Geology & Warfare

Soldier in muddy trenche at the frontAt the onset of the First World War, geology is disregarded in the field of operations. It is considered abstract and speculative, not concrete and with no practical application to military or engineering problems.

This dismissal led to blunders, hospitals which run out of water in the dry season, front-line dugouts having to be abandoned as they fill with water. The ignorance of the underlying geology meant wasted resources in materials, equipment and labour. More tragically it led to the order to defend positions with less than a foot of soil on a limestone plateau during the Battle of Verdun (February to December 1916) and resulted in significant and needless loss of life.

Patchy geological knowledge

Generally the knowledge and use of the disciplines of geology were limited to individuals and a basic understanding of geological principles or narrow fields of geological expertise.

The French had been the first to recognise the use of geology in the field of military topography and the obvious link between topography and drainage, topography and stratigraphy and structure. They identified the role of topography in the control of military movements by high lands, scarps and watercourses.

Apart from topography, Colonel Cooper King was probably the first professional soldier to recognise the application of geology to war but little attention was paid to his pioneering work. The same can be said of Captain Kraus in Germany and geologists were simply mobilised with their units.

For example, the Chief Engineer of the Belgian Army was also the Secretary to the Geological Society of Belgium and he made full use of his geological knowledge.

The French used geological maps but they were of poor quality. They had some knowledge of topography, hydrology and maps and limited training for their officers.

Map of Water SupplyThe British had maps extending further into enemy territory, not as precise but very important. The German maps captured showed a selection of targets for artillery fire like pumping stations and pipelines but there is no evidence that they held maps of allied territories.

The German recognised the importance of geology in transportation, in the building of railroads, canals… There was little use of geology in that domain by British and American armies. The French had a degree of knowledge of road metal and quarries, but only really used it for finding aggregate and making concrete.

Finding groundwater was essential and to that end, the German used diviners. The United States paid little attention to geology and ran out of water for hospitals, aviation fields and other military establishments during the dry season. Only then were geologists called. The French used engineers to find water and this was costly and not efficient but the engineers were reasonably well-trained in hydrology. The British drilled uphazardly but were the first to recognise their error.

Luckily the blunders had less impact because the water-bearing strata were widely distributed on the Western Front.

Things were made worse by the military requiring instant results, sometimes overnight, where there were clear obstacles to observation and recording, so geology remained under suspicion, That was the situation on both sides of the conflict for the first two years of the war.

Getting organised

In May 1915, the British Expeditionary Force got its first member of staff and geologist - Captain WBR King, in charge of water resources in areas occupied by the British Army and the application of geology to military affairs.

May 1916 saw Lieutenant Colonel Edgeworth David is assigned as geological adviser to the engineers and their general HQ and the first use of geology for mine warfare.

In Germany there was a close connection between engineering and geology. Professor Albrecht Penck was the adviser to the German general staff on matters of geology and geography. A good demonstration that geology was dismissed at the beginning of the war is that Professor Penck was on a lecture tour in Europe and was allowed to return to Germany unhindered after war was declared.

Water - Exhibition panel at Royal Engineers MuseumDespite being more formally organised in matters of geology, the German Army also suffered setbacks. They had created a special class of privates known as Kriegsgeologen with field survey, an intelligence section and information bureaux (providing summary of literature, compilation of maps and identification of rocks and fossils by older geologists). The German maps ended up being too detailed and difficult to read and interpret and therefore of little use in the field.

The Geologen Staffen (geology sections) were comfortable in well-equipped offices, convenient for the front line. There were 100 geologists in the German Army investigating military problems on the Western Front. However their low rank caused many issues with lack of authority, influence and status.

There are geologists attached to the Austrian Army after the organisation of the Geology Corps in the German Army.

The contribution of geology

In terms of the contribution geology made, it was wide-ranging from the physical character of surface formations, the depth to hard rock, the depth to ground water, the lithography and structure to 100 meters, the distribution of water-bearing beds and surface outcrops, the distribution of rock for road metal and sand and gravel for concrete, the control of stream run-off.

Tunnelling - Exhibition panel at Royal Engineers MuseumAlthough the use of geology on the Western Front was helped by the existence of French and Belgian maps and the relative simplicity of the geology, clearly the accuracy of the information depended on advance and field conditions.

Geology was informative in the siting of fieldworks and therefore a help to the tactical commander if only by informing a process of elimination and enabling to make judgement on the time and resources a project was going to take..

The facts which had an impact on mining and underground warfare were the distribution, thickness and structure of formation, the physical character of formation and underground water. For example, at the Siege of Sebastopol (1854-55), the Allies had encountered a bed of shale which made progress in gallery construction quick after hard limestone. But Geology was entirely overlooked when it could have determined the position of layers favourable to mining rather than leaving to luck.

Great Britain's mining success was due in great part to Edgeworth David's detailed geology work, his presence in close proximity to the Front and his close collaboration with Captain WBR King.

During the war, France did pioneering work in the development of a classification of surface deposits according to possibility of movement of artillery and infantry.

Britain worked on the effects of barrage fire and created a broad classification of the Front with regards to the use of tanks.

The US Expeditionary Force worked on river crossings, the fluctuation of stream volume and the character of river bottoms.

The Germans devised a Manual, which gave information on telegraphy and listening devices as certain underground conditions favoured the transmission of electrical currents but lack of coordination meant that often the knowledge was left unused.

The German Army made use of the geology in forecasting conditions encountered in an advance but this was a late development and not much space was devoted to it in the secret manual of war geology published in January 1918.

One of the major contributions of geology was to mineral resources. Geology is of vital importance to the identification, location and sourcing of minerals to meet military needs in the home countries, the theatres of operations for use by the armies and in the country of the enemy. It was also invaluable to adapt to new circumstances dictated by the growing conflict as alligiences altered more countries were involved, transportation routes were cut, historical quarries and mines had to be reopened to exploitation at home and new materials were needed such as rare metals.

Section Across Vimy Ridge



The usefulness of geology was recognised by the end of the war and the creation of geological staffs became widespread. The First World War represents a tipping point for geology. It starts as a knowledge used by those who have it, in narrow disciplines related mostly to engineering, dismissed by most as having no practical use. It becomes of strategic and tactical importance to military warfare, not only in some disciplines but thanks to the over-arching benefits of its all-encompassing nature and its scientific methodology twinned with its practical application to the field of operations.

"Of two opposing armies, the having the best knowledge of the terrain will have the advantage. A complete knowledge of the terrain is however possible only by the use of geology." Alfred H. Brooks The Use of Geology on the Western Front

Because of its significant role in the First World War, three types of geological preparations for war are suggested: The general principles of geology and their application as a part of military education. Peacetime preparation should include the collection and coordination of geological data relating to all possible theatres of operation. A reserve staff of geologists - engineers should be organised and experienced professional geologists trained to be developed to full usefulness in active service.

The Use of Geology on the Western Front, Alfred H. Brooks, Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey, Published 1920
Royal Engineers Museum Exhibition
The Royal Engineers Journal Volume 107
Work of RE in the European War 1914-1919 – Geological Work on the Western Front