Recording date:

Virginia Passmore puts the work of fellow Australian geologist Edgeworth David into context.

In association with the Canberra Great War Study Group, the Estaminet.

Transcript of On War: Military Geologists in the First World War

Speakers: Peter Stanley (P), Virginia Passmore (V)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 19/07/2016

P:         Well good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the ... I think it’s the first meeting of the year of the Canberra Great War Study Group also known as the Estaminet. The Estaminet is a First World War pub and the original idea was, was that those in Canberra interested in the First World War would get together, and have a drink at lunchtime, or whatever and talk about the war. It turns out we’ve never met in a pub but we’ve kept the named the Estaminet, and now the Estaminet is an outgrowth connected with the Western Front Association of the UK. Any Western Front Association members here today? Oh good on you, special welcome. And can I welcome especially Paul Simadas. Put your hand up again, Paul. Paul Simadas is the head of the Sydney Western Front Association which is a very active group of First World War enthusiasts, so if you’re in Sydney you can go to his meeting, it’s just like he’s welcome to come to ours. We hold about three or four meetings a year and for the past couple of years we’ve been very grateful that the National Library of Australia has supported our meetings and I welcome you to the National Library as well.

Now tonight we’ll hear Virginia Passmore on the very interesting subject of military geologists in the First World War. You’ll be very much aware I think that tonight is the centenary of the Australian attack at Fromelles, and you might think that we would have put on a talk about Fromelles. Well everybody in the world’s talking about Fromelles at the moment so we thought we’d be a bit unpredictable, but there is a connection with Fromelles because as you might know just as the attack at Fromelles began, Australian engineers on the left flank of the attack set off a mine, which they hoped would distract the Germans and deter them from firing on the flank of the attack, and of course it didn’t work but that mine was one of the very many hundreds of mines that were dug and prepared and planned and executed by the people that Virginia will be talking about tonight, the engineers and the geologists who operated on both sides.

Just a word about Virginia. Like her hero, Edgeworth David, she’s both a geologist and a migrant to this country as you’ll hear as soon as she opens her mouth. For many years she worked at the Bureau of Mineral Resources here in Canberra and since her retirement she’s volunteered at both the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia and she also teaches in the excellent and long-running U3A Course in Canberra, Aspects of Military History so now ... pardon?

V:         Attends, not ...

P:         Attends. Oh but you will be, though? You will be teaching in it, yeah, there you go. See? She’s one of the people who’ve been conscripted ... you thought there was no conscription in Australia in the First World War. Ah-ah, you haven’t been to the U3A group in Canberra. Now Virginia will speak for about their ... hello, that’s David there who runs the U3A military history course. Virginia will speak for 35 minutes or so and then we’ll open the floor to questions and discussion. Now the the attendance book is circulating. Can I ask you to sign the book and put your email address, in because we at the Estaminet like to keep you informed of future meetings, and at the end of Virginia’s talk I’ll tell you about two future meetings of the Estaminet. So, Virginia, can I turn the floor over to you? Ladies and gentlemen, can I ask you to welcome Virginia Passmore talking about military geologist of the First World War. All yours.


V:         Okay. Well most of you will not have heard of military geologists, or of Edgeworth David. In the First World War he was the first Australian geologist to be appointed for his geological expertise as a geological advisor to the army. Now note for the First World War I’ll quite often use the term military but in that aspect I mean army. But military geologists also advised the navy and the airforce in the second world war. I’m going to talk first about the usage of military geologists in the British, German, American and French armies and generally about what they did and the important role they played in the war. I’m also going to talk to you about Edgeworth David’s wartime activities and his contribution to the war effort. His work on the Western Front during World War One changed the perception of geology’s practical use for British military purposes.

Right, I’ll begin with why we need military geologists and to remind you why geology is needed by the military. The geological characteristics of contested terrain have long influenced the outcome of battles in war. The intelligent use of the terrain of the battlefield, movement of supplies and personnel and the procurement of adequate supplies of water and of construction materials rely on an understanding and application of the geological principles.

