FOSTER, GILBERT LAFAYETTE (La Fayette), physician and militia and army officer; b. 29 May 1871 in Aylesford, N.S., 10th of the 13 children of George Foster and Charlotte Almira; m. first 13 June 1901 Janie (Jane, Jeanette) Thompson Wickwire (1875–1936) in Canning, N.S., and they had two sons; m. secondly 3 Feb. 1938 Agnes Henrietta Roop (1870–1951) in St Marylebone, London, England; they had no children; d. 17 May 1940 in Wolfville, N.S., and was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Kentville, N.S.
Gilbert Lafayette Foster came from a successful middle-class farming family. His father, who died when Gilbert was a boy, was a Wesleyan Methodist of Irish descent who raised cattle on 100 acres of land in Kings County, in the heart of the Annapolis valley. Gilbert began his education in a one-room schoolhouse at the crossroads of North Kingston. Encouraged by his family to seek a career in the professions, he attended Dalhousie University, where he developed an interest in medicine. He then studied in New York City, graduating with an md from the New York University Medical College in 1896. Foster completed his training at Bellevue Hospital before returning to the Annapolis valley. In 1897 he set up a general private practice in Canning. There he met and began to court Janie Thompson Wickwire, who hailed from a United Empire Loyalist family prominent in local business and politics.
On 9 Aug. 1897 Foster joined the Canadian militia, becoming a surgeon-lieutenant with the 68th (Kings) Battalion of Infantry. The militia’s officer corps provided young men of the middle and upper classes with an opportunity to make socio-economic connections and contribute to imperial and public life. The militia also seems to have appealed to Foster’s sense of adventure; when the opportunity to go on active service arose, he leaped at it. In 1896 gold had been discovered in the Yukon by prospectors Keish* and Káa Goox*, and the subsequent influx of thousands of unruly miners had overwhelmed the territory’s small detachment of North-West Mounted Police [see Sir Samuel Benfield Steele*]. In March 1898 Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* announced that troops would be dispatched to reassert dominion authority. Despite Foster’s young age and insecure financial position (medicine was then a proprietary business that required a large and stable client base, and he had just started his practice), he volunteered to serve as a medical officer and headed west in May with the Yukon Field Force.
Foster’s experience in the Yukon changed his life. The only doctor in the force, he administered to soldiers and civilians alike in a social world very different from that of rural Nova Scotia. Many of the troops found their situation tedious, and he wrote to Janie that although he was checking on their health regularly, “unfortunately there is no remedy for chronic boredom.” Foster, however, was kept busy: in addition to treating broken bones, sprains, cuts, and bruises, he also oversaw sanitation in the force’s camp, establishing public-health guidelines and conducting inspections to guard against diseases such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. During the harsh winter of 1898–99 he brought an injured man from the NWMP outpost at the Five Finger Rapids to the hospital in Fort Selkirk, covering 30 miles of frozen, mountainous terrain.
Foster returned from the Yukon in the summer of 1900. He had saved much of his pay, and, having settled his debts, he asked Janie to marry him. They moved to Halifax, where his well-connected in-laws introduced him to local society. Yet his practice failed to thrive, in part because of his reluctance to insist on payment from his patients. Still enthralled with military life, which presented complex problems of medical and personnel management, he remained active in the 68th Battalion, and was promoted surgeon-captain on 15 Aug. 1901 and surgeon-major on 26 Sept. 1902. He joined the reorganized Permanent Force on 1 Oct. 1905 and was assigned to Military District No.9 (Nova Scotia), where he served as a Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) officer in Halifax. Exactly two years later he was named the district’s principal medical officer, and on 21 Nov. 1907 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel. As a Permanent Force officer, Foster took an active interest in training and professional soldiering: that year he attended courses given by the Royal Army Medical Corps in Aldershot, England, and in 1909 he visited China. On 1 May 1913 he became assistant director, medical services (ADMS), in Military District No.2 (Toronto and central Ontario), an appointment that made it necessary for Foster and his wife, with their two young sons, to move to Toronto.
