Major General William L. Sibert: The Engineer that Built the Chemical Corps
How did a young man from Alabama in the US Army engineer corps become known as the “father of the chemical corps?” It was August 1914, the world was at war, and the French army in an attempt to rout the Germans deployed tear gas on the battlefield. This was the first time chemical warfare had been established in the war. The United States entered the war over two years later and needed a leader to discover a way to not only defend against chemical warfare but to use it as an offensive measure. That leader was Major General William L. Sibert, one of the most prevalent minds in the engineer corps.
”Born on a farm near Keener, Alabama in October 1860, Sibert was destine for greatness. Sibert attended primary school but left before high school. He entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in 1878 after a single year of preparatory work with a tutor. His scholastic performance won him a scholarship for his second year, and in 1880 he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Sibert distinguished himself as a student and graduated as one of the top cadets in his class in 1884” (Schexnayder, 2012). This was just the beginning of his distinguished career.
As a Second Lieutenant, Sibert, was assigned to oversee improvements on the lock and dam system on the Green and Barren Rivers. The idea of the river system was to make a dependable way to travel from Bowling Green, Kentucky up the Ohio River about ten miles outside Evansville, Indiana. When Lieutenant Sibert was appointed the duty of this mission, the locks and damn system that was currently in place was in a horrendous condition. Two out of the three of the locks walls was not in a stable condition. The estimated cost and time of the project was eight hundred thousand dollars and four years to complete it. This marked the beginning of Sibert’s engineering career. Sibert went on to not only ascend in rank, but also in reputation with his notable works on the “Soo Locks” of the Great Lakes. Although he was just an assistant his most prestigious production came when he worked on the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was a project marvel with all the limitations and high fatality rate of its workers. This was no match for Sibert and his team as they completed the canal two years ahead of schedule. In 1915 Sibert earned the rank of Brigadier General later taking command of “the Big Red One” First Infantry Division.
As the Commanding General for “the Big Red One” Brigadier General Sibert masterminded all the division’s combat training and was ready to lead them in to battle in 1917 during World War One. Bound for France, Sibert brought along his five sons; Lieutenant Colonel Franklin C. Sibert, Infantry; Major William O. Sibert, Chemical Warfare Service; Major Harold W. Sibert, Corps of Engineers; Lieutenant Edwin L. Sibert, Field Artillery; and Corporal Martin D. Sibert, Infantry. Once Sibert and his Soldiers reached France it was a well-known fact that chemical gas attacks would be a dominating force on the battlefield. This was now a necessary need to have a counter measure for this overwhelming weapon of chaos. General Sibert was task with this daunting responsibility.
In 1918 the Chemical Warfare Service was activated and newly promoted Major General Sibert was appointed to oversee this new component as the Director of the Chemical Warfare Service. There were plenty of obstacles that would present themselves in the startup of the Chemical Warfare Service. The United States Army had three agencies that were working on chemical warfare protection, ammunition and troops at this time. The Engineer Corps was tasked for supplying the troops for the Chemical Warfare Service, the Medical Department tasked for personal protective equipment to include gas masks and the Ordnance Department was tasked for creating chemical ammunition for the battlefield. Major General Sibert’s first challenge was to get these agencies to communicate and work together. The first year the American Army did not have any gas masks to use. General Sibert worked with the French Army to supply the protective masks for his men during this time. As Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, General Sibert, was placed in “charge with the investigation, development, manufacture, or procurement and supply to the Army of all smoke and incendiary materials, all toxic gases, and all gas defense appliances; the research, design, and experimentation connected with chemical warfare and its material; and chemical projectile filling plants and proving grounds; the supervision of the training of the Army in chemical warfare, both offensive and defensive, including the necessary schools of instruction; the organization, equipment, training, and operation of special gas troops and such other duties as the President may from time to time prescribe” by the Secretary of War (Clark, 1930). Sibert ramped up the production of toxic gasses in America by ten times the amount normal produced. General Sibert’s thought on chemical warfare was that it was the most effective weapons of war. In a lot of popular minds around the country and in the higher echelons of the United States Army the thought of using gas as a weapon was inhumane. With this thought the burning question was if the Chemical Warfare Service should remain part of the military or terminated. To combat the negative reputation of chemical warfare General Sibert stated, “The records show also that when the armies were provided with masks and other defensive appliances, something less than four per cent of the gas casualties were fatal. These figures, I think, meet one of the chief objections brought against the use of gas that of its inhumanity. So far from being inhumane, it has been proved that it is one of the most humane instruments of warfare, if we can apply the word humane to the killing and wounding of human beings which, of course are the objects and aims of war. Of the casualties which resulted in death, far fewer were caused by gas than by bullets, and of the remainder of the gas casualties the greater number were left without permanent injury. This, I think, helps further to prove that the argument that gas as compared with other of war\'s weapons is inhumane, is not sound.” (Clark, 1930). Gas was the weapon that could shift the swing of battle the fastest due to the element of surprise. General Sibert believed this and told a story on how a man in a factory, that was producing lethal gas, threw some chlorine in a raw line and another worker nearby recognized the odor. He was in a panic running and screaming down the dirt road about the gas. This in returned sent everyone one into a panic and with all the running around the dust was kicked up from the road to further drive the notion that the gas was loose. General Sibert with the help of General Pershing convinced the President that there was a need and a place for the Chemical Warfare Service in the US Army. In 1946 the Chemical Warfare Service was renamed to the Chemical Corps which is still ruling the battle through the elements to this day.
General Sibert’s great accomplishments as the Chief of the Chemical Warfare Services granted him a place on top of the chemical world. He was awarded Distinguished Service Medal and the French Legion of Honor for the part that he played in the World War. There were several camps and post at one time named after General Sibert as well as a town in Kentucky. To this day you can find the Sibert Wing at the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. All of these great honors represent the great work and character of Major General Sibert, however his legacy lives on through the Sibert award given to the best Chemical Company for the year.
In conclusion, Major General William L. Sibert was a hardworking and very intelligent young man from Alabama. His drive and passion for his profession in the Engineer Corps lead him to countless accomplishments that solidified his name in American history. His dedication of perfection and strong stand constructed the Chemical Warfare Service piece by piece thus bestowing on him the father of the Chemical Corps.
C. J. Schexnayder, Dallas, Texas 2012
EDWARD B. CLARK Colonel, United States \'Army, Res. 1930
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