Geologists were first used as professional geologists in wartime to advise the army in world war one. During the First World War the British, American, German and Austro-Hungarian armies utilised geological advice extensively and systematically creating special military geology units. Contributions to the war were also made by civilian geologists in World War One to the British, American and German armies either as individuals or in groups. The French, Russian, Italian and some of the other armies used the advice of civilian geologists and scientific research establishments to solve geological problems in the various theatres of war. But all armies had officers who did not regard the geologists as militarily important and failed to seek or use geological advice.

Now what exactly does a military geologist do? Well civilian geologists compiled available data from existing maps and publications covering all of Europe, not just the territory held by their own army. They carried out analysis of the data and produced terrain maps and advice. Those appointed to military positons and were on the ground of the Western Front didn’t just sit in their offices but they also carried out field surveys of the surface rock outcrops and investigated the subsurface rocks. They identified rock type, the distribution, extent and limits of individual rock units, the thickness and variation of individual units, their physical properties such as whether they were wet or dry, hard or soft and their composition. For investigation of subsurface rocks the geologists undertook borings and would also go down wells and into trenches and mines including those at the front. They prepared simplified maps and cross-sections that the military mind could understand. Sorry if I’ve offended anyone.

These maps had legends that indicated not only rock types such as clay, sandstone or limestone but whether the unit was wet or dry. What military use it could be put to, was it good for tunnelling? Should it be used for trenches and dugouts? What units to avoid and also identified subsurface water zones. Now William King of world war one, geological advisor, recognised that as a geologist advising non-geologists tasked with decisions involving the best use of ground found his advice had to be clearly relevant to the specific problem in hand such as sites for boreholes to extract potable water, evacuations for dugouts or rapid construction of temporary airfields, that it made more impact to communicate initially with simplified illustrations such as maps than technical words. And that in the military context at least non-geologists seeking advice were interested fundamentally in just two concepts, go and no-go. It might be necessary to introduce a third intermediate category of slow-go but anything more complex was likely to lose impact. And I understand that principle still applies.

At the start of the war German and British geologists were immobilised without regard to the possible value of their services in their own profession. By 1915 the opposing armies became bogged down in trench warfare. The static conditions on the Western Front resulted in trench warfare that required geological knowledge. Britain appointed two experienced geologists as military geological advisors to the British Expeditionary Force, William King and Edgeworth David. In early 1915 the German army began to develop the use of geology in warfare on the Western Front and the army created a staff of geologists called the Griggs Geologian under Professor Hans Philip from the University of Griefswald. Initially the army identified a need to find water supplies, particularly underground water supplies. The water allocation on the Western Front was 10 gallons per man, per animal, per day. The available water supplies were insufficient to cater to the vast numbers of men and animals. Britain appointed one man, William King, an experienced geologist, who worked for the British Geological Survey; Germany appointed 20.

In the early part of the war the need for geological knowledge as a preparation for military mining was not recognised. By 1916, however, both Britain and Germany also recognised the need for advice on defensive mining for trenches, dugouts and fortifications and offensive mining such as tunnelling. In addition there was also a need for terrain classification for troop and vehicle movement and for locating construction materials and road metals. Britain appointed Edgeworth David, an experienced Australian geologist, to advise on military mining in 1916. At that time he was Professor of Geology at Sydney University. Germany vastly increased their geology section to 60 geologists by 1917.

Geologists were appointed to each of the five army corps, ensuring that the Germans frequently held the better ground, dug better trenches and built the better emplacements. Unlike the British expeditionary force, the German geologist’s role was only advice, not supervision of operations. In the German army by 1917, geology groups evolved into a former military organisation. The German geologists reported to the engineering staff officer through a geologist in uniform. The geologist in charge had a rank ranging from commissioned officer down to private. The relatively low rank accorded geologists created problems for them in the hierarchical military system, and indicated the low prestige of geology in the German army. By 1918, Britain had five geologists in its geological section, Germany had one hundred.

