Geologists at war, 1914-1918
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
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.
By the end of 1914 15 staff from the Geological Survey and Museum had joined the armed forces. By the end of the war the number totalled 29. They consisted 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. The Survey's Summary of Progress for 1918 published a list of those who had joined up.
|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. Prisoner of War|
|Frisby, P. A.||Captain||Suffolk Yeomanry||—|
|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||—|
|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||—|
Almost as soon as war broke out the Survey was being asked to give advice on obtaining supplies of drinking water for military personnel. By 1915 there were water supply problems on the Western Front and W B R King was sent to help deal with this, becoming what has been described as "the first British military hydrogeologist". At around the same time as King was helping the allied troops, Walther Klüpfel was supplying water to the German troops.
During the Gallipoli campaign (1915-1916) three former Survey staff, C H Cunnington, R W Pocock and T H Whitehead, were sent there on special military duty to try to find an adequate water supply for the troops. They produced an unpublished, and now untraceable, report on the geology of the Gallipoli peninsula for the War Office.
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. In a report H H Thomas wrote that "It has all the characters of the Niedermendig tephrite, so extensively quarried on the eastern slopes of the Eifel, bordering on the Rhine." This meant that the gravel must have come from Germany. The evidence resulted in a Dutch threat to stop the transport of German sand and gravel across the Netherlands. This could have brought the Netherlands into the war but none of those involved wished this so an agreement was reached.
Museum damaged by bomb
J Allen Howe was the Curator and Librarian of the Museum of Practical Geology. In a memo book he wrote a few war-related entries, for example "Aug 1914 - War". Slightly more detailed was "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.
Choice of stone for war graves
It was decided that the over 700,000 British soldiers that were killed during the war should be buried close to where they died rather than being returned home. The Imperial War Graves Commission contacted the Geological Survey in early 1918 enquiring about the suitability of "Lunel Clair" stone for making headstones. J Allen Howe carried out some investigations and concluded that the stone would be suitable and there would be enough of it if "Lunel rosé" stone was used as well. In the end it was decided to use Portland Stone for the majority of the headstones but advice on other types of stone was still requested from the Survey for several years after the end of the war.
For more details about activities on the Western Front see Some aspects of the British Geological Survey’s contribution to the war effort at the Western Front, 1914–1918.
To read how C B Wedd was mistaken for a German spy see C B Wedd — the spy who never was
- Rose, E. P. F. 2012. Groundwater as a military resource: pioneering British military well boring and hydrogeology in World War I. In: Military aspects of hydrogeology, edited by E. P. F. Rose & J. D. Mather. Geological Society Special Publication 362, 49–72.
- Notebook of memoranda kept by J Howe (BGS Archives: GSM/MG/P/6)