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Hubert John Foster (1855–1919)

by Warren Perry

This article was published:

Hubert John Foster (1855-1919), army officer, was born on 4 October 1855 at Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England, son of John Nathaniel Foster, coal and wine merchant, and his wife Frances Mary, née Wedd. Educated at Harrow, he entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1873 and on graduating two years later gained the academy's most coveted awards, the sword of honour for 'exemplary conduct' and the Pollock prize for 'the most distinguished cadet of the season'. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in January 1875 and joined the school of military engineering at Chatham for two years technical training.

Foster was then posted to the 31st Company, R.E., which was sent to Cyprus when a British force occupied the island in 1878. He served in the Egyptian War of 1882 with the Telegraph Troop, R.E., and took part in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September and the occupation of Cairo. Next year he qualified for admission to the staff college at Camberley, graduating in December 1885. Promoted captain in January 1886, he served from November 1886 to June 1890 as brigade major, R.E., on the staff of the commander of the Land Forces in Ireland. His next posting was to the War Office, London, where he worked in the military intelligence division in 1890-95; in September 1894 he became a major.

Later Foster went to Canada where, from August 1898 to April 1901, he was quartermaster general of the Canadian military forces. In this post he was directly concerned with the preparation and movement of Canadian troops to South Africa where war began in October 1899. In April 1901 he resumed duty with the British Army, was posted to the district of Guernsey and Alderney in August as commanding royal engineer and in October was promoted lieutenant-colonel. However, he soon returned to extra-regimental duties and in 1903-06 held the dual appointment of British military attaché in Washington and Mexico City. He married Mary Agatha Gough, née Tobin, at the British consulate, Venice, Italy, on 16 January 1904. In January 1906 he returned to the War Office—which had been reorganized since his earlier posting there, with military intelligence becoming a function of the War Office general staff.

That year Foster's career was changed radically when he was offered and accepted the newly created appointment of director of military science at the University of Sydney; he was initially appointed for three years from September 1906. The programme which he organized and directed was a three-year diploma course and began in March 1907. In an address to officers in April Foster said he did not propose 'to give instruction in the details of the military profession. The scope of the course was wider and more suited to the university spirit'. The War Office had placed Foster on half-pay in October 1906; earlier, in October 1904, he had become a brevet colonel and in December 1907 a substantive colonel. On 4 October 1912 he was placed on the British Army's retired list.

When World War I began Foster was almost 59. The war reduced attendances in his department and in 1915 he had no students. For the previous nine years he had lectured at the university and in addition had conducted special courses of instruction each year for permanent and militia officers of the Australian Military Forces, many of whom held senior commands and staff appointments during the war. The importance of all his instructional work can only be fully appreciated if it be recognized that, when Foster assumed duty in 1906, Australia had neither a military college for the training of cadets nor a staff college for the post-graduate training of officers. Apart from teaching he contributed to journals and newspapers on military subjects and in 1911-15 published four books and pamphlets: Organization: How Armies are Formed for War (London, 1911), Staff Work: Guide to Command and General Staff Duties with Small Forces of all Arms in the Field (London, 1912), War and the Empire: The Principles of Imperial Defence (London, 1914), and The War in Europe: A Sketch of the Main Operations up to August 1915 (Melbourne, 1915).

From January 1916 to September 1917 Foster was chief of the Australian general staff; he had become a temporary brigadier general in the A.M.F. in March 1916. From October 1917 to October 1918 he was director of military art at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, but the severe winter climate affected his health and led to his resignation. He was placed on the retired list, A.M.F., as an honorary brigadier general on 19 October 1918. He died on 21 March 1919 at Carlaminda, near Cooma, New South Wales, and was buried in Cooma cemetery with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife and their son, (Sir) John Galway Foster, who later became a member of the British House of Commons.

Foster's work at the University of Sydney was highly praised by the chancellor, Sir Normand MacLaurin, and by Lieutenant-General Sir James McCay and General Sir John Monash. Likewise his work as chief of the general staff had met the exacting demands of his minister, (Sir) George Pearce. Major General Robert Williams said of Foster as C.G.S. that his 'services were of unusual value, but little known outside the Defence Department' and that 'to wide knowledge, long experience, and assiduous training were added unwearying patience and a gentleman's charm of manner'.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Military College of Australia Journal, Dec 1918
  • Royal Engineers Journal, May 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), Nov 1937
  • United Service Institute (New South Wales) Journal, July 1954
  • Call (Perth), May 1907
  • Manaro Mercury, 24 Mar 1919
  • University of Sydney Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Foster, Hubert John (1855–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 October, 1855
Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England


21 March, 1919 (aged 63)
Carlaminda, New South Wales, Australia

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