Now the French made no geological preparation for war on their own terrain. Like those in Germany, French geologists of military age were mobilised into units unrelated to their geological experience until 1916. No geological staff was organised in the French army during the war and little definite recognition was given to military applications as a science, however there was a larger use of geological maps among French officers than among those of any other allied army. And by 1915, the study of military geography had been refined by the French. The French, however, were leaders in the military application of hydrology. They actively drilled thousands of water wells in areas lacking surface supplies. Also the geophone, a French development, was very useful tool during the war.

The Americans, who came late into the war—not until 1917—, profited from the experience of their allies and organised geological work from the start, primarily to solve the problems of water supply and excavation of earth works, although some of the American officers failed to recognise the use of geological knowledge. Initially the Americans appointed two experienced geologists to their geological unit: Alfred Brooks, an experienced geologist, and E C Eccles, an engineering geologist. They were assigned to the Office of the Chief Engineer at Tours rather than to the American Expeditionary Force operational headquarters at Chermont, an indication that the geologists were not recognised as militarily important by much of the army.

Now Brooks met Edgeworth David in October 1917, and David gave Brooks information detailing the best practice in the construction of dugouts and trenches and in locating groundwater, road metal and mineral resources. Brooks also briefed the American Army on the necessity of coordinated land and air attacks to exploit mining successes, a lesson learned the hard way by the British. His reports were not initially acted upon by either the War Department or the American Army, and it required considerable effort to bring them to the head of the Army’s notice. The US Army also created a specialist mining regiment. No geologists were among those officers recruited.

Now let’s look at the working conditions of the geological military advisors. Trench warfare on the Western Front allowed time for the geologist to conduct field studies. However, relatively few officers of the high command of the various armies that employed geologists had any adequate conception of the application of geology to military and engineering problems. There was sometimes a failure to apply the results achieved by using geologists or to seek the advice of geologists on problems that clearly lay within their field of expertise. It was regarded by many officers as a purely abstract rather than a practical and concrete science. Difficulties for the military geologist included not only their advice being ignored but the physical obstacles to observation and recording of data and the fact that when geological results were wanted they were demanded immediately. Many of the responsible officers of the various armies had no idea of the necessity for field studies. The need to give geologic officers the opportunity to do field work and study the terrain was often ignored. All armies were guilty of not using or ignoring geological advice well into the war.

Now I’ll give you just a few examples of the armies not using geological advice. This was the part that I really enjoyed. At the battle of Verdun in 1916 a French officer ordered his men to dig into an area in the high plateau of the Côtes de Meuse that had less than one foot of soil overlying a hard limestone layer of rock. Entrenching tools were insufficient to dig into this limestone layer. A look at any geological map would have informed the army of this layer and prevented the large and needless loss of life. Frontline dugouts on parts of the Lorraine sector were located by the French without consideration of the underground water conditions. As a consequence, a large part of the dugouts quickly filled with water and were unusable.

The Americans experienced the same problem. Despite being advised that he could not excavate to the depth required for shelter, the responsible officer in one locality attempted to construct dugouts in an exposed area with the result that a number of lives were lost before the project was abandoned because of water. And early in the war, the British brought road metal from England at a time when transport facilities were stretched to the limit. The commanding officer was ignorant of the fact that geologists were able to designate readily accessible sources in the theatre of operations. And a responsible officer in the American Army requested filter sand to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean while their own geologists in the American Expeditionary Force had located sites in French where such sand could be procured. There’s a lot more but I won’t go into any more.

As I mentioned previously success required that the commanders use this geological knowledge. The British Army learned to value its geological advice. After 1915 in the British Army, no well drilling was permitted without the approval of the geologist in charge of water resource investigations. And by 1917, Edgeworth David had convinced headquarters to seek geological reports before undertaking new operations or starting artillery concentrations.

