Geologists at war, 1914-1918

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This article look at some of the contributions made by the Geological Survey of Great Britain to the United Kingdom's war effort during the period 1914-1918.

Before the war

Aubrey Strahan c.1912. © BGS/NERC (Image: P810109)

In 1913 the 12th International Geological Congress was held in Toronto. The attendees included representatives from Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Belgium, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. One of the British Geologists was Aubrey Strahan who was soon to become the Director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. Neither Strahan nor the other attendees could have know that in a year's time the First World War would break out and that the Geological Survey would play its part in the war effort.

Joining up

The Survey's Summary of Progress for 1918 published this list of staff who were accepted for military or other duty with the Forces during World War I. They totalled 29 staff, consisting of 14 geologists, 3 fossil collectors, 2 general assistants, 3 attendants, 4 draughtsmen, 2 labourers and 1 assistant clerk. Although several were wounded all but one (C H Cunnington) survived the war.

Dixon, E. E. L. Lieutenant Royal Garrison Artillery (T.)
Bailey, E. B. Lieutenant Royal Garrison Artillery Mentioned in despatches. Military Cross. Chevalier Legion of Honour. Croix-de-Guerre with Palm. Twice wounded.
Anderson, E. M. Sapper Royal Engineers Wounded.
Carruthers, R. G. Lance-corporal Tank Corps
Bromehead, C. E. N. Private Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Wounded.
Cunnington, C. H. Lieutenant Machine Gun Corps Invalided out of Army, Oct. 1917. Died 26 April, 1918.
Richey, J. E. Captain Royal Engineers Military Cross. Wounded.
Eastwood, T. Lance-corporal Royal Army Medical Corps (Sanitary Section)
Pocock, R. W. Lieutenant Royal Garrison Artillery
King, W. B. R. Captain Royal Welsh Fusiliers (attached to Engineer-in-Chief, G.H.Q.) Mentioned in despatches. O.B.E.
Wray, D. A. Lance-corporal Royal Army Medical Corps (Sanitary Section)
Read, H. H. Corporal Royal Fusiliers
Whitehead, T. H. Captain Suffolk Regiment (transferred to General List and attached to Intelligence Corps) Wounded.
Evans, R. du B. Captain Shropshire Light Infantry Wounded. Prisonerof War
Assistant Clerk
Frisby, P. A. Captain Suffolk Yeomanry
Fossil Collectors
Eckford, R. J. A. Corporal Royal Scots and Royal Engineers (Special Brigade) Wounded.
Manson, W. Deck Hand Royal Naval Reserve (T.)
Haldane, D. Lieutenant Royal Scots
General Assistants
Rhodes, J. Corporal Royal Air Force
Stewart, A. P. Private Royal Scots
Morgan, S.W. Reg. Qrtr.- Mstr. Sgt. London Regiment (London Irish Rifles)
Cooper, G. L. Corporal Royal Engineers (Carrier Pigeon Service)
Hepple, D. W. Private 18th Hussars Wounded. Prisoner of War.
Torkington, G. G. Private Cameron Highlanders Wounded.
Bruce, W. G. Lance-Corporal Royal Engineers (Field Survey Battn.)
Trowbridge, H. G. S. Bombardier Royal Field Artillery
Kidd, J. Corporal Royal Engineers
Wheaton, E. Sergeant 3rd Hussars
Brooker, J. F. Corporal King's Own Scottish Borderers

Design of aircraft compasses

In September 1916 the Geological Survey was contacted by the Admiralty Compass Department asking for assistance with the design of aircraft compasses. The problem was with the compass point and cup which were part of the bearing that allowed the compass needle to move. Herbert H Thomas, a petrographer at the Survey, was given the task of finding a solution. The point and cup were both made out of sapphire, which caused the point to develop flaws and cracks. The answer was to still have the cup made out of sapphire but to use agate for the point.

Analysis of concrete

In September 1917 it was noticed that German concrete pill-boxes on Vimy Ridge, which had been captured by Canadian troops, were made with gravel which could not have come from Belgium. It was suspected that the Germans had transported the gravel through the neutral Netherlands. If this was the case then it was in contravention of the Netherland's neutrality declaration as the Dutch were supposed to prevent the belligerent powers from transporting military materials across neutral territory. By October samples of the suspect concrete had been received by the Geological Survey and analysed. One of these samples was F2397.

Museum damaged by bomb

J Allen Howe was the Curator and Librarian of the Museum of Practical Geology and recorded than on "20 Oct 1917. Museum damaged by concussion from bomb dropped from a Zeppelin outside Swan & Edgars in [Piccadilly] Circus”. This explosion may have caused several roof beams in the museum to fracture but this was not discovered until later.