World War I -- Life Histories/Section 019/William Borden Cobb

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William Borden Cobb was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina and served as a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Services section of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.

Biography[edit]

Family and Early Life[edit]

William Borden Cobb was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1894[1] to William Henry Cobb and Georgia Borden Cobb. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1916.[2] Cobb’s younger brother, Don, was a medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated while Cobb was in France.[3] His parents owned a Cadillac and vacationed to Florida at some point during his time overseas.

Military Service[edit]

After enlisting in the Army in 1918, Cobb spent the early part of his military service stateside, where he underwent basic training in the US Army at Camp Merritt, New Jersey. He was then given a role in the Chemical Warfare Services at Camp Merritt, serving in the Field Supply Section of the Gas Defense Service of the Sanitary Department of the Medical Corps. He was responsible for the final inspection of newly constructed gas masks before shipping them overseas to the front. “We sent thirty-five thousand gas masks to France this week and we hope to send fifty thousand,” Cobb stated in one of his letters home from the time period.[4] Cobb eventually went to France, where he worked as a member of the Overseas Repair Section of the Gas Defense Services. Cobb was always behind the front, with his job consisting of testing, issuing and repairing gas masks that circulated back and forth from the frontlines. Cobb also took various leaves to Paris and Bordeaux, writing to his family that “my first impression of France is that it is indeed a wonderfully beautiful country."[5]

AEF University[edit]

Cobb studied in the American Expeditionary Forces University in Buene, France following his service in the war. The university provided enlisted American soldiers with the chance to receive a university-level education, teaching anything from fine arts to engineering[6] on the military budget. Cobb was initially rejected from the University; there were only a certain amount of soldiers accepted from every unit, and in the Chemical Warfare Services it was very selective. After consulting with an educational advisor, Cobb was accepted on his third attempt and immediately took a 3-month business course. He later registered for and completed courses in accounting, commercial law, and insurance. In letters back to his family, Cobb commented that there were high-quality lessons and instructors at the university but a poor quality of living conditions.[7]

Later Life[edit]

Following the war, Cobb married Carol Collier. He died on June 1, 1957.[8]

Social Issues[edit]

Racism in World War I[edit]

Cobb’s letters reveal much about the social norms of the front, as well as wider issues of race relations in Europe and the United States at the time. Cobb repeatedly wrote back to his family about his disgust at having to room with African-American soldiers as well as his hatred for Algerians, who, being both “negro and oriental” were in his opinion the lowest form of human.[9] Indeed, African-American soldiers were still seen as second-class citizens in many ways even when fighting alongside whites in WWI. Many African-American veterans from the south were lynched almost immediately upon their return home after the war, some of them still in uniform. One of the first initiatives of the newly formed NAACP in the early 20th century was fighting for the rights of aggrieved African-American veterans of World War I.[10]

Chemical Warfare[edit]

Chemical warfare was in its primitive stages in World War I and mostly experimental, but laid the groundwork for future chemical weaponry.[11] Cobb, as a member of the Chemical Warfare Services, played an important role in the construction and maintenance of gas masks throughout the war. During a training exercise at Camp Merritt, Cobb and his unit were instructed to briefly remove their masks in a field of tear gas to experience firsthand what they were protecting their fellow Americans on the front from by working on the masks.[12] World War I was the U.S. Army’s first significant exposure to chemical warfare.[13] It was utilized by all sides in the conflict and caused an estimated 90,000 deaths.[14] Poison gas was publicly reviled more than any other weapon in World War I and had significant detractors in the public sphere.[15]

References[edit]

  1. "Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records and Online Memorials." Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records and Online Memorials. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. <http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=127411644>.
  2. "North Carolina Yearbook Index: Results." North Carolina Yearbook Index: Results. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.ncgenweb-data.com/ybook/resultlist.php?county=wayne&state=NC>.
  3. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 9. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  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. 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.
  6. White, William Allen. "The Highbrow Doughboy." Red Cross Magazine 1 Jan. 1919. Print.”
  7. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 5. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  8. "Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records and Online Memorials." Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records and Online Memorials. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. <http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=127411644>.
  9. Cobb, William Borden. Letter to William H. Cobb Jr. and Georgia Borden Cobb. July 1918. Box 05266, Folder 2. William Borden Cobb Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 1 March 2015.
  10. Shmoop Editorial Team. "Race in World War I." Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. <http://www.shmoop.com/wwi/race.html>.
  11. Heller, Charles E. “Leavenworth Papers: The Chemical Warfare In World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, US Army and General Staff College, 1984. Print.”
  12. 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.
  13. Heller, Charles E. “Leavenworth Papers: The Chemical Warfare In World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, US Army and General Staff College, 1984. Print.”
  14. "Firstworldwar.com." First World War.com. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/gas.htm>.
  15. Heller, Charles E. “Leavenworth Papers: The Chemical Warfare In World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, US Army and General Staff College, 1984. Print.”