Professor David's war

By George Cussons
Intern and Deputy Project Manager

Sir Edgeworth David

Sir Edgeworth David is universally respected both in and out of the geology field and in my opinion, one of the greatest geologists of all times. Born in Wales to a Welsh-Irish family, he was educated in England, graduating from Oxford in 1880 with a Bachelor of Arts in Geology. He was an adventurous man with a strong passion for fieldwork, a key aspect of being a geologist.

This passion for fieldwork served him well when at the age of 24, he moved to Australia for the position of Assistant Geological Surveyor to the Government of New South Wales. This move to Australia was to be hugely beneficial to his career as in the space of nine years, he was appointed as Chair of Geology at Sydney University. Successful surveys for the Government led to the opening of tin deposits in New England district and the locating of both the Greta coal stream and the Rocky River Goldfield at Uralla. Years later, in 1907, David was invited to join Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition to the Antarctic. Just shy of 50 years of age, David quickly accepted this invitation, which perhaps pays homage to his adventurous nature.

At the outbreak of the Great War, David was 56 years of age. This did not dampen his eagerness to join the war effort, reinforced by his statement 'I think it is the Romance of war that appeals to me' in a letter he sent his wife shortly into the war. Later in that same letter, he goes on to clarify that it was the 'comradeship in war', which he admired so greatly. He joined the Ulysses, an Australian mining Battalion with the rank of Major. The fact that he was to be a Major, an officer's rank would play a pivotal part in his ability to communicate the importance of geology in military operations.

Geological work on the Western Front contributed by Professor David and Captain King
Geological work on the Western Front

This was in complete contrast to the Germans who had a special class of Privates known as Kriegsgeologen. Although the Germans recognised geology as an important aspect of their war effort, evidenced by the existence and strength in number of the Kriegsgeologen, the German geologists often had trouble relaying their information on to commanding officers. This was partly due to their low rank and lack of status, but also the complexity of their notes and information on geological maps often led to confusion.

Although David held the rank of Major, this was not a result of the Allied forces recognising the significance that geology would play in the war effort. The German military also had sections known as 'Geologen Stellen' in well-equipped offices on the front line and back in headquarters. This is another aspect of where they faced issues with the relaying information to the front, as the staff in the offices did not always clearly explain their discoveries and ideas.

Touching on Professor David's widely-respected personality, on route to the Western Front he gave numerous lectures and speeches to the officers and NCOs on the geology of the Western Front, he also talks on the various expeditions he had been part of, the most requested being the Antarctic expedition with Shackleton. Through reading about Sir Edgeworth David's life, I could not help but associate his nature and the academic admiration he received with that of Sir David Attenborough, a man so widely respected, loved and admired.

The work of geologists on the Western Front was very varied, such as solving water supply issues, locating rock-materials for concrete and roads, choosing sites suitable for bridges and trenches as well as mine-galleries. In an area where Chalk was predominant, the study of the seasonal water table fluctuations was of paramount importance. Professor David, alongside William Bernard Robinson King, made important discoveries and significant contributions relating to water table fluctuations. More on this subject can be found in the "William Bernard Robinson King" article in the project WWI section of the Geology Trust website.

Shows one example where the geological knowledge of Edgeworth was put into use in WW1
Figure 1

Figure 1 shows one example where the geological knowledge of Edgeworth was put into use. The figure depicts that one of the tunnels at this location was regularly wet and or flooding. David was tasked with discovering the reason for this and giving advice on how to rectify it.

Due to the outlined fault offsetting the strata (layers of sediment) it resulted in the tunnel to the right of the fault being excavated in water bearing strata. Although the tunnel was excavated at the same depth as the two tunnels to the left, the fault has caused a shift in strata resulting in water-bearing strata to be present. The wet tunnel was therefore abandoned and reconstructed in strata like that of the dry tunnels at a different location. Although the reasoning for the commission of this research was to improve tunnels used exclusively for officers and not your average Tommy, the findings and recommendations produced by David highlighted the significance of his work.

This, along with his work on the mines at Hill 70, where at 70 feet down the miners hit such wet ground that command feared the mine would have to be abandoned. However, upon examining the already excavated soil, David discovered that the mine was being dug in an old riverbed. He made recommendations for a deeper mine and the issue was avoided. These are two instances where the importance of geology and David's work were demonstrated.

The geologist's knowledge of the Western Front greatly improved the efficiency of the Allied Powers as they were advised where they should focus defensive construction as to avoid being flooded later. Sometime into the war the Battalion was disbanded, and the companies were placed at the disposal of the Inspector of Mines with David being a significant asset, whose expertise was in constant demand by all Commanding Officers of the tunnelling companies.

Chalk Water Level Curves
Chalk Water Level Curves

On the 25th September 1916, he was called upon to resolve a dry well issue. This well was over 100 feet deep and immediately his men volunteered to descend the well as to look after their now ageing commander. He refused and began his descent. At 20 feet down, the windlass snapped and sent him free falling for the remanding 80 feet of the shaft. David suffered severe injuries with internal bleeding, two broken ribs and a deep head wound. Disregarding his state of welfare, on his ascent up the well he took notes of the water level. Within six weeks of the accident the heroic Major was back on the frontline continuing his vital work.

July 7th, 1917 saw the 19-mile explosion of the mines from Hill 60 to Messines, the culmination of over 18 months of work by the Tunnelling Companies. It is described by David as 'one of the greatest results that the world has ever seen coming from military tunnelling'. This success was in great part due to David's geological expertise, which resulted in him receiving various medals and acknowledgements such as the Distinguished Service Order in 1918, along with the Royal Society of New South Wales awarding him with the Clarke Memorial Medal.

The Clarke Memorial Medal is awarded each year for distinguished research in the natural sciences, and the year of 1918 was for geology, supporting my claim that David was perhaps the greatest geologist of his time. Another notable event that occurred under David's' watchful eye was the uncovering of a fossil mammoth in the winter of 1917-1918, 'The beastly Boche has gone and captured my fossil mammoth blast him!' David remarked in a letter to his wife as the Allied Forces lost this land to the Central Powers who removed the fossilised mammoth and claimed it for themselves.

Sir Edgeworth David, Captain King and any other serving geologists during the war, undoubtedly proved the importance of geology in military operations. They also made sure their findings were recorded and used away from the theatre of war from the locating of ground water and natural resources, along with how the earth responds under pressures such as saturation and weight.

After the war, David and King contributed geological data to Royal Engineers publications and continued their important geological research. For the importance and success of his geological work throughout his life and particularly during WWI, Professor David was awarded a state funeral from the Australian Government. To my knowledge, it makes Professor David the only geologist to date to receive such an honour.




Professor David – The life of Sir Edgeworth David – by M. Edgeworth David, 1937