American Women's War Relief Hospital, Oldway, Paignton, a large columned building with a large paved courtyard.

Christmas in Wartime: You should have heard the shouts

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.

American Women's War Relief Hospital, Oldway, Paignton, a large columned building with a large paved courtyard.


December 25, 1914

Mary Dexter in a nurses uniform.Such a busy Christmas Eve as we had, hanging all the men’s stockings. Then Colin B— and I went to midnight mass—just in uniform and coats, as the little church is only ten minutes from our gates. After getting back, we had supper, and one of the doctors brought some port. B— and I decorated the table and it looked sweet—and we had the British and American flags.

Such a nice Christmas morning—we night nurses got the first flush of it all, and I would not have missed it for worlds. You should have heard the shouts when I turned the lights on at 6 a.m. and they saw their stockings. They entered gloriously into the spirit of it, and the big ward rang with “Merry Christmases!” They were not allowed to open the stockings before seven, but some of them did, and were delighted with the strongly scented soap which each one got! They insisted on using it instead of their ordinary soap. They also got jam, cigarettes, tobacco, Christmas cards from Matron, etc., etc., and each a handsome silver cigarette-case from the Committee, all just alike, with small American and British flags, raised, on the lid. They all feel that they will never forget their Christmas here. At the evening concert in Munsey—where we night nurses arrived in time for the very end of it—they cheered the Americans loudly. Later in the evening, about thirty choir boys came and sang carols to the men in the wards—lovely carols they were.

Our Christmas has been perfect. Every one, from the patients to the maidservants, declared that they never had so happy a one. The men loved it all, and were as jolly as school-boys.

Sister Vera and I received Christmas cards from our friends in Churchill—Brown, Donnaghy, and others.

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. Thanks to both of you, Sunshinebright and Alan Gephardt. We appreciate your thoughtful feedback, and your continued interest and support of our blog….and Mary Dexter, who was, we agree, a great writer and one who we are all fortunate to know about during this centenary of the Great War.

  1. I just took the time to read this article, though I haven’t gotten to the book yet. It is a great article. It is so nice to read letters from individuals from long ago. I do this as a National Park Ranger at James A. Garfield NHS and it is always a thrill to read the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors. Mary Dexter wrote a lovely letter. It so poignantly expressed the appreciation and delight of the nursing staff and the soldier recipients. Thanks so much for posting this.

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