Walter Ernest Dexter was born in Birkenhead, England, on 31 August 1873. At age 14, he was indentured on the barque Buckingam, and though he left to work in New York after the first voyage, he returned to the high seas a few years later. He became a master mariner in March 1899 and for a time was master of Afghan, which carried Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. He voyaged to thirty-seven world ports, tales of which are documented in his 1938 book Rope-Yarns, Marline-Spikes and Tar.
From February 1900 to January 1901, Dexter served as a mounted trooper in the Boer War. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for courageous actions.
Dexter married Frances Louisa Carroll (née Rohan) in Mauritius on 16 September 1902. Her death one year later greatly affected him, and he dedicated himself to becoming an Anglican Minister. After studying at sea, he enrolled at Durham University in 1906. Two years later, he was ordained and appointed Curate at Walbone, Newcastle upon Tyne. He migrated to Australia in 1910, and worked from a tent in the small coal-mining town of Wonthaggi, Victoria, before transferring to South Melbourne in 1912. He married Dora Stirling Roadknight the following year.
On 1 September 1914, Dexter enlisted with the AIF in Melbourne. He was one of 12 chaplains appointed that month.
On 20 October 1914, Dexter left Melbourne for Albany aboard HMAT Orvieto. Having only married Dora in April the previous year, parting was difficult:
I thank God for the animated scene on the pier when the crowds rushed the barricades. It saved many of us from breaking. I watched Dorrie as far as I could & then turned away & threw myself amongst the men & endeavoured to still my mind. ‘Mizpah’.
Arriving in Albany six days later, Dexter commented:
Albany is a pretty place from the harbour. Red roofed houses nestling amongst green trees lend a picturesqueness to the scene. All around the harbour high hills block out the view, but these hills are intensely pretty with the different coloured shrubs.
Orvieto departed King George Sound on 1 November, leading the First Convoy. Aboard the ship, Dexter held communion and services and kept a detailed diary, which he maintained throughout the war.
Though the trip feels like a pleasure trip … at any moment it may turn to tragedy and one knows that ours would be one of the first ships to go for the demoralisation of the convoy would be complete if the brains of the expedition perished. For on board the ‘Orvieto’ are all the heads of various departments.
At Colombo, Orvieto acquired the prisoners from SMS Emden, defeated by HMAS Sydney on 9 November.
As they journeyed to Suez, Dexter was afforded special opportunities to speak with the prisoners, including Captain von Müller, who spoke fluent English.
I grew to like von Müller very much. As an old Skipper we yarned away and I had more opportunity than anyone else of getting things out of him. He is the kind of man I would like for a chief officer … I hope to meet him later on in England or Germany.
The Orvieto passed through the Suez Canal on 1 December before docking in Alexandria on the morning of 3 December.
During training in Egypt, Dexter was a popular minister and led regular church parades where hymns including ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, and ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul’ resounded across the desert. In early February, following the defense of the Suez Canal, Dexter visited the hospital wards. He observed as training intensified throughout March and April and wrote a passage in his diary in defense of the Australian ‘slouch’.
It is exhilarating to march behind good men and as one marches behind these boys the pride of race swells up and one feels it is good to be there. Every step beats at the same moment, every hand swings to the same time and every body sways as if it were one whole. Head up, eyes straight, shoulders square. The rhythm of the movement entrances one. … It is grand to be alive and have part and lot with such men as these … I guess they will find we are soldiers all right, when the time comes to try us. The men are as hard as nails, and keen as a knife to get to the front.
At the start of the Gallipoli campaign, Dexter was stationed aboard the hospital ships and provided emotional and medical support to hundreds of wounded. His fellow officers held him in high regard. Captain Benjafield, a medical officer, wrote:
Captain Dexter, chaplain to the 2nd Brigade … came aboard, and, throwing off his coat, waded in, and has helped us with our work with never a murmur or a complaint of any kind. He has been quite as good as a third doctor to us, and I feel more than grateful to him. There's no question he is one of the very best, and proves his Christianity by deeds - as well as words.
Dexter’s support remained steadfast through long hours and grim circumstances, and the courage and camaraderie he witnessed among the men greatly moved him.
One’s heart had to be very stout ... Shattered limbs, bullets in head, through the body and in every conceivable place, and yet with a smile they will say to me, ‘All right, doctor, tend this poor fellow first,’ and all the time they are in pain, with their bandages solid with stale blood … I wanted to bubble and cry and take them in my arms and soothe them, for their nerves were all racked, 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.
On 17 May, Dexter went ashore and was initially attached to the 5th Battalion (later the entire 2nd Brigade). He held services as opportunity allowed, ‘in trenches, on elbows of roads sheltered from the enemies’ sight, in little gullies … on the edge of cliffs, often within 100 yards of the enemy’s firing line’. Often, bullets whistled overhead. He shared the hardships and the risks of life on Gallipoli and was frequently in the danger zone. On being hit for the sixth time, he wrote:
I got a shrapnel bullet on my left elbow. I sat … to get over the pain and then went to my own camp and dressed it there. I don’t want my name to go down as wounded.
