William Bernard Robinson King
nicknamed "Rocks" by the Royal Engineers

By Benedicte Windle, Treasurer and volunteer

The Royal Engineers BuildingAccording to records found at Northallerton Records Office, William Bernard Robinson King was baptised in the Parish of Aysgarth, North Yorkshire. We do not know much of his early life apart from the fact his father was registered as a solicitor at the time of his birth in West Burton.

King graduated from Jesus College Cambridge in 1912 with a First Class Honours in Geology and joined the Geological Survey soon after graduation. In April 1915 he was appointed to the War Office at the age of 25 and in June sent to France as Second Lieutenant, Geological Adviser to the Chief Engineer of the British Expeditionary Force with regards to water supply, the first geologist to be appointed as such.

He played a pivotal role in getting geology accepted, used and respected in the field of military operations with the legendary Edgeworth David who arrived in France in May 1916. We devote another article to Professor Edgeworth David and his War.

WBR King's expertise in hydrology and stratigraphy served to the siting and recording of wells for the supply of water to the army. Before his appointment, water diviners were relied upon, field hospitals and headquarters for example were sited haphazardly and found to be inadequately supplied in water and vital manpower was used to ferry water in field water cans over great distances for the purpose of laundry.

William Bernard Robinson King, the first British military geologist to be appointed as such.A summary article of "Geology on the Western Front" and "Egdgeworth David's War" offer further insight in the progress that was made and the blunders avoided by the effective and practical use of geology at the Front.

He also achieved practical successes in well technology with the design of wire screens and sand filters which allowed yields from the Ypres aquifer that the locals had never been able to achieve by boreholes.

With Edgeworth David, he made a study of the water table in chalk and its fluctuation. He determined a lag of 2 to 4 weeks between rainfalls and the appearance of water underground. This had a practical incidence on the lower levels of galleries and the time it would take to drive them in and proved capital in the timing of mine construction. The success in the driving of mines and dug-outs relied on knowledge exact enough to miss water-laden sand beds and sunken river channels and sometimes reach an impervious clay stratum beneath the water-logged sands and gravels with a shaft.

Geological section along front line from Nieuport to the SommeOne piece of unusual geological work King undertook, had implications in the arena of international politics. The neutral Dutch government was accused by Britain of allowing its canals to be used for the transportation of materials of military significance, like concrete aggregate. King demonstrated the presence in captured emplacements on the Passchendale Ridge of Niedermendig basalt from the Rhineland. From this, a case was built, pressure applied and King's use of forensic geology put a stop to the transport of German material through Holland into Belgium.

Captain King, his rank at the end of WWI, was mentioned twice in dispatches.
He made sure the information from the 414 borings for water that were made during WWI, mostly under his supervision, was recorded and used.

Both he and Professor David contributed the data for the Corps Publication "Geological Work on the Western Front (anon 1922). "Should the British Empire in the future become involved in another war, there is no question that the existence of an adequate geological staff from the commencement would be the means of much saving of expense, labour and life."

These two men by their professionalism, passion and knowledge of geology and their close collaboration highlighted the invaluable contribution that geology could make to military operations and gave Britain the advantage in warfare. Their achievements, status, charisma and rank enabled them to break down barriers to science, generate respect for geology and scientific methodology and demonstrate the practical applications of the science of geology in the field of military operations.

In later life, King also recounted a day when all in B.E.F. were put to geological work when Professor David came across a mammoth tooth and man-made tool implements! Recording and preserving the evidence of life – an essential consideration for both these driven and brilliant individuals.

Their work and achievements established geology as a crucial element of strategic warfare and their collaboration set the path for a whole geology department in the War Office.

Details for Geological test boring setsKing went on to serve in the Second World War as the senior of three geologists who provided expertise to the British Army in North West Europe, North Africa and the Italian Campaign. After WWII, he became Geological Adviser to the War Office and saw the creation of an emergency reserve of geological officers.

"His scientific record was quite outstanding but those who knew him appreciated him for his gentle kindly spirit and sympathetic understanding. There is no doubt that when any honours were bestowed upon Bill King, it was in appreciation of the man as much as his geological work" F. W Shotton




1889 – 1963 F W Shotton Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society Vol 9 (Nov 1963) pp 171-182

The Royal Engineers Journal Vol 107 1993 Sapper Geology Part 1 Lessons learnt from World War Colonel EPF Rose and Colonel NF Hughes

The Use of Geology on the Western Front Alfred H. Brooks Department of the Interior – United States Geological Survey - Published September 1920