Now, General Harvey’s reputed to have told the Americans in 1917 that the first requisite for success in military mining is to secure the services of experienced geologists. And the most notable service of both geologists in the BEF was related to their role in the destruction of the German fortifications throughout the Messines–Wyschaete region of the Western Front in 1917. The British acknowledged that the success of the British in gaining control of offensive underground action was largely due to the geological studies and interpretations of Edgeworth David and also William King. Their work changed the British army’s perception of the practical use of geology in warfare.

I might go now to talk briefly about Edgeworth David, the Australian geologist. Now Tannatt William Edgeworth David was professionally known as Edgeworth David, was a geologist, an academic, Professor of Geology at the University of Sydney. He was an Antarctic explorer. More importantly for this talk, he was a soldier and a military advisor. Edgeworth David was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1858. He graduated from Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1880, not a science degree, but before and after graduation he attended geology lectures, which stimulated his interest to study geology, replacing an earlier intention to read for holy orders. Lucky Australia.

In 1882, the New South Wales Government sought a geologist in England to fill the post of Assistant Geological Surveyor, formerly held by Lamont Young who’d disappeared in mysterious circumstances while doing field work in Bermagui. David was appointed to the position but having no practical knowledge of mining he raced off to Cornwall for two weeks to examine the geology and tin mines in the region prior to embarkation to Australia. He arrived in Australia in November 1882 to take up an appointment as a geological surveyor with the New South Wales Geological Survey. His discovery of the Hunter Valley coalfields in New South Wales and public lectures on the mineral resources and geology of New South Wales while he was with the Geological Survey made him known in Australia. In 1891, he was appointed Professor of Geology at the University of Sydney. Now that’s not quite as grand as it sounds. At that time it was a one-man department, poorly equipped and housed in a small cottage.

He wasn't a staid academic who spent all has time in the classroom and his office, he was out doing field work as much of the time as possible. His geological investigation in the Pacific Island atoll of Funafuti, which provided support for Charles Darwin’s theory of subsidence, and the formation of atolls, brought him worldwide repute in the scientific world. His reputation was growing in Britain and Europe but his activities in Antarctica made him a household name. He was invited to join the 1907 Shackleton–Nimrod expedition to the Antarctica, along with two of his former students, Douglas Mawson and Leo Cotton. Granted a few months’ leave on the way to Antarctica, he chose to stay for the entire expedition, about 18 months. During his Antarctic stay, at age 50, he led a team up the first ascent of Mt Erebus. Now this is a 13,000 foot climb up the only active volcano in Antarctica. Later that year he led a team of three men on a 660-mile trek to reach the south magnetic pole and plant a flag. At that time, it was believed that they had reached it. They got close but they didn’t quite find it. On returning to Australia in March 1909, the problem of his long absence disappeared in the rejoicing of his return and he was given various honours.

Edgeworth David was in his mid-50s by the time the war came along and was a well known and respected geologist with a worldwide reputation when war was declared in August 1914. David was attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science being held in Australia. Although a strenuous supporter of the war, he stood up for the German geologists who were attending the conference saying all men of science are brothers. Among the distinguished German scientists was a geologist, Albert Penck, who had been given two honorary degrees by Australian universities. For this public support of a German scientist, the New South Wales Government investigated David's loyalty, as anti-German feeling was running high in Australia at this time. At the end of the conference, the German scientists of military age were interned in Australia and I’ve missed it, sorry. These are the scientific honours he got post Australia, including the Companion of the Order, St Michael and St George and the King’s Polar Medal. This is Albert Penck. At the end of the conference German scientists of military age were interned in Australia for the duration of the war. Those over military age like Albert Penck who was in his late 50s were allowed to return to Germany. Ironically, during World War One, Penck was a senior military geological advisor to the German Army, and may even have been spying for Germany while he was in Australia.

