People who served in the Great War have been immortalised in numerous different ways: some through their own words or art, some through the works of others. Bill Fosten was one of the latter, captured in sculpture by the artist Charles Sargeant Jagger in his monumental Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.
William Arthur Fosten was born in 1893 and grew up in West Ham and Clapham. He was working for R Waygood and Co “Makers of Lifts and Cranes” as an apprentice in August 1913, when he joined the 6th London Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, part of the Territorial Force. When war came in 1914, he signed up for Imperial Service – the TF were officially for home defence but most made this pledge to serve overseas.
Fosten’s unit arrived in France in March 1915 as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division, which fought in most of the major battles on the Western Front (see the division’s Long Long Trail page for its impressive roll-call of battles). Fosten became an Acting Bombardier (then a non-commissioned below corporal in the artillery) in late 1915 but was reduced back to gunner for drunkenly ‘illtreating a horse’ in January 1916. He moved to the Divisional Ammunition Column in June 1916 and served there through the rest of the war. His record shows three periods of leave, when he would have returned home to his home on Mysore Road, Clapham – including 30 days in late 1918. There is no record of any wounds or sickness in his time in the artillery. He arrived home for good in April 1919 and was demobilised a month later.
After the war, Fosten somehow ended up modelling for Charles Sargeant Jagger MC as ‘The Driver’ figure on his memorial to the war dead of the Royal Artillery, one of the most impressive war memorials in the UK (the ammunition carrier was another ex-artilleryman called Metcalfe). Jagger could not afford to keep Fosten on, though, and passed him on to fellow sculptor Gilbert Bayes. The Fosten ‘Driver’ figure faces to the west of the Royal Artillery monument towards the old St George’s Hospital.
The memorial was controversial at the time, with its depiction of a modern howitzer (described by Lord Curzon as “a toad squatting, which is about to spit fire out of its mouth…nothing more hideous could ever be conceived”) and the dead soldier shown over the words ‘Here was a royal fellowship of death’. It remains one of the most striking monuments to the Great War in London.
Next time you pass it in a bus or car, remember the veteran William Fosten whose Christ-like figure you see as you pass the memorial to thousands of his comrades who did not return.
Update: Bill Fosten’s son Bryan has been in touch with some corrections and additional details about his father’s life in the comments section of this post:
Bill was apprenticed at Waygoods electrical engineers and lift maufacturers. He joined the Middlesex Yeomanry in 1909 and transferred, in 1913, to the Territorial Army. He went to France in 1915. On leave after an injury to his foot he met my future mother. After the war he worked for this father but the firm failed and he found work with Sir Septimus Scott as a technical assistant making special diorama effects to Scott’s specifications for the Wembley Exhibition in 1923. Bill worked mainly in Scott’s studio in Battersea until it reopened in 1924. Scott was a friend of Jagger and it was during a meeting that Jagger met Bill and chose him to pose for the statue. Scott went to New Zealand and Bill got married. He then worked for the Monotype Corporation until he retired in 1960. He died in 1963.
Fosten’s service record
Long, Long Trail website
Jonathan Black ‘Neither Beasts, Nor Gods, But Men: Constructions of Masculinity and the Image of the First World War British Soldier in the War Art and Memorial Sculpture of C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946); Eric Henri Kennington (1888-1960) and Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934).’ (PhD, London, 2003)
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