On 24 May, Dexter described the burial armistice conducted during a nine-hour ceasefire:
Raining and things generally miserable. At 7.30 am armistice began for the purpose of burying the dead. The smell is something awful. Some of the bodies have been there lying in the heat of the sun for 4 weeks … The ground was simply covered with dead … Hundreds of men were engaged in moving them and the work continued without intermission all day … The armistice continued till 4.00 pm and the first shot was fired about 4.30 pm. It seems so strange, the quietness in the valley, no explosions and the men getting on the skyline and looking at the Turks through their glasses.
As the Gallipoli campaign progressed, Dexter sought to redress the rather haphazard nature of early burials and recording of graves. In June, he noted in his diary, 'many of our graves are nameless and hundreds of those posted as missing are dead and buried by the Turks'. Understanding the importance of this work, Dexter supervised surveyors and work parties in the cemeteries as they cleaned, straightened and recorded. He sent maps and documentation to the War Office to guide future custodians. In later months, he searched for isolated graves in the gullies and took their bearings, reflecting:
Now isolated burials are forbidden. … Burial is done by day, where three months ago the grave was not started till dusk. My mind runs over those buried in the early days. 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 thudding 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 had taken up.
One of the last to leave the peninsula, Dexter spent his final days walking through the gullies and cemeteries scattering silver wattle seed. He wrote:
If we have to leave here I intend that a bit of Australia shall be here. I soaked the seed for about 20 hours and they seem to be well and thriving.
He departed for Egypt on Saturday 18 December.
Dexter was dedicated to the troops, who he often referred to as ‘his boys’. Aside from a week tending the wounded on Mudros, he never left the peninsula, even electing to remain when the 5th Battalion was withdrawn for a short rest in September. During his time on Gallipoli he distinguished himself through his bravery and practicality, as well as his spirituality, and on 11 January 1916 was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
After several months in Egypt, Dexter departed for France where, as Senior Anglican Chaplain, he divided his time between AIF headquarters and service in the field. The Western Front was quite different from Gallipoli and officers no longer lived in such close proximity to the front line. Upon arriving at headquarters in La Motte on 30 April, Dexter was reunited with some of his old comrades, including Bean, and wrote:
My room is on the top floor and the place is lit by electric light generated by a portable dynamo on a motor lorry. The firing line is 12 or 15 miles from here but one can occasionally hear the sound of the guns.
The increased role of artillery was also a notable change, and formed one of Dexter’s earliest impressions:
We stood in the road with the guns firing over us, when all of a sudden the real bombardment started on our right from 9 to 9.30 pm. It is incredible. The guns were going off like half a dozen machine guns. Even where we were a certain feeling of horror and awe came upon us when we realised that all this was falling upon soldiers, even though they were enemies. It was terrific and monstrous.
Dexter spent the subsequent months around Bécourt, supporting the troops through difficult battles including Pozières and Mouquet Farm. In addition to administrative duties, church parades and burial services, Dexter organised entertainments such as cinema and music, and his way of acquiring and distributing items earned him the affectionate nickname, ‘the Pinching Parson’. This reputation made its way back to Australia, where the Evening News reported:
The major has a ‘taking way’ of his own. When the soldiers are in need of comforts this brave padre does not spend his time in discussing etiquette, but simply, as the soldiers say, ‘pinches’ what is required … Letters from scores of soldiers testify that Major Dexter is held in the highest esteem by them, as he is in his turn never tired of relating the heroism of Australians on the battle-field.
Dexter worked hard to soften the harsh reality of war and maintained an outwardly jovial rapport with the men.
In July, Dexter established the first coffee stall at Bécourt Wood with the support of the Australian Comforts Fund. These became a much loved institution across the Australian lines, where exhausted troops received biscuits and soup as well as hot coffee and cocoa served in jam tins with the lids bent back for handles. Lieutenant D. N. Rentoul wrote,
The surroundings are indescribably horrible. The human debris, partly from the dressing station, the torn and battered earth, the noise and confusion, the dust and danger could not be imagined, but in the midst of all this the A.C.F. coffee-stalls and their enthusiastic supporter, Chaplain Dexter, pushed their way. As many as 1,000 men were served in one night. The boys will never forget this provision for their needs by the Australian Comforts Fund.
In November, Dexter transferred to AIF Headquarters in London, where he spent several months before returning to France in February 1917. There, he was attached to the 1st Division and continued his work through the persistent cold weather. On a visit to the 3rd Brigade he wrote,
I measured the ice in one of the shell holes and found it about 12 inches thick. The [10th and 12th] Div. Baths were not working, everything was frozen. ... We decided upon forming a Div. Canteen ... and also a Div. Cinema Hall. No coal for 4 days yet. The cold is bitter but the men are healthy. Those who work up near the front line have their helmets painted white to render themselves less conspicuous. The well-known woods here are a curious sight. There are no trees left and the whole ground is pitted with shell holes.
