Ceremony right this moment in honor of the South Bend soldier who fired the primary American shot in World Conflict I.
SOUTH BEND – A century ago today, Alexander L. Arch of South Bend pulled the lanyard on a 75mm artillery cannon near the small village of Rechicourt in northeastern France and fired a grenade into German territory.
With this action, Arch became the first American soldier to attack the enemy after the United States entered World War I.
His memory of that shot was one the former doughboy had to relate over and over again over the years as he continued to be honored for his heroism.
Heavy fog made it impossible to tell if the shot hit its target, but it was recorded as the first American action, Arch said 40 years later in an interview with the South Bend Tribune. A photo of Arch holding his young grandson on his lap and holding the cartridge case from that shot was also released.
Arch’s place in history is being marked today at a public ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of its inclusion in France.
That grandson, Alexander S. Arch, will be at today’s ceremony. “I think of my father and grandfather and how proud I am,” said the 63-year-old grandson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas and who retired from the US Air Force after 20 years of service.
In fact, Alexander L. Arch was the first of five generations of the family to have served 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 on 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 will also be attending the ceremony.
Another daughter, Margaret Smigielski, 85, of South Bend, says the family are aware of her father’s role in the first shot in World War I, but that he didn’t talk much about other memories of his military service.
“And he didn’t like going to hospitals,” she said, remembering the aftermath of poison gas during the fighting in the trenches.
Both women remember the cartridge case that their father protected in a flannel bag and kept in the attic. And they remember learning more about his role in World War I while taking history class at school in Indiana.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, but Arch continued to serve and made his first home visit in September 1919.
He was greeted by a hero: he marched in a parade in New York, received a three-minute ovation during a visit to the US House of Representatives in Washington, and received greetings from an exuberant crowd in South Bend.
“Alexander Arch is greeted by a large crowd when he arrives in town,” announced the South Bend News-Times in a front-page headline.
A herd of friends and relatives were at Vandalia train station near downtown when Arch’s train arrived. A copy from the President of Studebaker Corp. clever car was there to take Arch to his sister’s and family’s home. The house was decorated with flags and bunting in honor of the returning hero.
The next day’s News-Times featured a large photo on the front page: Arch was standing in uniform on his sister’s porch, surrounded by friends and relatives.
A street in the city – Arch Avenue in the Edgewater Place neighborhood – was named in his honor.
Firing the first shot in World War I was an award Arch carried with him all his life after marrying and raising a family and working for Studebaker for many years. He died in 1979 at the age of 85.
Arch and his wife Julia raised three daughters and one son.
Arch’s daughters – Smigielski, Roush, and Mary Pillar, 91, of South Bend – still live on-site, as do many of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. About 50 family members are expected for 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. At age 12, the boy was working in the Singer sewing machine closet in South Bend and had enlisted in the US Army in 1913.
Arch was assigned to serve in France as a member of the American Expeditionary Force, which brought him to the battlefield in 1917 at the age of 23. Before the end of World War I, he had received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. He was injured several times during the war.
For many years after the war, the cartridge case was in the possession of Chicago Tribune war correspondent Floyd Gibbons, who was on duty near Arch’s unit on the first shot.
A public dispute between the two men in 1931 resulted in the case being returned to Arch. At a banquet in Indianapolis, Arch claimed that he temporarily took possession of the enclosure for Gibbons after the American war began, and that he expected it to be returned.
Shortly afterwards, the two men settled their differences. Gibbons presented the case to Arch at a dinner at the Adventurers’ Club in Chicago, and Arch often showed it to fellow veterans and at group events.
The grandson in Texas now owns Arch’s uniform from World War I, Purple Heart, and the historic cartridge case. He said he kept the items carefully and cherished them.
Today’s ceremony will take place at 5 p.m. near the final resting place of Alexander Arch in the mausoleum at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens, 10776 McKinley Highway, Osceola. The public is invited to participate.
The ceremony is hosted by the Indiana Centennial Committee of World War I and the Schuyler Colfax Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Visit www.southbendtribune.com for a photo gallery of Alexander Arch through the years, from his service in World War I to his death in 1979.