World War I -- Life Histories/Section 001/William Borden Cobb

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This project page is associated with English 105i at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

William Borden Cobb
Born1894
Goldsboro, North Carolina
OccupationSoldier
Years active1917-1919
SpouseCarol Collier
ParentsWilliam H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb


Overview[edit]

William Borden Cobb was a Goldsboro, NC native who became a soldier in World War I. He spent some time working for the Chemical Warfare Services in the military and helped produce gas masks for the troops to protect them from the new gas warfare used in the First World War.


Biography[edit]

Personal Life[edit]

William Borden Cobb was a young man from Goldsboro, NC born to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. He had one brother, Dr. Donnell B. Cobb. He joined the United States Army and became a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Services of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Living in North Carolina, he grew up in a racially-divided south which formed some of his views towards African Americans as can be seen later on in his military service. In 1916 he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts. After returning from military service he met a young woman named Carol Collier and the two were later wed in 1921.

Military Life[edit]

Around mid-1917, Borden began his military career and was sent to Camp Merritt in New Jersey to receive his training here. From the very beginning of his life in the military, Borden wrote letters almost daily to his mother and also wrote periodically to other members of his family such as his brother and a few aunts. These letters have since been collected and are archived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They included his personal thoughts on events that affected him as a member of the military as well as his responses to family events reported to him. While in New Jersey, he worked to help improve gas masks and send them to troops over seas. In a letter he sent to his mother, Borden notes that the camp sent thirty five thousand gas masks to France.[1] In another letter, Borden tells his mother that he will also be sent to France and will be shipped out from the nearby pier at Hoboken, New Jersey.[2] In the Southern United States during the early 1910s, African American individuals served subservient roles to much of the population. [3] Borden’s parents had at least one African American individual working for them. Borden tells his mother in a letter to make sure that the “nigger” greases up her car before she takes it out on a trip to Florida. Throughout the letters, Borden shows a negative attitude towards African Americans in the language he uses and when he was shipped off to France, he wrote a letter to his mother where he includes a conversation between two African Americans on the ship.[4] He comments on them not knowing how a life preserver works and is intrigued that they don’t know how some things work onboard despite the fact that they have never been on a ship before or received a proper education.

War Service during World War I[edit]

Training[edit]

When Borden joined the military he was forced to move up to New Jersey to begin his training. He had to ensure that his uniform was perfectly pressed and that his bed was absolutely spotless every day he was there. He went through many hours of rigorous physical training and had to mentally prepare for the possibility of being sent to war. In a letter to his mother he talks about how he knows that sooner or later he will be shipped off and for her not to worry about him because he knows how to take care of himself. The training at Camp Merritt ensured him the skills he would need to survive. While there he was recruited to work with chemical warfare and began helping to produce gas masks.

A World War I soldier wearing a gas mask

Camp Merritt was a military base located in New Jersey. It was a highly populated camp that was located very near the pier at Hoboken, New Jersey.[5] Because of this, the troops here were very often shipped off at Hoboken and were sent to help out over in France. Most troops did not stay for longer than three weeks before shipping out to France. Camp Merritt’s proximity to Hoboken’s pier made this a possibility.

An aerial view of Camp Merritt

Gas Warfare[edit]

During World War I gas was an important weapon of warfare. This new type of weaponry intrigued world powers and began to be implemented into war tactics. It was used by both sides of the war and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties. There were three main types of gas: Lachrymator, Sternutator, and Suffocating.

Lachrymator, or tear gas, was a type of gas that caused the victim to become disoriented. It caused severe irritation of all facial orifices and often caused the victim to tear up, hence the name. Borden experienced this gas first hand. He writes that while training with the gas masks on at Camp, his commanding officer tells his fellow soldiers and him to remove their masks in a field of gas. His eyes began to water and he felt the gas enter his nose and mouth. The commander tells them that this is an exercise to help the troops respect and appreciate the masks so they do their very best to ensure they work for the troops over seas Borden writes.[6] Sternutator, or chlorine gas, was a type of poisonous gas that targeted the lungs and eyes. It had a delayed effect and could often take a day or two for the effects to become prominent. Suffocating, or mustard gas, was the most extreme of the gasses. It caused a soldier to die by asphyxiation within hours of coming into contact with it. Gas masks were not very effective against mustard gas, so work was constantly done to try to improve their effectiveness.

Soldiers being engulfed in chemical gas

Wartime interaction with African American soldiers[edit]

During the First World War it is estimated that around 400,000 African American troops participated with about half of that number serving in positions abroad.[7] They participated in many different aspects of war ranging from combat positions including infantry and artillery to support positions such as engineers and medics. This is not the first war that included African American participation, but was one of the first to include so great of a number of African American participants. Despite these large numbers though, African American participation was not at first accepted. When the United States first began taking volunteers for soldiers many African American men showed up. They were ignored and banned from fighting for a country that had discriminated and abused them. It was not until the draft that African Americans were accepted into the military to help fight World War I.

Borden’s feelings about having to work with African American troops can be seen in his first letter to his mother when he is onboard his ship to France. He writes: “About half the troops on board are negroes. There are literally thousands of them. As they have the same privileges we do, we are thrown with them constantly, and this is not always agreeable.”[8] Judging by the language he uses, such as “thrown together” and “literally thousands of them” it can be seen that he is not exactly thrilled about the change in situation.

African American soldiers during World War I

Works Consulted[edit]

Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.

Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. August 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.

Coffey, Patrick. “American Gas.” MHQ : the quarterly journal of military history 26.4 (2014): 44-47. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Faith, Thomas. “As is Proper in a Republican Form of Government: Selling Chemical Warfare to Americans in the 1920s.” Federal History 1.2 (2010): 28-41. Society for History in the Federal Government. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Jackowe, David J. “Posion Gas Comes to America.” American History 49.5 (2014): 58-63. Military & Government Collection. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Slotten, Hugh R. “Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism? American Responses to World War I Poison Gas, 1915-1930.” The Journal of American History 77.2 (1990): 476-498. ProQuest. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Sweeney, W. Allison. History of the American Negro in the Great World War. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Print.

Whalen, Mark. Twentieth-Century American Culture : American Cultures in the 1910s. Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Print.

Wright, Kevin. “Camp Merritt.” Bergen County Historical Society. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

  1. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  2. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  3. Whalen, Mark. Twentieth-Century American Culture : American Cultures in the 1910s. Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Print.
  4. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  5. Wright, Kevin. “Camp Merritt.” Bergen County Historical Society. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
  6. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  7. Sweeney, W. Allison. History of the American Negro in the Great World War. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Print.
  8. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 1. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.