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When the ‘shriek of the shells’ fell silent: Cleveland soldier’s letter home chronicles end of WWI

November 12, 2018

When the ‘shriek of the shells’ fell silent: Cleveland soldier’s letter home chronicles end of WWI

CLEVELAND, Ohio – They laughed, they sang, they “broke down and cried like babies.”

Such was the immediate reaction of American Doughboys fighting in France during World War I to news that the war had ended, 100 years ago this November 11.

Their response was recorded by Army Lt. Dillard Jesse Firse, of Cleveland, in a letter home to his parents, that was printed in The Plain Dealer.

Firse, a graduate of East Technical High School, was a member of the all-black 366th Infantry Regiment that saw action in several battles.

In his letter home, Firse was struck by the contrast between combat of only a day before, and the sudden peace on what became known as Armistice Day (now Veterans Day).

The soldier who joined the Army in 1918 and arrived in France in September of that year, wrote of that final day of war: “It is hard to describe the awful inferno of a bombardment – the shriek of the shells, the rending crashes sounding so close together as to be almost one continuous roar, the swirling clouds of black, acrid smoke and debris, whole buildings churned to powder by a single shell . . .”

The vivid prose of this veteran who graduated from Howard University and became a dentist in Cleveland, and a photo, are the only souvenirs of war still left to his son, Jack Firse, 81, of Belleville, Illinois.

The younger Firse remembered trying on his father’s uniform when he was a teen. It fit.

But when it came to talking with his father about the war, that never happened.

“That’s one thing I’ve always regretted,” said Firse. “The subject never came up.”

Perhaps because his father was “a very quiet guy,” according to Firse, who “never said a mean word about anybody. He was always very positive.”

Even when he had to give up dentistry during the Depression because folks couldn’t afford his services, or paid their bills with chickens. The veteran became a public housing manager in Cleveland.

He died in 1966 at age 70, just before his son shipped off to Vietnam as an Air Force combat rescue pilot.

The World War I veteran is buried at Lake View Cemetery.

Now, when Firse reads his father’s letter from the front, he said, “I get very emotional.

“In fact, I was going to have pastor of our church read his letter from Armistice Day, but when I started reading it, I couldn’t finish it without breaking down,” he said.

“He was a great writer. He had a talent for it,” Firse added. “But he hated it. It was like pulling teeth to have him write something.”

Yet 100 years ago, The Plain Dealer saw something in that Armistice Day letter home that was worth sharing with its readers.

Here is what was printed:

“France, Nov. 11- Well folks, it’s all over but the flowers. Yesterday it was war, hard, grueling, and hideous. Today it is peace. This morning at 10:30 I formed my platoon in line in the woods behind the line. They didn’t know why. They were just a bunch of tired, hard bitten, mud-spattered, rough and tumble soldiers standing stoically at attention, equally ready to go over the top, rebuild a shell torn road, or march to a rest billet. At 10:45 I gave the command: ‘Unload rifles!’ They didn’t know why and didn’t particularly care. Then- ‘Unload pistols!’ And while they stood rigid and motionless as graven images, I read the order declaring armistice and cessation of hostilities effective at 11 o’clock. The perfect discipline of these veteran soldiers held them still motionless, but I could see their eyes begin to shine and their muscles to quiver as the import of this miraculous message began to dawn on them. The tension was fast straining their nerves to the breaking point, so I dismissed them. You should have seen them! They yelled till they were hoarse. Some sang. Others, war hardened veterans, who had faced the death hail of a machine gun with a laugh, men who had gone through the horrors of artillery bombardments and had seen their fellows mangled and torn without a flinch, broke down and cried like babies.

“And only yesterday we started a drive too! This one, while not as extensive as the other one, was, for its size, just as hard and just as bloody. I was in a town close up behind the lines in command of a detail whose important duty it was to supply ammunition to the front. From sunrise until dark that town was subjected to a constant intensive bombardment by the German artillery. It is hard to describe the awful inferno of a bombardment – the shriek of the shells, the rending crashes sounding so close together as to be almost one continuous roar, the swirling clouds of black, acrid smoke and debris, whole buildings churned to powder by a single shell; gas-gosh, Dante had a whole lot to learn! From sunrise till night, when I was relieved, they poured everything they had into us from the vicious little Austrian `88’s’ to the gigantic 38 centimeters, slightly smaller than the famous `42.’ One of the latter struck within 50 yards of me. A group of men standing near where it fell were wiped out-atomized, with the exception of one head, which plopped down in the mud beside me and lay staring at me with glazing eyes. There was a white artilleryman standing beside me. When we heard the shell coming we both hit the dirt together, but when I got up he didn’t. The back of his head was mashed in. I’ve got a fragment that ripped my helmet across the crown like a can opener. It didn’t even part my hair.

“Through all this my boys worked steadily and willingly, rushing ammunition up into those gas drenched woods to the boys on the line who were catching it a blame sight worse than we were.

“Tonight something seems wrong. The silence is almost uncanny. Not a shot, not even a single shell. Very faintly we can hear the mellow tones of the church bell in the little French town on the hill far to our rear. All day long it has been singing its song of joy and thanksgiving. It seems symbolical of the heart of France which, today, is ringing.

“I don’t know when I’m coming home, but when I do I want a big roast turkey, golden brown, new spuds swimming in butter, cranberry sauce, milk, candied sweets – Oh, gee, it hurts my stomach to think about it.”

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