This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Virginia.
‘This is a fight for humanity and I want to be in it.’
William Strong came from prominent family in Washington DC—his paternal grandfather, also William Strong, was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. His maternal grandfather, John Watkinson Douglass, had been President of the Board of Commissioners for Washington DC, as had his uncle, Henry Brown Floyd MacFarland. Reportedly, William Strong was the first man from Washington DC to volunteer to fight. He served with the Canadian Machine Gun Corps in France, before falling ill. He died in 1919.
William Strong was born on 20 August 1887, in Washington DC, the only child of William Newton Strong, a barrister, and Josephine Strong (née Douglass), who had married in November 1886 after a long engagement. In June 1892, two months before Strong’s fifth birthday, his father died. Strong Jr attended the very best of schools—initially the prodigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC and then Hill School in Pottsdown, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Princeton University in 1911 and from George Washington University Law School in 1912. Like his father and grandfather, he became a lawyer—he went to work in the legal department of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co.
‘Billy’ Strong volunteered early in the war to fight with the Imperial forces, against the wishes of his friends, although the family, who had strong social ties with Canada, supported him. He enlisted in Toronto on 27 January 1915, and was reported as the first man from Washington DC to do so. In a letter written in the spring of 1919 to the conservative magazine Harvey’s Weekly he signed himself ‘one of America’s advance guard in the great war.’ He joined the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery in the second Canadian contingent as a Private with the regimental number 849, and was soon promoted to Bombardier.
After a period of training in Canada, during which Strong suffered a bout of influenza, the Battery sailed for England on the SS Metagama, arriving on 14 June 1915, and undertook further training at Shorncliffe in Kent before landing in France at the end of February 1916. It did so, however, without Strong. Contrary to the self-promoting newspaper reports and magazine articles that later appeared, Strong had been admitted to hospital a few days after the Battery’s arrival in England suffering from gonorrhoea. Discharged to duty in July 1915, he suffered a relapse of his condition in December 1915 and was admitted to Moore Barracks Hospital. By March 1916 he had recovered, and he attended a machine-gun range finding course before being posted to France in May to the 7th Machine Gun Company, in 7th Canadian Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, recently formed from the machine-gun sections of the Brigade’s battalions. Lance Corporal Strong served with this unit near Hooge east of Ypres for a little under a month, including during the Battle of Mont Sorrel, until he was commissioned into the Canadian Machine Gun Corps on 27 June 1916 and posted to the Canadian Machine Gun Depot at Shorncliffe.
In December 1916, Lieutenant Strong returned to France to join 11th Machine Gun Company in 11th Canadian Brigade, 4th Canadian Division. Just over a month later, Strong fell ill again with influenza and he was admitted to hospital on 27 January; he returned to duty on 15 February. In late March he fell ill again was diagnosed as suffering from pleurisy for which he was treated at No. 20 General Hospital at Camiers before being evacuated to 1st London General Hospital at Camberwell. Hearing of his illness, his mother sailed to England to join him, arriving on 3 July at Liverpool on the armed passenger liner SS St Louis. A medical board found Lieutenant Strong unfit for further duty and he was sent home from Liverpool on the hospital ship SS Araguaya, arriving in Quebec City on 25 September. His mother arrived at Halifax the same day aboard the troopship SS Justicia.
On 3 October, Strong was admitted to Lake Edward Sanatorium in Quebec where he remained through the following winter. In July 1918 a medical board allowed him to spend the warmer weather at home and that month mother and son journeyed to the summer home of his mother’s sister, Mrs Henry McFarland, at Cap a L’Aigle in Quebec, at Murray Bay (now La Malbaie), where he continued his convalescence until the autumn. In October, a medical board described him as ‘emaciated and is tremulous’ and recommended further sanatorium treatment. He was admitted to the Laurentian Chest Hospital at Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in Quebec—well known for its clean air and for the treatment of tuberculosis. In October 1919, in the hope that drier air would enhance his chances of recovery, he moved with his mother to Pasadena in California.
It was there that William Strong died of tuberculosis on Sunday 21 December 1919, aged 32. His body remained in California until the spring of 1920 when it was brought back to Washington DC.
His funeral service was held at 5.00pm on 10 April 1920 at the Church of the Covenant. The pulpit, like his casket, was draped with British and American flags and a contingent of Canadian officers and soldiers acted as pall bearers.
William Strong was buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 3, Grave 4113-NH) on 12 April. His grave was originally marked with a private memorial, which was later replaced by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.
Strong’s British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal, Memorial Plaque and Scroll and Memorial Cross were sent to his mother. Josephine Stone died on 8 May 1938, aged 77, and, on 10 May, was buried with her son; a stone slab inset at the foot of the grave commemorates her burial.
William Strong is commemorated in the Memorial Atrium in Nassau Hall, Princeton and the Class of 1911 established the William Strong Memorial Scholarship in his memory; this endowment scholarship is still awarded. He is commemorated on page 543 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance.
1. (Back) ‘Lieut. W. Strong Jr. Dies in California.’ (23 December 1919). The Evening Star. p 3.
2. (Back) Justice William Strong was born on 6 May 1808 in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University in 1828. In 1846, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives as an abolitionist Democrat and served two terms. He was elected to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1857, where he served until 1868. Following the death of Edwin Stanton, four days after his confirmation by the United States Senate, Strong was nominated for the United States Supreme Court; he was sworn in on 14 March 1870.He served as an Associate Justice until 14 December 1880, when he retired and returned to private practice. He died at Lake Minnewassa in New York on 19 August 1895, aged 87.
3. (Back) ‘The Alumni.’ (14 March 1918). Princeton Alumni Weekly. Volume 14, No. 23, p 447.
4. (Back) ‘Your Monument – If You Believe’. (19 April 1919). Harvey’s Weekly. Volume 2, number 16, p 14.
5. (Back) Although his injuries and hospitalisation are mentioned in various newspaper reports, a greatly exaggerated and fanciful summary of his service may be found in his obituary in the Princeton University magazine: ‘The Alumni.’ (21 January 1920). Princeton Alumni Weekly. Volume 20, No. 15, p 362.
6. (Back) HMHS Araguaya was one of five ships chartered by Canada for use as hospital ships—the others were Essiquibo, Llandovery Castle, Letitia, and Neuralia. The SS Araguaya was owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co Ltd until 1926. By 1940 she was in use with Compagnie Générale Transatlantique as the SS Savoie II. She was sunk during the Battle of Casablanca on 8 November 1942 by USS Massachusetts.
7. (Back) SS Justicia was sunk by UB-64 and UB 124 on 19/20 July 1918 off the coast of Scotland while travelling unladen to New York.