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Foster, William James (1881–1927)

by H. J. Coates

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William James Foster (1881-1927), soldier, was born on 8 December 1881 at Warwick, Queensland, son of Henry Lamb Foster, an English-born civil servant, and his Irish-born wife Ellen Frances, née Ahern. After qualifying as a teacher he taught for several years at Warwick. He began his military career as lieutenant and adjutant of the 3rd Queensland Battalion, Commonwealth Cadet Corps, in July 1906 but resigned this appointment in November 1907 and was immediately commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 14th Light Horse Regiment (militia). His aspirations, however, were for a regular army commission and he was appointed a lieutenant on the Administrative and Instructional (permanent) Staff, Australian Military Forces, on 1 July 1910 and allotted to New South Wales.

Foster's progress in the next few years was steady but unspectacular. He was promoted temporary captain on 1 February 1912 and next October went to New Zealand on exchange duty; while there he was appointed brigade major, 4th Brigade (Newcastle). When World War I broke out he joined the Australian Imperial Force as a captain and aide-de-camp (to Major General (Sir) William Bridges) and camp commandant, 1st Division. He sailed for Egypt in October 1914.

During training in Egypt his daring horsemanship almost certainly saved his divisional commander from serious injury. While returning from a training exercise, Bridges's horse caught its foot in a tram rail, stumbled, and might have bolted with the general out of the saddle and his foot still caught in the stirrup, when Foster, who was riding behind him at a canter, leapt off and had the reins in his hand before the horse had regained its feet. This incident, with its evidence of competence and cool resourcefulness, was to epitomize Foster's subsequent conduct in trying conditions, frequently under fire, during the remainder of the war.

As aide-de-camp to Bridges on Gallipoli, Foster was wounded in action on 13 May 1915, not long before Bridges himself was fatally wounded. After recuperating, Foster was appointed brigade major of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade commanded by Colonel (Sir) Granville Ryrie. The personalities and attributes of the two men complemented each other and, in the words of the official war historian, 'between them, they made of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade one of the most trusted corps on Gallipoli'. Foster was wounded a second time on 13 October.

Like most of his contemporaries in the permanent forces, Foster's appointments—except for a short time in 1919 when he commanded a column during the Egyptian rebellion—were exclusively on the staff. After Gallipoli, he became successively general staff officer of the Anzac Mounted Division in Egypt, of the 1st Yeomanry Mounted Division, and of the 4th Cavalry Division, before becoming G.S.O.1, 1st Australian Mounted Division, immediately after the Armistice. As G.S.O.1 of the 4th Cavalry Division, his acute reading of the situation greatly assisted his commander to forestall a Turkish rearguard attempt to block the pass at Mus Mus. In the circumstances it would have blunted, and might have halted, the brilliant night move of the cavalry to debouch onto the Esdraelon plain at Megiddo after General Sir Edmund Allenby's infantry had broken the Turko-German forces at the battle of Sharon. For his services and personal courage during the war, from which he emerged with the reputation of a brilliant young staff officer, Foster was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Order of the Nile, was appointed C.B. and C.M.G. and was four times mentioned in dispatches.

By November 1918 he was a major on the Administrative and Instructional Staff, A.M.F. He elected to remain in the permanent army, soon to be reduced to a nucleus force. On 8 October 1919, at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, he married Margaret Ann Woods, a nurse who had served with the A.I.F. in Egypt and England and had been awarded the Royal Red Cross; she died in childbirth in 1920. That year Foster attended the staff college, Camberley, and later went on to hold a series of increasingly important staff appointments including director of military operations and training (1925), and temporarily, 2nd chief of the general staff, a post created in 1924. He was conscious that, as a professional soldier, his staff experience needed to be broadened by experience in command. To advance this he was chosen in 1926 to command a brigade in the British Army, an unprecedented appointment. He commanded the 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot from early 1927 until his untimely death from chronic nephritis on 15 November 1927 in London. He was buried in Tidworth cemetery with full military honours. He was survived by a son.

Had he lived, there was every likelihood that Colonel Foster would have served the Australian Army in positions of great responsibility. General G. Barrow, under whom he had been G.S.O.1 in the 4th Cavalry Division, said of him that 'there never was a better staff officer of a mounted division than Foster … He was absolutely reliable, loyal and self-effacing'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • G. McMunn and C. Falls, Military Operations: Egypt and Palestine, vol 2, part 2 (Lond, 1930)
  • London Gazette, 2 May, 11 July, 1 Dec 1916, 12 Jan, 11 Apr 1918, 3, 5, June, 26 Nov 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Apr 1918, 25 Oct 1926, 17, 18 Nov, 24 Dec 1927
  • Queenslander, 8 Jan 1921, 24 Nov 1927
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 17 Nov 1927, p 16
  • Australian Defence Department, Military Board, Proceedings, 1926-27.

Citation details

H. J. Coates, 'Foster, William James (1881–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-william-james-6221/text10703, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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