Alfred Graham Foster was born in Carrieton, South Australia, on 13 June 1887 to William Henry Foster and Jane Foster, 12 years after the couple migrated from Ireland. The sixth of seven children, Foster was raised in Carrieton and found work as a photographer and electrician. He joined the AIF on 29 September 1914 at Morphettville, aged 27, as a private with No. 1 Australian Stationary Hospital (1 ASH).
Foster began training with 1 ASH in October at Adelaide Hospital and a temporary base hospital in Keswick. He and 1 ASH staff were instructed in first aid and anatomy, sanitation, general hospital and camp duties, and the transportation of patients on wagons and stretchers.
By late November Foster had completed his training and left for Melbourne, where he boarded SS Kyarra on 5 December. Following a trip marked by cramped and unhygienic conditions, Kyarra arrived in Alexandria on 13 January 1915. Foster spent the next six weeks in Egypt, where 1 ASH set up hospital camps in Maadi and Ismailia. Illness and sanitation were major concerns during this time, particularly the treatment and containment of measles.
In March, Foster and 1 ASH relocated to Lemnos Island.
Lemnos was to become a major staging and medical base for the Gallipoli campaign, with its central Mudros harbour located less than 100 kilometres from the peninsula. Through determined efforts, 1 ASH established a tent hospital equipped for 200 patients at East Mudros within days of arriving. However, over the following weeks, the limited staff struggled with inadequate water, sanitation and transportation. llnesses such as scarlet fever and mumps also spread among both patients and staff.
In mid-April 1 ASH was ordered to expand to 400 beds, in anticipation of the Gallipoli campaign. After the 25 April landing, casualties poured in for weeks. On 21 May the hospital’s unit war diary reported that ‘271 patients arrived to be taken on without any notice’. Poor living and working conditions also continued. In July correspondence to the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), the officer commanding 1 ASH explained that staff had to construct their own tent poles, use unclean vessels for water, and contend with serious lice infestations among patients. Despite this, the hospital was in fact ordered to expand further to prepare for the August offensive on Gallipoli. Just one day after the attack began, on 7 August, 1,130 patients overcrowded 1 ASH. Bryant recorded, ‘Experiencing great difficulty in feeding … patients, as only have utensils for 700’. The hospital had immediately reached capacity, although managed to maintain accommodation for 1,000 cases. Slowly the wounded lessened in the coming months; however, beds became newly occupied by a flood of sick patients throughout September and October.
Following ten days sick in hospital in October, on 4 November 1915 Foster left Lemnos. He and 1 ASH were moving to the peninsula itself, anticipating significant casualties from the looming harsh winter. The hospital was established at North Beach, and soon received huge numbers of frostbite cases. Most were from Suvla, where in just ten days during early December, 4,243 trench foot and frostbite casualties and 204 deaths from exposure were reported by the MEF Director of Medical Services. Foster’s service on Gallipoli culminated in assisting the December evacuations. For his efforts in the campaign he was Mentioned in Despatches in the London Gazette on 28 January 1916.
After departing Gallipoli in mid-December, Foster and 1 ASH proceeded to Ismailia to support the troops defending the Suez Canal. By the time of the Ottoman attack on the canal in April, the hospital had 400 beds and established a route of evacuation for patients to Cairo by ambulance train. Casualties were relatively minimal, until the second Ottoman advance in mid-July and the battle of Romani on 4–5 August. On 7 August, the Director of Medical Services for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force reported that 200 wounded Australian and British soldiers had entrained for 1 ASH and No. 24 Stationary Hospital in Moascar.
1 ASH left Ismailia in mid-August. The Director of Medical Services reported that ‘[t]he unit … has been highly appreciated for its good work in Egypt’. While most of 1 ASH went on to France, Foster remained in Egypt and spent three weeks with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Mustapha, a reception station conducting large-scale medical inspections on allied troops pending despatch. On 14 September 1916, he embarked for Britain on HMT Warilda.
