Chaplain Walter Dexter’s story is featured at the National Anzac Centre in Albany, Western Australia, from where he departed by convoy in late-1914. He was the most decorated Australian chaplain of World War I. He did all he could for his “boys”, in life and death, writes Jenny Tabakoff.
Australia’s World War I chaplains were extraordinary: you only have to do the maths. Sixty thousand members of the Australian Imperial Force were killed or died of wounds. That’s a lot of funerals for just 414 “padres”.
“Every soldier knew the funeral service by heart,” says James Dexter, grandson of the Reverend Walter Ernest Dexter, the AIF’s most decorated chaplain.
In addition to conducting burials, often as shells crashed, the AIF’s padres helped soldiers in spiritual and practical ways. They often created altars from biscuit tins.
At Gallipoli, chaplains shared the soldiers’ lives, living in dugouts and dodging bullets. (Walter was wounded six times.) On the Western Front, they handed coffee to shattered soldiers making their way back from the front line.
They cheered up, patched up, comforted and all too often buried their flocks. They wrote moving letters to dead soldiers’ families. Eight padres paid the ultimate price themselves.
Walter sailed from Albany, Western Australia, in November 1914 with the First Convoy of Anzacs. He had been ordained as Anglican minister six years earlier and was 41 when he volunteered for the AIF in September 1914, a month after the outbreak of war.
He’d already had an eventful life. Born in England, he went to sea aged 14, but ran off in India and stowed away to New York. After two years there, Walter became a ship’s boy again, and by 1899 was a master mariner. In the Boer War, he enlisted as a trooper in a British regiment and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Back at sea, Walter again proved his bravery, rescuing people from a shipwreck off Mauritius in 1901. The Royal Humane Society gave him a gallantry medal for that.
Walter married in 1902, but a year later his wife died. The grieving widow felt the pull of religion, and in 1906 he began studying theology in England. In 1910 he moved to his first parish, at Wonthaggi on Victoria’s coalfields. For two years his vicarage was a tent.
After moving to a Melbourne parish, Walter remarried in 1913. Sixteen months later, assigned to the 5th Battalion, he waved goodbye to his wife, Dora, from the deck of the Orvieto. The brief stop in Albany’s vast King George Sound, where the ships of the First Convoy gathered, was the last time he would set foot in Australia for almost six years.
The voyage to Egypt was eventful. HMAS Sydney, a warship accompanying the convoy, had a successful skirmish with the German cruiser Emden. Its captured crew became prisoners on the Orvieto, and Walter became friendly with Captain Karl Von Muller. “He is the kind of man I would like for a first officer,” he wrote.
“I’m not sure what Von Muller would have thought of that,” James says.
Walter conducted shipboard church services, organised entertainments and prepared his men for what lay ahead. One of his sermons was about “faith in the unseen”.
Walter’s popularity with the men grew as they trained in Egypt. “I think he was held in such high regard because he’d led a vigorous life, a life of hardship and action,” James says.
Walter was so good at purloining items to improve life for his “boys” that he became known “the pinching padre”.
“If something was needed at the front line, my grandfather would take it from Headquarters or wherever he thought it wasn’t needed,” James says.
Walter wasn’t allowed to land at Gallipoli on April 25. “I felt awfully upset about it, to think of my boys going into action & me not there,” he wrote. Stuck on a ship, he rolled up his sleeves and helped tend to the waves of wounded.
“He was as good as a doctor, binding and dressing the wounds; some of them would make you sick just to look at, but he kept on working all day and far into the night,” wrote Sergeant-Major Harold Burton.
James describes his grandfather’s faith as “muscular Christianity”, cheering and practical.
When Walter went ashore in mid-May (reportedly the first chaplain to land), a dugout became his home. The church service on May 23 was “beautiful”, he wrote in the diary, but “bullets were whistling over our heads the whole time”.
It was a similar scene on July 3, according to the 5th Battalion’s Edwin Kerby: “The padre was standing on an empty biscuit box… Every now and then a shell from the Turks would whiz away overhead… The whistle and snap of rifle bullets helped to punctuate the padre’s remarks.”
Then a German plane dropped a bomb, killing one man and injuring two others.
Walter, troubled by the random early burials at Gallipoli, began marking graves and compiling lists of the location of cemeteries. He recorded one body as “feet sticking out of water drain by 5th (Field) Company Engineers’ camp”.
Shortly before Gallipoli was evacuated on December 19-20, Walter walked around the cemeteries on a personal mission. Lance-Corporal Richard Bassett, who saw him, wrote: “I looked at him questioningly, and he said: “I am just planting a few wattle seeds. There will be something Australian when we are all gone.”
Walter had soaked the seeds beforehand, to aid their germination. He took away from the peninsula a “Gallipoli cross” grave marker, made of twigs. It’s in the Australian War Memorial, along with Walter’s war diaries.
Walter’s detailed notes about the locations of Gallipoli’s graves and cemeteries were sent to the Defence Department. By the end of the war, most of the original crosses had disappeared but, using Walter’s lists, the authorities confirmed the grave sites by pushing a ramrod into the softer earth.
Walter and most of the AIF moved to the Western Front in 1916. James says his grandfather was shocked at the ferocity of an Australian barrage. “He writes that ‘you have to pity the people who that barrage is falling on’. He can see the enemy as humanity.”
In France and Flanders the chaplains were mostly in the reserve lines, rather than the front-line trenches. Even so, Walter saw the horrors of battles such as Pozieres and Mouquet Farm – and sprang into action.
Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, records: “Chaplain Dexter, with support from the Australian Comforts Fund, established at the corner of Bécourt Wood a coffee stall which henceforth became a cherished institution on the edge of every Australian battlefield.”
Walter continued to put the welfare of his boys first. “He was instrumental in setting up cinemas for the soldiers and things like that,” James says.
He wonders how his grandfather remained cheerful and supportive through the years of fighting. “His workload was immense.”
And all those funerals: “Men were obliterated. That’s what he saw. And he talks about the injured, not just in body but in mind.”
When the fighting ended, Walter went to London to help with the demobilisation. He made in back to Victoria in 1920, with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and a Mention in Despatches.
“He could have had a stellar church career,” says James. “But he made a disastrous decision: he chose to be ‘with the boys’ and took a soldier settlement block.”
Walter wasn’t a good farmer, and the death of a child compounded a condition that today might be diagnosed as PTSD. Perhaps Walter had lived with such intensity during the war that life afterwards was “a bit of a disappointment”, James says.
“He crawled back to the church and they rewarded him with the living at Lara and Little River, tiny places on the road to Geelong.”
Walter remained a beloved figure among ex-soldiers, and would give “lantern show” talks featuring the hundreds of photographs he’d taken during the war. The poet laureate John Masefield gave the first reading of his poem “For the Dead at Gallipoli” at Walter’s church in Lara on Armistice Day.
Walter died in August 1950, but his story lives on in the interactive displays at the acclaimed National Anzac Centre. Grandson James has seen visitors become “quite emotional” as they track Walter’s story: “It is very hard not to get a lump in your throat when you understand what happened there.”
To learn more about the National Anzac Centre visit: nationalanzaccentre.com.au
ANZAC STORIES: Grandson James Dexter tells the remarkable story of his grandfather Walter.
CLICK HERE to view more ANZAC STORIES from the National Anzac Centre.