After World War I broke out in August 1914, the 43-year-old Foster joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On 21 September he was appointed ADMS of the CAMC and took command of the medical services of the 1st Canadian Division. He was one of the few senior professional Canadian soldiers initially allowed overseas by Samuel Hughes*, the minister of militia and defence in the Conservative government of Sir Robert Laird Borden. In England, Foster supervised the training of medical personnel and the care of the sick at Camp Bustard on Salisbury Plain. When the 1st Canadian Division went to France in the winter of 1914–15, Foster organized the collection and evacuation of the wounded by the division’s three field-ambulance units.
Then came the second battle of Ypres, and Foster oversaw the medical response to the first large-scale chemical-weapons attack in history. Chlorine gas released by the German 4th Army left Canadian soldiers gasping for air and suffering from chemical burns to their lungs and eyes. The enemy advanced, and in the chaos Foster had to withdraw and reorganize forward medical units to prevent them from being overrun. During 13 days of hard fighting between 22 April and 4 May 1915, Canadian doctors treated more than 10,000 casualties. He earned high praise from senior British medical officers as well as CAMC pathologist John George Adami, who wrote, “The credit for the success of the Canadian medical operations at Ypres should before all be awarded to the officer who controlled those operations, Colonel G. L. Foster, A.D.M.S.” In recognition of his work, Foster was made a cb. When the Canadian Corps was formed in September 1915, after the 2nd Canadian Division arrived in England, he was appointed its deputy director, medical services (DDMS).
Foster was in charge of the Canadian medical forces at the battle of the Somme in the fall of 1916 and received a superficial shrapnel wound on the bridge of his nose. While Foster was at the Somme, Hughes appointed physician Herbert Alexander Bruce* to investigate allegations of incompetence and mismanagement in the administration of the CAMC in England. When Bruce’s damning report was submitted in September 1916, Surgeon-General Guy Carleton Jones* was removed from the top overseas post in the CAMC. Although Jones was soon reinstated, the scandal and the subsequent reorganization of the medical corps forced his return to Canada early in 1917. In February Foster was promoted surgeon-general and made director general of medical services of the newly created Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces, headed by Sir George Halsey Perley. Foster also became director of medical services of the CAMC. His new job, based in London, was solely administrative, managing hospitals and the movement of men, overseeing promotions, and handling minor disputes between soldiers. He performed well: he was promoted major-general in March 1918, and the ministry’s 1918 report would note that under Foster’s leadership, the CAMC’s “efficiency has been developed to the highest pitch.” He became a staunch defender of the small cadre of professional soldiers who, in his opinion, were being marginalized by better-connected civilian doctors in the CEF. Foster believed that while the civilian doctors were competent in performing their medical tasks, they had little knowledge of the specific administrative and technical concerns of military medicine. Writing on 12 Jan. 1918 to the minister, Sir Albert Edward Kemp*, Foster noted: “Not only must the Military Side do these things [the normal duties of civilian doctors] but it must do them in a military way, as, unlike the work of the Professional Side which is internal to the Medical Service itself, almost every aspect of this work interlocks with the work and machinery of the other Arms and requires for its proper conduct a knowledge and experience of Army machinery, regulations, methods and usages in general.”
In the fall of 1918 Foster, already suffering from haemorrhoids and an enlarged liver owing to what his service record cites as “prolonged office work,” was stricken by the Spanish influenza at the height of the pandemic. He recovered after five weeks’ illness and returned to duty, but the ordeal left him with a heart condition and his health would never be the same. Following the war he served in Ottawa until demobilization, and the organization of the peacetime army prompted his retirement in 1921. For his wartime service Foster was awarded an honorary lld by McGill University, and in the official history of the CAMC, published in 1925, Sir Andrew Macphail wrote, “The service had been created in time of peace by [Darby] Bergin*, [Jean Louis Hubert] Neilson, [Sir Eugène] Fiset*, and Jones; in time of war by Jones and Foster.” Tony Foster records that his grandfather was pleased to receive this recognition and privately wrote: “Imagine that! A farm boy from North Kingston helping to create the Army’s Medical Services – and a Major General to boot!”
