Christmas in Wartime: a formal dinner in cap and apron

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.

Christmas Dinner at Oldway House, many uniformed women sit a a very long candlelit dining table in a marble columned room.


December 27, 1914

Mary Dexter in a nurses uniform.Yesterday—Boxing Day—there was a Christmas dinner in the evening for the whole nursing staff in the marble hall—seventy-one of us. It seemed odd to go to a formal dinner in cap and apron!

You know how undemonstrative the British Tommies are—I made a point of asking a lot of them how they liked their stockings, just to see what they would answer. Their almost universal reply was, “It’s all right, Sister,” which is the highest praise they are capable of giving. No. 20, the boy I told you of, was writing in my book, and I found that he had put only a few conventional lines, dates, etc. I happened to know that he had been sixteen weeks without a bath, until, during the retreat from Mons, he and some others managed to get baths in a horse-trough; also that after wearing one shirt almost the same number of weeks he got a woman’s blouse, which he wore until he was wounded. So I made him put a postscript and write those things in. My book is going to be a treasure, with sketches, and whenever possible, a photograph taken by me of each man along with what he has written. Many nurses have books, but no one will have the photographs but me!

I will keep on trying to get the men’s impressions for you, in driblets. Am so glad you are coming on the 23d—don’t put it off again!

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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