Mary Dexter in a nurses uniform posing in a columned portico.

Christmas in Wartime: Mary Dexter and the Great War

By Jeffrey S. Reznick

One-hundred years ago this week, Mary Dexter wrote to her mother, Emily Loud Sanford, about her experiences as a volunteer with the British Red Cross at the American Women’s War Relief Hospital in Paignton, South Devon. Christmas was approaching as Dexter and the other staff of the hospital braced themselves for another influx of wounded from the Western Front, all as they made preparations for the holiday, exchanged greetings, and looked to a pause in the rhythms of their volunteer service.

Dexter had arrived in Paignton in September 1914, only days after the war had begun. She was a probationer, or nurse’s assistant—a “pro,” as she and her contemporaries often called the role: “My job is in the medical ward, adjoining the big house, with sixty-seven beds—it was the servants’ banqueting hall, Dexter explained to her mother on September 17. “My special domain is a darling little kitchen attached to it, where the food is brought and kept hot for serving in the ward. The patients who are able will come in to eat there at a long table. I am in charge of the food and special diets, and between meals I am to help in the ward.” Less than a month later, Dexter found herself “in the thick of it” and far more than she had expected, based on her previous experience working with babies at a dispensary in Boston. As she wrote to her mother: “The men are jolly and sing and whistle a lot, and there is a gramophone. Every morning we make beds to the tune of “Tipperary.” I help with the dressings and hold the fractures while they are dressed. I shall do them, later—I bandaged one today—but I am in no hurry, for we had no fractures at the Boston Dispensary. Such terrible wounds, some of them!” Dexter undoubtedly valued her experiences, observing candidly: “You don’t half appreciate my luck in getting in here. There were more than one hundred applicants. My friends write that ‘being in a Red Cross military hospital is next best to going to the front,’ and now I am a ‘pro.’ doing just what I have always dreamed of.”

Mary Dexter in a nurses uniform posing in a columned portico.

With these experiences, the ambitious Dexter was only beginning to expand her professional horizons. During the following two years she took on nursing duties in De Panne, Belgium. Subsequently, while recovering from scarlet fever, she began to study applied psychology at London’s Medico-Psychological Clinic with the hope of working with shell-shock patients. “The lectures are even stiffer than I expected,” she wrote to her mother, “but so interesting it is worth the hard work.” She continued: It is curious to think that a year ago I had never heard of Applied Psychology—and now I would not go back to nursing for worlds! I am awfully looking forward to having patients of my own—Dr. Murray thinks I can by Christmas-time.” Shortly thereafter, in January 1917, Dexter did begin to see her own patients. In her examinations, she “passed in everything,” and “came in second of the first-term students in Normal Psychology, third in Abnormal Psychology.” But later, during the fall of 1917, evidently responding to her sense of wanting to contribute further to the Allied war effort, Dexter put a hold on her clinic work and accept a three-month tour of duty as an ambulance driver attached to the French army. “You can imagine how thrilled I am,” she wrote to her mother. “I’ve nursed the British and the Belgians, and am so glad to have a chance to do my bit for the French. I miss my Clinic work, and would be miserable if I weren’t soon coming back to it. My patients were rather upset when they heard I would be away three months, and I have had nice letters from them.” Dexter suffered a back injury in May 1918, a condition which eventually caused her to return to London, where, during her recovery, she expressed her continued enthusiasm for and interest in returning to France to help men suffering from shell-shock. As she wrote to her mother: “I should love to go and work under our doctors “out there”—for my own American boys as well. That would be a realization of what I am beginning to dream of—war-shock work in France!”

In the coming week Circulating Now will share a few of Mary Dexter’s Christmastime letters written 100 years ago to her mother in Boston from the American Women’s War Hospital in Paignton, South Devon. You can learn more about this hospital from the BBC World War One at Home, a growing collection of stories that show how WW1 affected the people and places of the UK and Ireland.

Read, and download for free from the NLM’s Digital Collections, the complete book In the Soldier’s Service: War Experiences of Mary Dexter: England, Belgium, France, edited by her mother Emily Loud Sanford and published in 1918.

This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

Portrait of Jeffrey S. Reznick in the HMD Reading RoomJeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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