President's Message December 2021

In December 1914, Mary Dexter wrote to her mother about her experiences as a volunteer with the British Red Cross at the American Women’s War Relief Hospital in Paignton, South Devon. Dexter and the other staff of the hospital scrambled to receive another influx of wounded from the Western Front, even as they prepared for the Christmas holiday, made gauze stockings for 200 patients, and tried to remain cheerful in spite of the difficult nature of the work.

In one of Mary’s letters home she writes: “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.”

The work was never ending. “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, 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.”

On Christmas morning, 1914, she notes, “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, fruit, cigarettes, tobacco, Christmas cards from Matron,… and each a handsome silver cigarette-case from the Committee, 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.”

Dexter had arrived in Paignton in September 1914, only days after the war had begun. Less than a month later, she found the work 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…—I bandaged one today—but I am in no hurry. Such terrible wounds, some of them!”  While some might consider the work too difficult or dangerous, Dexter felt differently, observing: “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.”

As we finish this year, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful 2022 that is filled with joy, wonder and a sense of a new beginning.  May you find optimism in the face of adversity. And may you do what you’ve always dreamed of!

All the best,

Melissa Sherrod
President AAHN (2020-2022)
[email protected]

Dexter, M. (1918). In the soldier's service: war experiences of Mary Dexter : England, Belgium, France, 1914-1918. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Photograph: The National Library of Medicine, CollectionsRare Books & JournalsSeriesThe Great War