The Diggers Friend

Sadie MacDonald, WW1

The Diggers’ Friend: Sadie [Sarah] Charlotte Macdonald (1875-1970)

A member of the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War I, Sadie MacDonald MBE, ARRC, FNM, JP, was known affectionately by many Queensland returned soldiers as ‘The Diggers’ Friend’. She had a life-long association with the military and with the profession of nursing in Queensland.

Guest Bloggers Marg Doherty (MPhil Candidate UNE) and Madonna Grehan (JOL Fellow SLQ) introduce a decorated WWI nurse from the Rockhampton region.

Sadie was born at Gracemere, one of six daughters to grazier Donald MacDonald, and his wife Ann (née Frazer).  As did her five sisters, Sadie became a nurse, training for five years at Gladstone Hospital. She served as matron at Gladstone Hospital from 1904 to 1907 and then nursed at private homes in Brisbane and Melbourne.

From September 1910 Sadie was Matron at the Torres Strait General and Military Base Hospital on Thursday Island where she did what she called ‘war work’. In mid-1915, her sister, Flora, left Australia for war service in Europe. Sadie followed, embarking on RMS Morea for Suez in August that year.

1st Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis

1st Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis Image: AWM H02266

Initially attached to 1st Australian General Hospital [AGH] at Heliopolis, after eight months Sadie went on to France. She served at British and Australian Hospitals throughout the war as well as Australian and British Casualty Clearing Stations.

In June 1918 she was awarded a Royal Red Cross 2nd Class, in recognition of conspicuous service with the armies of France and Flanders. Sadie was also one of the many Australians affected by influenza which put her in hospital for two weeks in early 1919. On the voyage home to Australia in July 1919, Sadie was in charge of the nursing staff aboard the Bremen.

Sadie Charlotte Macdonald

“Nurse Army” SLQ Centaur House Records

Back in Australia, Sadie spent her life working for the benefit of returned servicemen and women. She was active in the Returned Nurses Club and was Matron of the Ardoyne Rest Home in Corinda, Brisbane from 1920, caring for ex-servicemen with advanced tuberculosis. Later, she was Matron at the Red Cross Convalescent Hospital at Chelmer.

In 1948, aged 73, Sadie joined the Centaur Memorial Fund’s quest to establish a recreational and educational centre for the nursing profession. Sponsored by the Army in the “Queen of the Nurses’ Quest” Sadie and her committee raised £4000 in ten months. This money went towards the purchase of Centaur House in Queen Street.

Queen of the Nurses Quest

‘Queen of the Nurses Quest’ winners: Sister Catherine Evan, Sister Peggy Taylor, Matron Sadie Macdonald

Sadie gifted her cash prize of £400 to the Fund. In 1957, it paid for a sandstone bas relief sculpture by Leonard Shillam. The relief depicted the Centaur, the ship’s Matron, a Medical Officer, a Field Ambulance Officer and a Merchant Seaman. Initially installed at Centaur House, the relief later was moved to the Shrine of Remembrance.

2/3 AHS Centaur Shrine of Memories Memorial (Brisbane)

Leonard Shillam, Sandstone Bas Relief 1957, image by Matt Smith, QLD War Memorial Register

Sadie was a fierce defender of Australians who donned the King’s uniform in both World Wars. One Sunday morning in Brisbane in the early hours, reportedly, Sadie appeared at the City Watch-house, wearing a dressing gown over her night attire, her white hair tightly braided. Sadie confronted the police, demanding that they release one of her boys, a veteran of Tobruk, who was being held as drunk and disorderly. With the veteran safely released into her care, Sadie was heard to remark ‘How dare they? He had every right to get drunk!’

Matron Sadie MacDonald with her Florence Nightingale medal

Matron Sadie MacDonald with her Florence Nightingale medal. Image: SLQ 107724

In 1951, Sadie was awarded the Returned Servicemen’s League’s Gold Life Membership Badge, the highest honour which can be bestowed on a member and, possibly, the first given to a woman in QLD. For outstanding dedication to nursing, in 1953, Sadie was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal.

Further reading:

Marg Powell  |  QANZAC 100 Content Technician  State Library of Queensland