Remembering Local Serviceman – Sergeant James McDonald

James McDonald left the Territory to fight in the Great War in March 1915. He was recognised twice for his conduct on the field of battle, fighting in Gallipoli and the Western Front. He returned to Katherine after the war and helped to build the railway bridge there. He also served in Darwin during World War II and was caretaker of the Darwin RSL from 1946. Find out more about this local hero.

James Michael McDonald, a carpenter, embarked from Darwin on the Taiyuan on 4 March 1915 to enlist in Townsville. Born in Gladesville Sydney, James was seeking his fortune in the Territory after the death of his parents James and Kate McDonald when he was 11.

Also aboard the Taiyuan from the NT were Neil Boyle, JT Johnson, Lucian Wetherby, RW Stirling, Percy Reaby, Charles Dickason, G Classen, and brothers Jeremiah and J Beattie.

James enlisted on 11 March 1915, in Queensland, and was posted into the Australian Army’s 9th Infantry Battalion, giving his age as 25 years.

James served in both Gallipoli and France with distinction, being awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and a Mention in Despatches, and was eventually promoted to Sergeant.

The battalion embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT Karoola on 12 June 1915. The 9th was soon heavily involved in defending the front line of the Gallipoli beachhead. It stayed until the evacuation in December 1915.

In March 1916 the battalion sailed for the Western Front. The 9th’s first major action in France was at Pozières in the Somme valley. They attacked on the extreme right of the line and it was during this action that the battalion’s only Victoria Cross was won by Private John Leak, with the bayonet.

Later the 9th fought at Ypres, in Belgium, before returning to the Somme for winter. In 1917 they moved back to Belgium for the advance to the Hindenburg Line.

James was a frequent correspondent to the NT Times and Gazette during the war. On 21 June 1917 he had a letter published which read in part:

 A few days ago I had the pleasure of viewing an old front line of Fritz’s [Germany], and after looking at it, I don’t wonder that Fritz go out of it. The ground on both sides is simply torn to pieces, and one would think a lot Chinese fossickers had been at work. I don’t think life was possible in that trench under our fire.

I don’t think this scrap will last much longer, but of course one can never tell what is going to happen at this game. Still, we have old Fritz on the run now, and he’ll not get any peace until he puts his hand up. Well, I think I will close now. There is a bit of “Strife" on outside and I want to have a “look see." With kindest regards to all N.T. friends.

 In March and April 1918 the 9th Battalion helped stop the German spring offensive. The 9th participated in the great Allied “Push” of 1918 and fought near Amiens in August. The advance by British and Empire troops was the greatest success in a single day on the Western Front, one that German General Erich Ludendorff described as “the black day of the German Army in this war”.

James McDonald returned to Australia 21 March 1919 on the Kildonian Castle. After the war he was involved in the construction of the Katherine railway bridge. He was President of the Returned Services League for a year, and served in WWII within Australia in Darwin in the Royal Australian Army Service Corps, which had responsibility for the armed forces functions of transport, air dispatch and postal functions.

James became a lighthouse keeper at Cape Don for six months, and eventually was the caretaker of the RSL in Darwin from 1946.  He died on 21 November 1951 at Pine Creek and is buried in Katherine.


Written by Dr Tom Lewis, Lead Historian