Ceremony honors soldier who fired first American shot in WWI

An undated photo of Alexander Arch, with a shell casing said to be the one from his famous World War I shot.

By MARGARET FOSMOE | South Bend Tribune, Ind. | Published: October 23, 2017

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — A century ago today, Alexander L. Arch of South Bend pulled the lanyard on a 75-mm artillery gun near the small village of Rechicourt in northeast France, firing a shell into German territory.

With that action, Arch became the first American soldier to strike at the enemy after the United States entered World War I.

His memory of that shot was one the former doughboy was called upon to recount repeatedly over the years, as he continued to be honored for his heroism.

Dense fog made it impossible to tell whether the shot reached its target, but it was recorded as the first American action, Arch said 40 years later in a South Bend Tribune interview. A photo of Arch, holding his young grandson on his lap and the shell casing from that shot in his hand, was published, too.

Arch’s place in history will be marked at a public ceremony today, on the 100th anniversary of that shot in France.

That grandson, Alexander S. Arch, will be at today’s ceremony. “I think about my father and grandfather and how proud I am,” said the grandson, 63, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service.

In fact, Alexander L. Arch was the first of five generations of the family so far to serve in the military. His son, Alexander (who died in 1997) served in the Navy and his grandson was in the Air Force. The Texas man’s daughter and son-in-law are active duty in the Air Force, and their son recently joined the U.S. Marines.

“It makes you proud,” said Yolanda Roush, 88, of Plymouth, one of the elder Arch’s daughters, who also will attend the ceremony.

Another daughter, Margaret Smigielski, 85, of South Bend, says the family knew of her father’s role as the first shot in the Great War, but he didn’t talk much about other memories of his military service.

“And he didn’t like to go to hospitals,” she said, recalling after-effects he suffered from poison gas exposure during battles in the trenches.

Both women remember the shell casing, which their father kept protected in a flannel bag and stored in the attic. And they remember learning more about his role in World War I during Indiana history lessons in school.

World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918, but Arch continued serving, making his first visit home in September 1919.

He received a hero’s welcome: marching in a parade in New York, receiving a three-minute ovation during a visit to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, and soaking in the greetings of an exuberant throng in South Bend.

“Alexander Arch Greeted By Great Crowd As He Arrives in Town,” the South Bend News-Times announced in a front-page headline.

A flock of friends and relatives were at Vandalia Railroad Station near downtown when Arch’s train arrived. An automobile sent by the president of Studebaker Corp. was there to carry Arch to the home of his sister and her family. The house was decorated in flags and bunting in honor of the returning hero.

The next day’s News-Times featured a large photo on the front page: Arch standing tall in uniform on his sister’s front porch, surrounded by friends and relatives.

A street in town — Arch Avenue in the Edgewater Place neighborhood — was named in his honor.

Having fired the first shot in the Great War was a distinction Arch carried with him throughout his life, after marrying and raising a family and while working for many years at Studebaker. He passed away in 1979 at age 85.

Arch and his wife, Julia, raised three daughters and a son.

Arch’s daughters — Smigielski, Roush and Mary Pillar, 91, of South Bend — still live locally, as well as many of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. About 50 family members are expected to attend today’s ceremony.

Arch was born in Hungary in 1894, he told The Tribune in 1957. In the early 1900s, his family came to the United States and settled in South Bend. By age 12, the young boy was working at the Singer sewing machine cabinet works in South Bend, and by 1913 he had joined the U.S. Army.

Arch was assigned to serve in France as a member of the American Expeditionary Force, which put him on the battlefield that day in 1917 at age 23. Before World War I was over, he had earned Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. He was injured several times during the war.

For many years after the war, the shell casing was in the possession of Chicago Tribune war correspondent Floyd Gibbons, who was on assignment near Arch’s unit when the first shot was fired.

A public squabble between the two men in 1931 resulted in the casing being returned to Arch. At a banquet in Indianapolis, Arch claimed that he gave Gibbons temporary possession of the casing after the start of American involvement in the war, and he had expected it to be returned.

Shortly thereafter, the two men settled their differences. Gibbons presented the casing to Arch at a dinner at the Adventurers’ Club in Chicago, and Arch often showed it to other veterans and at group events.

The grandson in Texas now has possession of Arch’s World War I uniform, Purple Heart and the historic shell cartridge. He said he keeps the items carefully stored and treasures them.


©2017 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)
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