehicle around the craters. On 14 May she was here again. She got out and disappeared with the old English mechanic in the ruins of Nieuwpoort. Promptly four Fusiliers Marinsran from a shelter into the garden of a destroyed house to pick lilacs. I know English so I was asked to write the accompanying card: “From French Tars, for you”. The five of them managed to deposit the improvised bouquet unseen on the footboard of the ambulance. From their hiding place the five Romeos followed further the course of events. The two Brits emerged from another garden with a hand-picked bouquet of flowers she put in the back of the ambulance. Then the mechanic started cranking the car. Ms. Dorothee only noticed the lilacs when boarding, read the card put it in her southwester and looked closely around for the senders. She stood up among the rubble in an icy wind that tugged at her rain coat. Then she stepped into the car. At the same time a small white cloud appeared in the sky immediately followed by the sound of an explosion. Shrapnel. The first of a series. The ambulance drove hastily away and the Marines dove into their basement. Keramec and Le Gall both had faces as red as peonies.’













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