Now Edgeworth David was not only a strong supporter of the war effort, he’d previously joined the Sydney University Rifles, a unit designed to protect Australia in case of invasion and he enthusiastically drilled along with the other members. He even offered his resignation from the Council of the Linnean Society of New South Wales because their meetings clash with his drill afternoons. He also actively supported the campaign for conscription. He became President of the New South Wales Branch of the Universal Service League and was a leading figure at recruitment rallies. By 1915, the opposing armies became bogged down in trench warfare. After reading reports about mining operations and tunnelling during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, he was convinced of the need for aggressive mining on the Western Front. Edgeworth David, along with Professor Ernest Gates, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne was prompted to write to the Minister of Defence for proposing the government raise and equip a tunnelling corps. This would be a military force of geologists and miners to undertake mining and tunnelling at the Front. After the proposal was accepted, he was involved in organising and recruiting the Australian Mining Corps. Men were recruited from the various districts of Australia ... from various mining districts of Australia and from former geology students, volunteers from New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia flocked to join this new unit. By 1916, three companies of the Mining Corps were formed and given three months’ training.

At age 57, Edgeworth David enlisted in the AIF and was commissioned a major in the mining battalion on the 25th of October 1915. Prior to embarkation he was allocated to the Technical Staff Mining Corps as a geologist. He left Sydney for the Western Front in France in February 1916, taking along with him the first three units of the Australian Mining Corps, a contingent of 1,300 officers and men composed of miners, engineers, geologists and sewerage workers. The Corps was originally intended for the hard rock country of Gallipoli, but withdrawal of the Australian contingent from Gallipoli at the end of 1915 caused the Corps to be sent elsewhere. Originally, the War Office planned to send them to Egypt, but David pointed out to the Australian Defence Minister the impracticality of tunnelling in desert sand. And the decision was made for the battalion to be sent to France. They arrived on the Western Front in May 1916.

Now in France, David was transferred from the Mining Corps and appointed Geological Advisor to the Controller of Mines of the armies. His role was geological technical advisor to the British Expeditionary Force. The military, however, early on was unsure what to do with him and he became relatively independent. He spent his time in geological investigations of the surface rock outcrops and the subsurface rocks. He prepared simplified geological maps like this shown here and cross-sections depicting the subsurface strata for the army with a legend that described ... sorry, lost my place ... such as moisture content of the soil, whether it was hard or soft and the potential military use such as dugouts or tunnelling. From these he provided advice on groundwater, the siting of wells for drinking water and the siting and design of dugouts, trenches and tunnels. He also gave lectures on the geological strata of the British front to the first Army School of Mines.

His work was, however, primarily related to mining. This is offensive mining such as tunnelling and defensive mining such as dugouts and trenches. His investigations included inspecting trenches and tunnels. He also undertook tests to identify soils and underlying strata as well as the collation of available published geological data covering the whole of the Western Front. He produced a new foundation of geological reference data and improved the allied armies’ scant knowledge of the geology of Belgium. His geological investigations provided detailed information on the seasonal variation of water level in the chalks used for dugouts and more importantly on the extent and development of two clay units suitable for mining and tunnelling in the Messines sector of the German lines. That’s the two bottom units that are shown there: one, the pencillian formation and the lower one, the apresian clay, below the German fortifications. Now, both units were overlaying near the surface by water-bearing sand. The study also determined that the thickness of these units varied due to erosion in the past and that safe tunnelling and mining required knowing what was immediately ahead of the progressing tunnel face.

In late September, Edgeworth David was injured in an accident that occurred while he was being lowered down astride a bucket to inspect a well shaft at Vimy Ridge in France. The windlass that was lowering him broke and he was dropped 70 feet to the bottom of the well. As they were getting ready to pull David up out of the well and take him to a casualty clearing station, he’s reputed to have said ‘wind me up slowly if you don’t mind, chaps. I fell so fast that I was unable to observe the strata as I went down’. He was hospitalised in London in early October, returned to duty in France by early November 1916 and was attached to the Inspector of Mines’ Office, General Headquarters. From General Headquarters, David worked with Canadians in their successful attack on Vimy Ridge and helped organise the mining operations at Hill 60 in the Messines Ridge.

