Doomed doughboy lamented ‘what this war is like’

First of two parts

U.S. Army officer Howard Lee Strohl wrote from France in the summer of 1918 in high spirits. The Germans, he said, were on the run.

Howard Lee Strohl of Bethlehem enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard on April 10, 1914, two months shy of his nineteenth birthday. He served on the Mexican border and with the American Expeditionary Forces in France.
(State Archives of North Carolina)

“I suppose you have read in the papers about the present American drive which started on the 15th of July, and that we are driving them before us like a bunch of cattle. The Hun is a very poor fighter when he has good opposition and only is good when he can see you and you can’t see him, or get a glimpse of him. He is in full retreat, by all appearances. He is going so fast that he is tiring us, chasing him.”

Lieutenant Strohl, twenty-three years old, was sitting in front of a captured German dugout in the wilderness some sixty miles northeast of Paris. He’d been so busy advancing with his machine gun company, he had to skip a few soldierly duties to scribble letters like this one.

The enemy, he told an aunt and uncle back home in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, “lived in grand style in these dugouts. They had chairs, tables, feather ticks and cushions, etc. Of course this stuff they took from the poor French people, whose homes they pillaged. The villages and towns are laid in waste. I was in one very large town where I’ll venture to say everything as large as a chicken coop was hit by artillery shell.

“Houses are leveled to the foundations. In this town the people are again moving back, even though their homes are smashed. They have set to work and started to clean, and fix things up as best they can, and make their demolished homes once more habitable.”

Strohl had a knack for the military life, proved to be a leader and rose steadily in rank during his five years of service.

He was born in 1895 in what was then the borough of South Bethlehem, now part of Bethlehem city. He lived there with his parents, William and Abbie, and brothers Morgan and Mitchell on East Third Street, right alongside a noisy, smoky plant that was transforming the nation’s skyline. Charles Schwab’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation would benefit mightily from the impending First World War to become America’s No. 2 steelmaker.

Doughboys of the 28th Infantry Division camp in the woods near Fismes, France. It’s August 1918, and they’re trying to avoid detection by German reconnaissance planes. Strohl would lose his life at Fismes.
(National Archives)

Strohl went to public schools and studied at the South Bethlehem Business College, which held its classes in a building four blocks from Lehigh University. After graduating in 1913, he kept the books for the Sauquoit silk mill. On Sundays, he sang in the choir at the First Reformed Church, founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants.

He joined the National Guard out of a “spirit of adventure and desire to serve his country,” a newshound wrote, and was a private in Company M, 4th Infantry Regiment.

In June 1916, Pennsylvania’s National Guard was among state units called up after Mexican rebels, starting with Pancho Villa, attacked U.S. border towns. Company M and the other Pennsylvanians deployed to Texas and camped near El Paso. They marched, practiced on weapons and patrolled the border. Strohl was promoted to corporal there. In the fall, he made sergeant. By year’s end, Company M had gone home, and Strohl was commissioned a second lieutenant.

With the U.S. entry into the Great War in 1917, he was assigned to Company H in Lebanon, near Harrisburg, and called into federal service in August. The men sped to Georgia the next month for training with the 28th Infantry Division, newly formed from units of the Pennsylvania National Guard. At Camp Hancock in Augusta, they were picked for a machine gun detachment. British instructors drilled them, often on wooden guns because few actual guns were available. In October, they were transferred to Company D of the 107th Machine Gun Battalion.

That month in Augusta, he married a girl from back home, eighteen-year-old Ada Ruch.

The men of the 107th were transferred a final time in March 1918, becoming Company D, 109th Machine Gun Battalion. Strohl was made one of their instructors. A hard task awaited them when they steamed for France in early May aboard the British liner Aquitania. The Germans had launched their big spring offensive, a series of attacks along the Western Front.

Lieutenant Strohl arrived in Europe to do his part with the American Expeditionary Forces. At home, Ada was pregnant and staying with her parents, Titus and Mary Ruch, in Hellertown.

Strohl was a lieutenant in Company D, 109th Machine Gun Battalion, part of the 56th Infantry Brigade, 28th Infantry Division.

Strohl penned the letter to his aunt and uncle just before the opening phase of the Allied offensive that would end the war. Near the close of his message, he turned somber.

“Since on the line, I have seen all the grim horrors of warfare, and all this is but a common sight. You people back there cannot realize one bit what this war is like. You haven’t the slightest idea. Once you see it, then is the time one’s hatred for the Germans beams forth, and makes us more determined to crush him once and for all.”

He was proud of the job the 28th Division, then part of a French corps, and the other American units were doing.

“Our artillery is sure giving them h— and beating them down at their own game. He realizes now that he is up against a formidable army, and not a bunch of bluffers. His best troopers have been beaten down to defeat at the point of bayonets and rifle butts the last few days. … We are having considerable rainy weather, and many of our marches are made through downpours and mud ankle deep. But everyone rejoices just the same. None are downhearted, and all eager to do their bit. I am in good health, and living good; sleeping anywhere at all, and none the worse for such.”

Strohl dated his letter August 3, 1918. Six days later, German artillery cut him down.

COMING NEXT: Strohl in modern memory

3 responses to “Doomed doughboy lamented ‘what this war is like’

  1. Very interesting 🙂


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