Christmas in Wartime: gauze stockings for 200 men

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. This week Circulating Now shares a few of Mary Dexter‘s Christmastime letters.

Arrival of wounded at Paignton Station, crowds cheer vehicles full of soldiers in the street.


Munsey Ward, December 23, 1914

Mary Dexter in a nurses uniform.We got in a new lot of eighty wounded a week ago, and many old ones have gone out. Sixteen left from Munsey this morning, and tonight at “breakfast” we heard that a new lot were arriving on the instant. We got 20 of them here in Munsey. Three were fractured femurs, all packed in huge wooden splints from shoulder to heel. One man, a Scotchman of the Black Watch, has been eight weeks in hospital at Boulogne with both legs fractured—a shocking condition after eight weeks. Such a nice, sandy-haired man he is, and he does not say a word, but one can see he is anxious about it—small wonder. On my side of the ward there is also a nice boy about twenty, who will never use his right arm again. The shoulder is badly fractured and they had to take out the top of the humerus [sic], as well as lots of small bits of bone. He has been very helpless, but much better now. He has an egg, always scrambled, for his breakfast—I do it and take it to him myself—he does enjoy it, and I wouldn’t miss his smile for anything. Another pathetic case is a man who was blown fifty feet into the air, by an exploding shell which killed the two men next him. You can imagine what condition his nerves are in. He talks constantly in his sleep of France and Belgium.

We all are upset over the shelling of Scarborough—and the terrible loss of women’s and babies’ lives. It brings it all so near home. Of course, here in little Paignton even there are no lights allowed on or near the sea-front. One afternoon when I walked to have tea with friends at Torquay, I had to grope my way along. We have strict orders here to veil all our lights as much as possible.

It is my week at the bathrooms now. Colin B— and I turn and turn about with it all—bathrooms, the huge daily pile of laundry, etc., etc. Since the aeroplanes came, some of the night nurses are nervous about lights in the lavatories, as their roofs are of glass! I said to Sister Vera tonight that if the German aeroplanes come and drop a bomb on me there, at least my mother will have the satisfaction of knowing that I died at my post—doing unpleasant jobs!!

I really like night duty, and although I can come off at New Year, having then done two months of it, I am meditating asking Matron to keep me on a bit longer. I am awfully well and sleep gloriously—night duty is far less tiring physically—it has been a comparative rest-cure. When we come off duty Sister Vera and I take a walk through the gardens for twenty minutes or so, after our morning dinner, and then I sleep the sleep of honest toil until I am called at 6 p.m.

I can’t realize that the day after tomorrow is Christmas. I shall think of you, and shall send you a cable tomorrow. We are busy, in odd minutes, making gauze stockings for our two hundred men—each one will contain fruit, jam, tobacco, etc., and an individual present from the Committee.

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.


  1. I much appreciate this combination of historical insight and holiday imagery. It gives me an intimate perspective of people in other times experiencing the impact of holidays in less than optimal situations, but they still found a reason to share.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. We certainly agree with your perspective and appreciate your support of pieces such as this one which reflect on the past in tune with contemporary events. Happy Holidays!

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