Features / History / Publishing

Military geology: an innovation of the 1914-18 World War

A guest post from Ted Rose, Honorary Research Fellow at Royal Holloway’s Department of Earth Sciences

On 11 November 1918 the guns fell silent on the Western Front, and the First World War horrors of trench warfare came to an end. The centenary of that armistice will be widely celebrated and much featured in the media during November 2018.

British troops (of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars: a Territorial Army unit) entrenched near Zillebeke, east of Ypres in Belgium, February 1915

It’s not very well known that the Great War was the first conflict in which geologists were to serve as such in uniform: two with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front; eventually nine with the American Expeditionary Force on that Front; about 60 with Austro-Hungarian forces on several fronts; and over 200 with German forces, on even more fronts. That story forms part of a substantial account published in an Open Access paper by the Geological Society to help mark the centenary of the armistice from a geological perspective – you can access it here: https://doi.org/10.1144/SP473.15.

The two British military geologists on the Western Front: Captain Bill King (centre) and Lt-Colonel Edgeworth David (right) with Professor Charles Barrois after the Allied liberation of Lille in northern France in October 1918: photo courtesy of King’s granddaughter, Jane Ritchie

The account forms the introductory chapter to the Geological Society of London’s Special Publication 473, Military Aspects of Geology: Fortification, Excavation and Terrain Evaluation. Three further chapters in the book focus on the First World War. They describe how aspects of engineering geology relate to trench construction by both British and German forces operational in northern France and Belgium; how quarrying for ‘stone’ to enhance or repair roads and railways made a vital contribution to the infrastructure necessary for the movement of men, stores and munitions in the operational area of the BEF; and how excavation of both tunnels charged with explosives and dugouts to protect troops from bombardment were a feature of the Eastern as well as the Western Front.

One of the mine craters still visible in Belgium: a legacy of the First World War. Photo E.P.F. Rose

As ‘the war to end all wars’, the First World War failed. The Second World War began in 1939, and geologists were again in uniform – even more of them than in the First War. The British Army began the war with but a single geologist, Professor ‘Bill’ King, sent to France as a major with the new BEF to do essentially the same job in the same place as in the First World War. But by the end of the war the British had made use of 24 geologists in uniform, the US Army 88 military geologists (albeit few of them in uniform), and the German armed forces amazingly over 400 (all in uniform). Geology was to influence quarrying and tunnelling, as in the First World War, and geologists were also to be employed in fortification, aerial photographic interpretation and the assessment of terrain with regard to its suitability for ‘going’ (cross-country vehicular movement).

Gibraltar: protecting a major British naval base, the fortifications of the long-famous ‘Rock’ were enhanced by significant military tunnelling and quarrying during the Second World War

All these topics are covered by chapters in the book. That by Professor Hermann Häusler of the University of Vienna describes how Austrian and German military geologists were deployed in Norway to assist the major programme of coastal fortification known as the ‘Atlantic Wall’. This helped to pioneer the modern disciplines of both rock mechanics and soil mechanics. Almost incredibly, whilst the distinguished Arthur Casagrande was pioneering soil mechanics in the USA and providing courses for the US Army, his younger brother Leo was pioneering the subject in Germany and providing technical direction for construction projects undertaken for and by the German armed forces: two brothers on opposite sides, until the war ended and they became united in teaching at Harvard University.

However, ‘military geology’ has a history longer than the two World Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte was the first general to take geologists on a military campaign: the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. During much of the nineteenth century, geology was sometimes perceived as one of the ‘military sciences’. These are topics covered in the introductory chapter, while following chapters in the book describe nineteenth-century fortification in the UK (against potential invasion by the French) and in the USA (against potential invasion by the British!), as well as a campaign in the American Civil War influenced by geological features.

St Helen’s Fort: the smallest of the nineteenth-century forts constructed to defend the Solent channel of southern England. Image courtesy of grumpylumixuser, CC BY 3.0, wiki commons

And the subject is not just of historical interest. One chapter in the book demonstrates how the movement of ancient fortification walls in the UK can provide clues to the nature and frequency of long-term slope failure. Another, from Hong Kong, how wartime tunnel demolitions as part of a programme of route denial to invading forces influenced remedial works in recent years. Yet another, from Iraq, describes how detection of tunnels improvised by insurgents can be a very significant aspect of modern conflict, influenced by geology and so requiring assessment by geologists. Geological lessons learnt from the First World War, and subsequently, have continuing applications. Let’s remember that as we remember the armistice centenary.

Image: Tank halted by an anti-tank ditch constructed during British trials to counter cross-country mobility during the Cold War of 1949–91: photo E.P.F. Rose

The complete Special Publication will be published online and as a hardback book early in 2019, in time to mark the centenary of the talk given to the Geological Society on 26 February 1919 by Lieutenant-Colonel T.W. Edgeworth David, en route home to Australia from his service as the senior of the two military geologists at General Headquarters of the BEF on the Western Front. David was to die from an accident in 1934 and to be accorded a state funeral – a rare honour for a geologist!

SP473 cover v1bFurther reading

2 thoughts on “Military geology: an innovation of the 1914-18 World War

  1. Pingback: Thank you to all our reviewers in 2018! | Geological Society of London blog

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