Padre Dexter: Australians in World War I

Running time
7 min 52 sec
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Anglican minister and former sailor Walter Ernest Dexter served as an Army Chaplain in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during World War I. Padre Dexter was well-known among Australian troops in Egypt, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He offered the men comfort and buried their dead comrades with dignity.


Born in England in 1873, Walter Ernest Dexter began his working life as a sailor before studying to become an Anglican minister. After he was ordained, the church sent Dexter to Australia in 1910, where he served parishioners in Victoria. On 8 September 1914, Dexter – now in his early 40s – was one of 12 chaplains appointed to the AIF. He sailed with the first convoy on HMAT Orvieto. His work began on the ship where clergymen were responsible for burials at sea, holding religious services and church parades, censoring letters and organising social activities. By the time the war ended, more than 400 clergymen from different denominations served with the AIF. Some joined specifically for voyage-only service, but others, like Dexter, enlisted for continuous service. Dexter served with the men as they trained in Egypt and then went on to Gallipoli. On the day of the Gallipoli landings, Padre Dexter wanted to go ashore but was not permitted to do so. Instead, he worked aboard a hospital ship, assisting medical teams to tend casualties from the peninsula. He wrote in his diary, ‘I formed a dressing station in the 'tween decks and also went and dressed the wounded on one part of the deck just where they lay. I wanted to cry and take them in my arms and soothe them, for their nerves were all wrapped, as well as their actual wounds. Instead, I joked with them and made them laugh, and gave them cigarettes to smoke while I pulled the hard bandages from the wounds. The grateful looks on their faces as the wounds were freshly dressed was something to remember.’ Padre Dexter was allowed ashore on Monday 17 May, and was soon offering spiritual guidance to troops on the ground. Like many at Gallipoli, he was forced to improvise and had to remain alert and wary of enemy fire or aircraft. ‘Our church services are held wherever possible: in the trenches, on elbows of roads sheltered from the enemy sight, in little gulleys, in the safe slope of hills, on the edge of cliffs, often within 100 yards of the enemy's firing line.’ Captain Edmund Lind, medical officer to the 5th Battalion, described a Sunday evening church parade. ‘We went to the 6th church parade. It went off without any torbs or shrapnel. A big crowd there. The padre, Captain Dexter, in a black turnout and a helmet, standing on a biscuit box. It sounds strange to be waiting on the edge of a dugout for interruptions during the service. But all the men like it. It bucks us up a lot.’ One of Padre Dexter's main duties on Gallipoli was conducting burial services. He described burying soldiers during the early days at Anzac. ‘Dark nights and a small group gathered around an open grave with heads bowed in sorrow for a comrade taken away. We know the burial service by heart, and all the time the service goes on, bullets are flooding into the ground. They whistle close by my ear and through the group. But the boys are very brave and not one moves from the reverential attitude he has taken up.’ Dexter remembered the August Offensive as one of the most trying periods for burials. ‘The dead lay piled one upon the other in trenches. The sight and smell was overwhelming.’ Even in his sleep, Dexter was haunted by visions of the dead and his responsibility for burying them. Padre Dexter also supervised a team that created burial records and surveyed the Anzac area cemeteries before the evacuation. These valuable records served as a useful starting point for the work of the Graves Registration Unit when they arrived at Gallipoli in 1919. In his months on the peninsula, Padre Dexter spent a good deal of time walking between trenches and dugouts, lifting the spirits of the men with a cheery word. He soon knew his way around the complex trench systems and even offered navigation advice to newly arrived junior officers. Dexter shared many of the challenges and the dangers of life on the peninsula and was quick to pull others to safety when he heard a shell or gunfire. The men respected him too; one writing in a letter home, ‘a finer or braver man never donned a soldier's uniform. The boys all admire him, and he has a kind word for everyone. Would that there were more like him, as men of his stamp put wonderful spirits into us.’ When news came through that Gallipoli would be evacuated, Dexter, like many others, was heartbroken at the thought of leaving the graves of fallen comrades behind. In the campaign's final days, he scattered silver wattle seeds around some of the graves with the intention of leaving a bit of Australia behind. Arriving on Lemnos was undoubtedly a relief for those who had lived under fire for so long. The distribution of Christmas billies was one moment that brought joy to the recently evacuated troops. At Gallipoli, Padre Dexter had collected letters from troops to send her their families if they were killed or taken prisoner. On Lemnos, he took great joy in returning these letters to the men. They had survived, but the war was far from over. In 1916, Dexter sailed with the troops for the Western Front, where he once again demonstrated his dedication to their welfare. During his service, Dexter earned the nickname the ‘Pinching Parson’ for his ability to scrounge comforts for the men. With the support of the Australian Comforts Fund, he established a coffee stall at Bécourt Wood on the Somme. More stalls were created across the Western Front, and the hot drinks they served offered comfort to many a weary soldier. Padre Dexter wrote with pride of the stalls. ‘What it means to these boys. They come out of the trenches worn and hungry, and there is coffee etc and biscuits and cigarettes awaiting them. It makes them feel that someone is looking after them.’ For his zeal and devotion to duty during operations around Ypres in September and October 1917, Dexter was recommended for the Military Cross. The recommendation noted that regardless of personal risk, he visited the frontline troops, ministered to the wounded, attended burial parties and helped to collect wounded. In addition to providing spiritual and material comfort to the men, Dexter was an avid photographer, documenting his experiences extensively. The Australian War Memorial holds a significant collection of his photographs, which provide an insight into the daily life of Australians serving overseas during the war. For his service in the AIF, Padre Dexter was awarded the DSO and Military Cross, as well as being mentioned in dispatches. When the war ended, Dexter assisted with the demobilisation of troops in England before returning to Australia in 1920. He had shared the experience and struggles of war with the soldiers under his ministry and was keen to serve again when the Second World War broke out. By then, he was in his 60s and unable to enlist, but all of his sons served in and survived the war. The Pinching Parson died in August 1950 at home in Melbourne.

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