Early in 1917, he was preparing coloured maps and vertical sections of the rocks to indicate water conditions and areas of quick sand that were used ... sorry, area of quick sand that were used to indicate areas safe to dig trenches and tunnels. These were the first environmental engineering maps. The most notable service of David was his role in the destruction of the German fortifications through the Messines–Wyschaete region of the Western Front in 1917. German geologists apparently were unaware that a thick unit of suitable clay for tunnelling ... the Apresian clay which I showed you earlier ... occurred beneath their fortification system. Through Edgeworth David’s investigations, the British were aware of it and were tunnelling in this lower clay unit implanting explosives. Along 16 kilometres charges of nearly 450,000 kilograms of high explosives were placed in 19 separate mining operations beneath enemy lines. These explosives were exploded simultaneously and General Harvey captured the German system of fortifications in June 1917. The underground explosions in that area were the biggest and the most psychologically damaging explosions inflicted on the Germans. The shaking ground resembled an earthquake. Damage included the development of large craters, the surface of which collapsed and the depressions quickly filled with water. Quick sand flowed into railway cuttings as at Hill 60 and the noise of the explosion was said to have been heard in Paris, London and Dublin.

Now David was appointed to General Headquarters in June 1917. In October he was appointed Geologist on staff of the Inspector of Mines. By the end of 1917 offensive warfare was declining and David’s work became more involved in defensive mining such as dugouts and trenches and tunnels for the troops to reach the front. David also worked with and advised the American geologists between October 1917 and November 1918.

Edgeworth David was mentioned twice in Sir Douglas Haig's dispatches in April 1917 and again in November 1917. In January 1918 he was awarded a DSL for distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty in the field for the period February 27 to September 21st, 1917. He was appointed Chief Geologist of the British Expeditionary Forces in June 1918 and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in November. Edgeworth David returned to Australia in April 1919. He was demobbed and his military appointment was terminated on the 10th of June 1919. He was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in September 1920 for his services during the war. Perception of geology’s practical use for British military purposes was changed significantly through the work of both Edgeworth David and William King on the Western Front of Europe during World War One.

David returned to the University of Sydney after the war and began preparation for his major project, to write a book on the geology of Australia. Despite failing health he did complete a large scale geological map of the Commonwealth of Australia and a volume of explanatory notes which was published in 1932. Tannatt William Edgeworth David died of pneumonia on the 28th of August 1934 at age 76. He was accorded a state funeral service at St Andrew’s Cathedral followed by a military funeral sponsored by both the Commonwealth and the New South Wales State Government.

After the war he was given many honours. During his life he received many scientific honours. After the war he was given five honorary doctorates, made an honorary fellow of New College Oxford, given a medal, elected president of several scientific organisations included being the first President of the Australian National Research Council which he helped set up. He was also made an honorary member of the American and the Belgian Geological Societies and a foreign member of another one. Now there are many memorials to him. Those in Australia included prizes, appointments, fellowships and several buildings in New South Wales. Place names mainly in New South Wales commemorate him but there is also a David Street in O’Connor in the ACT and a Mt David near Katherine in the Northern Territory. There are also tributes in Antarctica with several sites named after him, David Glacier which Edgeworth David discovered in November 1908 in Victorialand, and David Cauldron named for Edgeworth David by the New Zealanders in 1962 which is a ... ice followed turbulent ice blocks on the David Glacier. David Island was named for him by Douglas Mawson who discovered it in his 1912 expedition as was David Range discovered on a later expedition. And there is a summer station in the Bunger Hills area of Antarctica called Edgeworth David Station. Now there are other tributes to Edgeworth David. The radioactive mineral Davidite was named in his honour as were seven different fossils. And lastly he was depicted on two Australian stamps. Thank you.

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