In late September Foster arrived at the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC) Training Depot at Parkhouse, an AIF camp in the village of Hampshire, before being sent on to No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital (3 AAH) in Dartford. 3 AAH was opened by 1 ASH as a subsidiary unit to receive cases further from the front. Foster arrived on 4 October, just days before the hospital was to open. 3 AAH staff initially struggled with the building and facilities: formerly the British Orchard Hospital for infectious diseases, they had been left in poor condition. However, they made considerable improvements, and by the end of October the hospital held 1,400 patients. After working for several months at Dartford, on 29 January 1917 Foster was promoted to sergeant.
Over the next year, Foster worked between 3 AAH and Parkhouse camp. Parkhouse was both a convalescent depot and a training centre, preparing large numbers of medical reinforcements for the front. Central to these reinforcements was the Field Ambulance, a mobile medical unit that worked on the battlefield. A month before Parkhouse and other associated training camps were established through England, General Neville Howse VC, AIF Director of Medical Services, stated:
all A.M.C. [Army Medical Corps] men in England are to be trained in Field Ambulance work and carry out a course of training in stretcher drill.
Later that year, such training became crucial for Foster. On 1 October 1917 he was transferred to join the Australian Army Medical Corps on the Western Front.
He arrived in Rouelles on 3 October, and within ten days was taken on strength as a stretcher-bearer with the 5th Australian Field Ambulance. Foster’s initiation was severe – he had joined the unit in the final bloody stages of the battle of Passchendaele. By early October, troops had entered into a full-blown battle of attrition, while terrible rain left the trenches a quagmire. As a stretcher-bearer, Foster’s duty was to administer first aid and carry wounded men from the front to medical posts situated towards the rear. It was one of the hardest, most unrelenting and dangerous battlefield roles. Relentless mud and inadequate duckboards impeded movement or sometimes stopped it altogether, and carries often took several hours. Bearers frequently worked continuous shifts of up to 48 hours, constantly exposed to heavy shell-fire and mustard gas attacks. Reflecting on the battle, Private Eric Fairey of the 38th Battalion wrote:
A word for the stretcher-bearers will not be out of place. It was quite a common occurrence for men to sink to their thighs and waists into the soft slimy mud, which drew one down, down, for ever downward like some live thing. To carry a wounded man from the front line … was a terrible undertaking. The distance to be covered was less than a thousand yards, but it took six men four, five, and even six hours to do the trip … The heroic deeds performed at Ypres and Passchendaele have never been excelled!
From mid-October, the 2nd Australian Division relieved the 5th near Broodseinde in a final push northeast towards Passchendaele ridge. Supporting the division, Foster and the 5th Field Ambulance worked alongside the 6th and 7th Field Ambulances to coordinate a westward line of evacuation for wounded.
This began by carrying casualties to Regimental Aid Posts located across the front, a carry generally completed by regimental stretcher-bearers. There, Field Ambulance stretcher-bearers collected and transported wounded to an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) just east of Ypres. The ADS offered basic medical supplies but could be exposed to significant enemy fire. Casualties were therefore moved on to a Main Dressing Station (MDS) located further from the front near Brandhoek. Although the MDS provided some shelter, surgical equipment and a limited holding capacity, cases were sent further west to larger and safer facilities. Serious cases were transferred to Casualty Clearing Stations, and lighter cases to Divisional Rest Stations in the hope of returning to the front. Where possible, casualties would be taken direct to these later stages of the evacuation chain by car, wagon, or rail. When carried on foot, bearers could pause between stations at relay posts.
During Passchendaele’s last days in early November, Foster boldly led a group of bearers out under intense fire to retrieve wounded just east of Ypres, at Bellewaarde Ridge. For these actions he was awarded the Military Medal. The citation read (in part):
On the night of 8 November, 1917, at Bellewaarde Ridge East of Ypres the road and surrounding area was heavily shelled. Sergeant Foster took his bearers to the spot at once and directed the removal of wounded. He remained in the shelled area and thoroughly searched for wounded. Only for the coolness of this Non-commissioned Officer wounded would have been eventually killed by the continuous shelling or not discovered till daybreak.
