World War I -- Life Histories/Section 018/William Borden Cobb

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Overview:[edit]

William Borden Cobb was a sergeant in the Supply Division of the United States Chemical Warfare Service(CWS) during World War I. He was part of the American Expeditionary Forces(AEF) from June 1918 to mid-1919.

Biography:[edit]

Early Years:[edit]

William Borden Cobb was born in the late nineteenth century to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb, who owned property and lived in Goldsboro, NC. In 1916, W. B. Cobb graduated from UNC with a Bachelor of Arts[1].

Further knowledge needs to be acquired concerning Cobb’s early years.

War Years:[edit]

In 1918 Cobb enlisted in the Field Supply Section of the Defense Service of the Sanitary Department of the Medical Corps. He trained in New York and witnessed some of the first major shipments of gas masks to the AEF[2]. He was assigned to Overseas Repair Section #2 of the Gas Defense Service as a private. The Gas Defense Service later became the CWS. On the 13th of June he landed in Brest, France. As a member of the Procurement and Supply Division of the CWS [3], his duties included receiving gas shipments and relaying them to other depots, sometimes in person. He was stationed primarily in La Pallice and later at a depot called Charente Inferieure. Throughout the war, he went to Marne, Rennes, La Mans, Orleans, Parthenay, Troyes, Chaumont, and Dijon.

In his letters home Cobb often expressed his disappointment at not having an officer's commission. He applied for one just before the end of the war, and his commanding officer also recommended him for a promotion. On Dec. 2nd, he became a Corporal. By April 1st, 1919 he had been promoted to Sergeant. After the Armistice was signed he stayed on with the AEF, disposing of the excess materials associated with the CWS. Much of the work was accomplished by ‘Negroes’, ‘Chinks’, and German prisoners. Of these, he conveyed the most respect for the German prisoners. Throughout his letters, Cobb expressed a distaste for the close, interracial contact brought on by the warMilitary history of African Americans.

As a result of his extended stay in France, he enrolled in the AEF University, and graduated in June, 1919.[4]

Post War Years:[edit]

On June 7, 1921 Cobb was married to Ms. Collier[5].

Further knowledge need to be acquired concerning Cobb’s post war years.

Social Issues:[edit]

Chemical Warfare:[edit]

The development of the U.S. CWS, and comparable entities in other countries, mirrored shifts in methods of warfare. With the introduction of chemical warfare, the duties of coping with it were initially assigned to federal departments like the Medical Department and the Bureau of Mines[6]. As Chemical Warfare developed, so did the organization of the military. On June 28, 1918, “…the War Department issued War Department General Orders No. 62, which formally established the Chemical Warfare Service, National Army, and sweepingly specified the transfer to the new organization of all facilities and functions applying to toxic chemicals"[7].

Cobb underwent this change of hierarchical structure, but it wasn’t until early August that he began signing his letters as a member of the CWS[8].

According to Brophy, “(f)or centuries the use of poisons for military purposes ha(d) been generally disavowed by civilized nations"[9]. The use of chemicals raised the question of whether they were to be viewed as poison. In 1921, during Conference on the Limitation of Armament, “The U.S. proposal…first pointed out that the employment of toxic war gases had been condemned by world opinion and prohibited in numerous existing treaties"[10]. France, however, did not ratify that treaty. In 1925 “the U.S. delegation introduced and obtained general agreement to what has been called the Geneva Gas Protocol…Although the U.S. delegation signed this protocol, the Senate refused to ratify it"[11]. This policy also included bacteriological methods of warfare.

Since then, the CWS has continued in its function for the United States Army, in as much as incendiaries and similar methods of warfare have continued to be used against hostiles.

Civilian Warfare:[edit]

The first gas masks were made in 1915 in response to the German chemical offensive, and they were largely ineffective[12]. Women of the allied nations manufactured homemade gas masks, and one of the early materials used in making better gas masks was the widow’s veil. “This incorporation of feminized materials (widow’s veils) and women themselves into the making of an object fully associated with modern war foreshadows later developments in complicating, if not erasing, the borders between war and home fronts"[13].

The use of toxic gases in warfare increased of awareness that war was not merely something waged upon soldiers. Citizens were vulnerable to attack. Gas masks became a common household item in Britain. “Living in states producing anti-gas protection for civilian men, women, and children meant living not in a post-war world but in a pre-war world filled with the imagined, potential end of civilization made tangible"[14]. This mentality can be traced to our current awareness of biological warfare, terrorist attacks, and weapons of mass destruction.

  1. “Honors Awarded at University.” The Charlotte Observer [Charlotte, NC] 6 Jun. 1916 early ed: 10. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  2. Brophy, Leo P. The Chemical Warfare Service : from Laboratory to Field. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army : 2010. p 22. Print.
  3. Brophy, Leo P. “Origins of the Chemical Corps.” Military Affairs 20.4 (1956): 217-226. Print.
  4. William Borden Cobb papers, 1908-1934. Folders 1-9. Letters to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Libraries, Chapel Hill, NC. 12 Feb 2015.
  5. “Cobb-Collier.” Goldsboro Daily Argus [Goldsboro, NC] 20 May 1921 late ed: 1. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  6. Brophy, Leo P. “Origins of the Chemical Corps.” Military Affairs 20.4 (1956): 217-226. Print.
  7. Brophy, Leo P. “Origins of the Chemical Corps.” Military Affairs 20.4 (1956): 217-226. Print.
  8. Cobb, William B. William Borden Cobb papers, 1908-1934. Folders 1-9. Letters to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Libraries, Chapel Hill, NC. 12 Feb 2015.
  9. Brophy, Leo P. The Chemical Warfare Service : Organizing for War. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army : 2004. p 18. Print.
  10. Brophy, Leo P. The Chemical Warfare Service : Organizing for War. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army : 2004. p 20. Print.
  11. Brophy, Leo P. The Chemical Warfare Service : Organizing for War. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army : 2004. p 20. Print.
  12. Grayzel, Susan R. “Defense Against the Indefensible: The Gas Mask, the State and British Culture during and after the First World War.” Twentieth Century British History 25.3 (2014): 418-434. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
  13. Grayzel, Susan R. “Defense Against the Indefensible: The Gas Mask, the State and British Culture during and after the First World War.” Twentieth Century British History 25.3 (2014): 418-434. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
  14. Grayzel, Susan R. “Defense Against the Indefensible: The Gas Mask, the State and British Culture during and after the First World War.” Twentieth Century British History 25.3 (2014): 418-434. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.