After retiring, Gilbert Lafayette Foster moved to Kentville, where he lived with his wife until her death in 1936. Two years later he married Agnes Henrietta Roop, a native of Clementsport, N.S., in London, and they took up residence in Wolfville, just east of Kentville. The following year, according to the Nova Scotia Medical Bulletin, “General Foster, while driving his car … suffered a broken blood vessel. He crawled some distance and then lay on the ground for several hours before assistance came.” One of his legs had to be amputated, and his heart condition worsened. Foster died at his home on 17 May 1940 from the effects of a heart attack suffered two days earlier. At the time of his death he was a member of the Church of England. He had lived to see the outbreak of World War II, in which both of his sons would serve in the Canadian military: Gilbert Lafayette Jr rose to the rank of captain, and Harry Wickwire* became a major-general, like his father.
Some of Gilbert Lafayette Foster’s correspondence can be found at LAC in the Sir Robert Borden fonds, R6113-0-X; the Albert Edward Kemp fonds, R4276-0-X, vol.105, file 11; and the John Taylor Fotheringham fonds, R2421-0-0. The letter cited in the text, Foster to Kemp, 12 Jan. 1918, can be viewed at Canadiana Héritage, “Sir Robert Borden fonds,” reel C-4241, pp.25806–9: heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_mikan_102180 (consulted 13 Dec. 2017).
GRO, Reg. of marriages, dist. St Marylebone, 3 Feb. 1938. LAC, R233-34-0, N.S., dist. Kings (189), subdist. Aylesford North (l): 12; R233-35-2, N.S., dist. Kings (17), subdist. Aylesford North (L), div. 1: 15; R233-36-4, N.S., dist. Halifax (City) (33), subdist. Ward 2 (B), div. 3: 25; R233-37-6, N.S., dist. Kings (36), subdist. Sheffield Mills (W), div. 1: 3; R611-280-X, vols.1682–87 (Director general of medical services in England; February 1917 to June 1919); RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, Box 3229-56; RG9-III-D-3, vol.5024, files 812 and 813, pt.1 (War diaries – Deputy Director, medical service, Canadian Corps, September 1915 to February 1917), and file 814, pt.1 (War diaries – Assistant Director of medical services, 1st Canadian Division, February to September 1915). Register (Berwick, N.S.), 20 June 1901, 29 Nov. 1922. J. G. Adami, War story of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (London, ). Can., Dept. of Militia and Defence, The quarterly militia list of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa), 1903–17. Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 43 (July–December 1940): 88. Tim Cook, No place to run: the Canadian Corps and gas warfare in the First World War (Vancouver and Toronto, 1999). Tony Foster, Meeting of generals (Toronto, 1986). Germany’s Western Front: translations from the German official history of the Great War, volume II, 1915, ed. M. O. Humphries and John Maker (Waterloo, Ont., 2010). J. L. Granatstein, The generals: the Canadian army’s senior commanders in the Second World War (Calgary, 2005). Brereton Greenhous, Guarding the goldfields: the story of the Yukon Field Force (Toronto, 1987). Sir Andrew Macphail, Official history of the Canadian forces in the Great War, 1914–19: the medical services (Ottawa, 1925). Maritime Medical News (Halifax), 13 (1901): 219; 19 (1907): 400; 21 (1909): 423. Desmond Morton, A peculiar kind of politics: Canada’s overseas ministry in the First World War (Toronto, 1982). G. W. L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919: official history of the Canadian army in the First World War (Ottawa, 1962). “Obituary,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull. (Halifax), 19 (1940): 343–44. James Wood, Militia myths: ideas of the Canadian citizen soldier, 1896–1921 (Vancouver and Toronto, 2010).