Groundwar: Geologists in the Trenches


“…If you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The outcome of war is a function of geology. This has been understood since at least the 6th century BC, when Sun Tzu wrote about the importance of reading the “varieties of ground” as a means to success and victory (he calls the “varieties of ground” collectively “Earth,” as in the quote above).

The ground that Sun Tzu referred to was the terrain on which armies march and which battles are fought. The history of geologists in war is intertwined with the studying of “Earth” in this sense and is done in some manner every day by officers and cadets surveying the battlefield.

Professional Geologists and Professional Soldiers Align

In the western world, as early as the 19th century several scientists would converge upon the idea that geology could be a vital advantage for the soldier. Though it would take until World War I for these concepts to be fully appreciated by military officers, several geologist were beginning to publish their views on the applications of geology to war. Lt. Colonel Joseph Ellison Portlock (later, Major-General) wrote A Rudimentary Treatise on Geology in 1845 in which he noted: “the soldier also may find in Geology a most valuable guide in tracing his lines both of attack and defense.”

He was not the only person to have this idea: a French geographer and commandant Anatole Marga saw the study of the earth as “a real science that is attached to a great number of branches of human knowledge” and noted in 1884 that “Good maps are precious, even indispensable.They indicate the direction of streams, mountain ranges, roads, the location of cities, inhabited places and other particularities.” In another place, he says: “the character of the soil, which is known by the geology, greatly influences the passability of a region…Physical geography, also using the science of geology through the data furnished by geologic and topographic maps, determines the types of terrain which are unfavorable. It determines the position of lines of defense and the places that should be fortified.”

A report at the meeting of the Geolgoical Society of America the year after World War I came to a close (from which much of the above material is drawn) provided several instances in which a basic knowledge of geology would have been helpful: at Verdun, France, where GIs were ordered to dig a trench in 1 ft of soil underlain by hard limestone; in the Lorraine sector of France, where trenches were dug (that were soon thereafter abandoned) in water-bearing sediments with a very high water table; in France, where filter sand was procured from across the Atlantic despite there being plenty in the region that geologists had already located. The list goes on.

However, the report points out: “[geologists’] work in economic geology done on this side of the Atlantic contributed more to the successful termination of the war than that of the geologists in France [on the battleground].” Procuring minerals and ores for war implements and for support systems was crucial to the success of the allied forces in the war. In addition to the USGS report, the procurement of minerals was also identified following World War II as a national security issue as it was realized that the U.S. depended on many foreign actors for crucial minerals.

In World War I, as in the scientific endeavor at large, geologists were the scientists whose expertise was best suited to “the field.” With the proliferation of trench warfare, it began to become clear that the army would benefit from having a geologist among military officers. Germans recognized the importance of geologic understanding of the terrain first, defeating Russians in the Masurian Lake District in September 1914. These “war-geologists” would be formally organized by the Germans the following spring as Militargeologen, then as Kriegsgeologen. They were charged with advice on field railways, drinking water, marsh lands, road metal, and the likelihood of landslides caused by artillery bombardments.

In a game of catch-up, an argument for the use of geology in the war effort was outlined succinctly in a brochure written by geologist-turned-entrepreneur R.A.F. Penrose Jr. in 1917. He points out the advantages geologists can provide, including knowing where to camp (also mentioned by Sun Tzu), directing the digging of trenches and tunnels (especially to avoid “water-bearing formations”), building roads, reading maps, reading landscapes, positioning artillery, and harnessing water supplies. The British Geological Survey was largely unprepared for war-time mobilization, but they did work to prepare engineering geology maps during the war. By the time World War II came around, they were prepared for deployment and began work as early as July 1939.

As the United States geared up for World War II, the Military Geological Unit was formed in 1942 an “enlisted” 6 people. Among the more significant tasks was to complete an analysis of the sand (and underlying clay) on the beach at Normandy months before D-Day to determine what kinds of vehicles would be usable on the beach. In all, more than 300 reports were prepared between 1942 and 1975 (when the unit ceased operations), some for specifically military purposes and some for general scientific purpose. German scientists were also hard at work in WWII creating maps in preparation for an invasion of Britain, among other works.

By this time, it was well established that geologists and other Earth-scientists could aid the military. In addition to contemporary analysis of ground conditions at battle sites, the geo-sciences have also contributed to the development of the historic record of the battles and (in at at least one case) battleships:

Though geology would continue to aid the military and vice-versa (notably, helping to greatly improve the science of seismology with the proliferation of nuclear bombs in the Cold War era), the first half of the 20th century cemented the relationship between the sciences studying “Earth” and the military.

Another great series of posts on earth scientists in war is here (and part 2 and 3)

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