The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Trooper (Later Senior Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) DSO, MC, DCM, MID) Walter Dexter

Trooper (later Senior Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel)) Walter Ernest Dexter, DSO, MC, DCM, MID (1873-1950)

Walter Ernest Dexter (1873-1950), Boer War trooper master mariner, Anglican minister and military chaplain, was born on 31 August 1873 at Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, youngest son of Thomas Dexter, shipwright, and his wife Martha, née Grundy. Educated at St Catherine's School, Higher Tranmere, he was indentured at 14 for five years at wages of 'nothing plus twelve shillings for washing' on the barque Buckingham. At the end of his first voyage he ran away in Calcutta, stowed away to New York where he worked in a biscuit factory and as a lift attendant, and returned to the sea in 1890 aboard the Pythomene of which his eldest brother was master.

Records survive of thirty-seven voyages to world ports - including Melbourne in 1893 - in sail and steam from 1888 to 1900, as Dexter progressed from 'boy', through lamp-trimmer, able seaman, and the grades of mate. In March 1899 he passed the examination for his master's certificate. By February 1900 he was first mate of the Akbar based at Mauritius.

The Viceroy of India was not amenable to Indian units being deployed to South Africa, however he did permit the formation of a European volunteer mounted infantry unit, Lumsden's Horse (sometimes referred to as the Indian Mounted Regiment). This unit, of two companies and a machine gun section, was based on tea planters and mercantile, marine personnel from Calcutta. Walter Dexter was a Trooper in 4 section of B Company. The founder and commander was Lieutenant-Colonel DM Lumsden who was actually in Melbourne when the war broke out and began organising unit from Melbourne.

Lumsden's force deployed to South Africa in March 1900. Private Dexter was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) at the end of the unit's tour of duty. No citation exists for the award of this decoration. The commanding officer's general citation for the six DCM's to the unit is as follows:

"The men I have recommended to this decoration behaved splendidly throughout the campaign, and did many individual plucky actions. They were the pick of my scouts and were always selected when any difficult or dangerous duty had to be performed."

Two incidents however must have played a significant part; Lumsden's Horse was in the vanguard of the advance on Elandsfontein, a Boer railway centre. Lumsden as the advance guard commander had only five companies at his disposal. The Boers were using Telegraph wires to report British actions and perhaps direct artillery fire. Private Dexter rode forward under heavy fire, climbed a telegraph pole and cut the communication wires. Other authorities have cited at the action at Karee when a party Lumsden's Horse were cut off and had to fight their way out, suffering 50% casualties.

He was awarded the Queens South Africa Medal with three clasps

After discharge from his Boer War service he returned to the sea and was given an award from the Royal Humane Society for gallantry at the wreck of the Taher off Mauritius in March 1901. He became master of the Afghan carrying Moslem pilgrims-whose piety impressed him-to Mecca, then traded in the off-season. On 16 September 1902 in Mauritius he married Frances Louisa Carroll, née Rohan, who died one year later. He joined the Freemasons and began also to feel 'a driving force … certainly not myself'. After studying at sea (Latin, Greek, Hebrew), he entered Durham University in 1906 with the intention of joining the Anglican ministry. Graduating M.A. and L.Th. in 1908, he was ordained and appointed curate at Walbone, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 1910 when he was sent to the new coal-mining town of Wonthaggi in Victoria. For two years his tent was his vicarage before he was transferred to South Melbourne. On 8 April 1913 he married Dora Stirling Roadknight at Christ Church, Ormond.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on the outbreak of World War I, Dexter was one of twelve chaplains whose appointments dated from 8 September 1914. His parishioners of St Barnabas South Melbourne presented him with a travelling communion kit. He sailed with the first convoy and served in Egypt and on the Suez Canal; he then tended the Anzac wounded on a hospital ship and joined the troops on Gallipoli. First with the 5th Battalion, then the 2nd Brigade, and finally as an acting senior chaplain, he shared the lives and dangers of the men, helping them practically and spiritually, and using effectively his long experience of acquiring things-as a piece of A.I.F. doggerel 'The pinching padre' attests. 'He was as good as a doctor', wrote a sergeant. Dexter performed minor medical tasks and was known to have extracted teeth on at least one occasion. The photo shows him clowning in France, though by this point his dental services were no longer needed.

He recorded his feelings about the burials in his diary 10 August 1915:

"In the Lone Pine the moving of the dead goes steadily on. All hope of getting them out for burial is given up and they are being dragged into saps and recesses, which will be filled up. The bottom of the trench is fairly clear, you have not to stand on any as you walk along and the bottom of the trench is not springy, nor do gurgling sounds come from under your feet as you walk on something soft. The men are feeling worn out but are sticking it like Britons. The stench you get used to after a bit unless a body is moved. In all this the men eat, drink and try to sleep. Smoking is their salvation and a drop of rum works wonders … Had a funeral at 6 p.m. One is obsessed with dead men and burials and I am beginning to dream of them. I suppose it is because I am so tired. "

He had taken a close interest in the burial sites at Gallipoli and had organised work parties to build a low rock wall around part of the cemetery at Shrapnel Valley to protect it from floods. He also obtained paint and other materials to ensure the neat appearance of the graves. He was entrusted with the task of carefully surveying the cemeteries before leaving Gallipoli on 17 December 1915. Dexter supervised the surveyors who made plans of the major cemeteries, Shrapnel Valley, Ari Burnu, the Beach, Brown's Dip, and Shell Green. Some of the smaller cemeteries were also surveyed, such as at Plugge's Plateau and Victoria Gully. When it was decided to evacuate ANZAC and Suvla in December 1915, they did not know what would happen to the graves. Before the evacuation, Dexter and his team completed the maintenance and surveying of the cemeteries. Dexter kept the burial records up to date and took the bearings of the isolated graves so that accurate and useful records would exist should they return to Gallipoli. He also left behind a memento of Australia:

"I went up the gullies and through the cemeteries, scattering silver wattle seed. 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 was one of two chaplains awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was also mentioned in despatches (MID) in early 1916.

After a brief stay in Egypt and Sinai, he went to France in April 1916. From Pozières in July to the A.I.F.'s battles in August 1918, with a short period at A.I.F. Headquarters in London, he tended the troops' welfare as a senior chaplain and as a compassionate 'handyman'. One example is given by the official war historian:

'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'.

In 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross, becoming the most decorated chaplain in the A.I.F.

Returning to Melbourne in 1920 after serving on the demobilization staff in London, he had doubts about resuming parish work 'after all this amongst men', and tried a soldier-settler's block at Kilsyth. The venture failed and he returned to the Church: at Romsey parish in 1924-27, Lara in 1927-40, and West Footscray in 1940-47. Pastoral duties, civic affairs, education (Dip. Ed., Melbourne), teaching, writing and war commemoration services occupied his time. At the Lara church Armistice Day service in November 1934 the poet laureate John Masefield read for the first time his poem 'For the dead at Gallipoli'. Masefield also assisted towards the publication in 1938 of Dexter's sea-book 'Rope-Yarns, Marline-Spikes and Tar'.

He died on 31 August 1950 at his East Malvern home, survived by his wife, five sons (all of whom served in World War II) and one daughter. 'The press has told us of his amazing career, his distinctions, his activities and his varied ministry', wrote a wartime colleague, then Archbishop of Melbourne; 'he was a man of great gifts'.

by David Dexter 'Dexter, Walter Ernest (1873-1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981
With additions and editing by David Deasey 2013


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