By 15 November, the devastated Australian troops handed over to the Canadians. Foster and the 5th Field Ambulance moved with the 2nd Australian Division towards Messines. On 15 December they relieved the 11th Field Ambulance at Underhill Farm, an ADS just south of Messines. Although the 2nd Australian Division suffered some cases of frostbite, trench fever, and scabies during this initial period, overall casualties were low – the division’s Assistant Director of Medical Services reported that until 5 January 1918, the maximum number of casualties in one day was only 11.
At the end of January, the 5th Field Ambulance was relieved by the 11th and proceeded back to divisional headquarters at Nieppe. Foster then spent a week at the Australian Corps Gas School before returning in late February. He and his unit remained at an MDS in Pont-d’Achelles, outside Nieppe, in March. During the initial weeks, they rarely received more than ten cases in a day; however, by the end of the month casualties totalled 1,232 – the German Spring Offensive had begun.
In early April Foster and the 5th moved south towards Amiens. Following ten days at an MDS in Vadencourt, on 17 April they moved closer to the front near Albert, setting up an ADS at Franvillers. Supporting the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Australian Divisions until the end of the month, they treated over 200 casualties.
In May the unit moved to an MDS in Querrieu. Their station remained relatively quiet until the 2nd Division’s attack at Morlancourt on 10 June – in just four days, they received over 500 wounded. After two weeks of rest during June, operations intensified again in August with the battle of Amiens.
Occupying an MDS near Villers-Bretonneux, the 5th Field Ambulance sat behind the 2nd Division’s Green Line objective at Lamotte–Warfusée. The attack commenced early on 8 August, and within 24 hours the 5th had received 350 allied casualties, 240 of whom were Australians. The following day they received 929 casualties, including 512 Australians.
The 5th Field Ambulance next moved east along the Somme. On 29 August they established an ADS at Herbécourt. Given the task of devising the line of evacuation for the impending attack at Mont St Quentin, the unit positioned the 6th Field Ambulance at an MDS in Cappy, and the 7th Field Ambulance at a centre to treat gas casualties further west at Bray-sur-Somme. On 31 August the 2nd Division attacked. Evacuations worked efficiently; the division’s Assistant Director of Medical Services reported, ‘Casualties have been very promptly and adequately evacuated to M.D.S.’
After spending the next month around Frise, on 28 September 1918 Foster departed for two weeks’ leave in Paris.
Not long after Foster returned to the front from leave, the Armistice was signed. On 22 November he was granted 75 days’ leave with pay. In March this paid leave was extended until the end of August, accompanied by work and training with Mason Cinema Operating arranged by the Department of Repatriation and Demobilisation. Information about this company is limited, although Foster was perhaps trained as a projectionist due to his background as a photographer and electrician. On 1 November 1919 he finally returned to Australia aboard HJ Nestor, and on 27 December he was officially discharged from the AIF.
After re-settling in South Australia, Foster married Dorothy Cameron Reed at St Paul’s Church in Adelaide on 9 April 1927. The couple remained together, though did not have children. Foster passed away on 18 December 1984 at Masonic Nursing Home in Somerton Park, South Australia. He was 97 years old.
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Alfred Graham Foster
Australian War Memorial, Honours and Awards – Alfred Graham Foster
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 26/70 - No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 26/3 - Director of Medical Services, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 26/4 - Director of Medical Services, Egyptian Expeditionary Force
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 26/19 - Assistant Director of Medical Services, 2nd Australian Division
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 26/48 - 5th Australian Field Ambulance
Butler, AG (ed.) 1930, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol. I, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne
Butler, AG (ed.) 1940, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol. II, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne
1 ASH unit diaries
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Alfred Graham Foster’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; FOSTER A G, 1914-1920