After moving north to Belgium, he worked tirelessly throughout the third battle of Ypres.
Listen to Dexter’s account of serving coffee under shell fire at the Comforts Fund stall at Westhoek Ridge, Ypres.
Dexter’s energy, resourcefulness and dedication to the troops persisted through trying conditions. At times he tended the wounded, and the following excerpt of 20 September records his efforts during the battle of Menin Road:
We had no sleep. Cases were coming through continually … [t]here were guns all around us. The nearest was about 50 yards away, shooting straight over our head. The Aid Post is right in front of all the guns and our outlook is very dreary. Just a scene of desolation. Shell holes and stumps of trees. … I was expecting a terrific Barrage far surpassing Pozières, but I did not think it did this. Anyhow it was fearful. We had little time to watch it, for the wounded were coming in very rapidly, but every time the gun facing our dugout fired, it nearly blew in our back teeth. … The number of wounded gradually gained upon us, until we had 50 or 60 stretcher cases lying on the road. We managed to get the use of the light railway and the motor wagons just ferried the wounded from us to the … Adv. Dressing Station. Only those who were seriously wounded, or bleeding, we dressed, and about 11 pm we were at last cleared of stretcher cases.
Three days later he wrote:
I had a bath and a shave. The caked blood was very hard to get off. I had a couple of hours’ sleep, but my eyes felt as if I had cinders in them.
Dexter’s actions on the battlefields and devotion to the troops’ welfare were recognised and he was awarded the Military Cross, making him the most decorated chaplain in the AIF. The citation read:
For zeal and devotion to duty during the operations east of Ypres between 22nd September and 12th October, 1917. Regardless of personal risk he visited the front line troops, ministered to the wounded, attended burial parties and helped to collect wounded – also for his general good service and consistently good influence with the troops.
In 1918, after time in England on duty, Dexter returned to France and was based at 1st Division Headquarters. On 8 September, he was promoted to honorary chaplain 2nd class. His diary reveals that in August and September he was sitting for a portrait with official war artist James Quinn and beginning to index his photographs. He remained in the field in France until the war ended.
After serving as a member of the demobilisation staff in London, Dexter left for Australia on 6 March 1920.
In Egypt, he had written, ‘How can I go back to Parish work after all this amongst men?’ Upon returning home, the sentiment remained. He took a soldier-settler’s block at Kilsyth with his wife, Dora, and four sons. 1921 was a disastrous year for the family: though blessed with the arrival of Barrie, the farm failed to thrive and their son, John, almost three, died. Twin Stephen was regarded as a carrier for diphtheria and sent to live with Dora’s sister. Dexter abandoned the farm and returned to the church in 1924, successively serving the Victorian parishes of Romsey, Lara and West Footscray before retiring in 1947. He and Dora expanded their family with another son Paul in 1924 and daughter Geraldine in 1927.
In the years shortly after his return to Australia, Dexter lectured for the National War Memorials Fund and partnered with William Joynt to arrange an exhibition of war photographs. His love of photography had endured throughout the war and continued in his later years. After returning to parish work, he remained highly involved in pastoral duties and civic affairs and was the vicar at Geelong Grammar, where his sons attended school.
Dexter retained his affinity with the sea, publishing a book in 1938 of his adventures as a young man. He was also involved with the Shiplovers Society of Victoria, as president of the Geelong branch.
Dexter died at home on 31 August 1950, his 77th birthday, suffering from pulmonary oedema as a result of gas exposure during the war.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Dexter, Walter Ernest (1873–1950)
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Walter Ernest Dexter
Australian War Memorial, Honours and Awards – Walter Ernest Dexter
Australian War Memorial, Dexter, Walter Ernest DSO, MC, DCM (Senior Chaplain, b. 1873 d. 1950), Private Record, Item PR00248
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18. Vol. I: The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. II: The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915 to the Evacuation, 11th Edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. III: The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, 12th Edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Daily Herald, Adelaide, ‘Serving Coffee Under Shell Fire Hundreds of Lives Saved’, p 2, 13 May 1918; accessed via National Library of Australia, Trove
Evening News, Sydney, ‘The “Pinching” Parson: Brave Soldier and Soldiers’ Friend’, p 6, 20 February 1918; accessed via National Library of Australia, Trove
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Walter Ernest Dexter’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; DEXTER W E, 1914-1920
Rochester Express, Melbourne, ’Dealing With Wounded Rush on Hospital Ship Chaplain Takes off his Coat’, p 9, 9 July 1915; accessed via National Library of Australia, Trove
The Daily News, Perth, ‘Within Shell-Fire: Australian Coffee-Stalls’, p 9, 2 December 1916; accessed via National Library of Australia, Trove