Disputed Earth

When I saw this book mentioned on Twitter, I knew I had to read a book combining two of my interests: World War One and geology.

Review: Disputed Earth: Geology and Trench Warfare on the Western Front 1914-1918, Peter Doyle, 2017.

The discipline of military geology was founded in 1913 by a military fortification engineer, Hauptmann Walter Kranz. The German Army would go on to employ about 250 military geologists throughout the German Army. While the British Army came to realize the discipline’s value, it employed only five full time military geologists by the end of the war.

The 440 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland ran through five geologic zones.  From west to east, they were a belt of coastal dunes, the Polder Plain (some of it recovered from the sea) of mixed sand and clay, a high clay plain, sand ridges, the Coal Belt of French Flanders, and the chalk uplands of Artois and Picardy (which often reminded British soldiers of southern England because it was an extension of the same geology). These strata were further modified by erosion from the last ice age and the Marqueffles Fault. The relationship of clay strata –impermeable, to various degrees, to water– to chalk and sandy strata in any given area was a major concern of military geologists.

In trench warfare, local geology determined how deep a bunker should be dug and how it should be sheltered from various types of artillery given the geological materials at hand, what type of shoring would be needed to keep a trench intact, and how a trench would be drained at a particular location in order to prevent illness, especially trench foot?

Trench warfare was siege warfare of a different sort, and mining and countermining operations were a major concern of military geologists. What strata would the mine and its tunnels pass through? Would it encounter water saturated strata, and, if it did, how would that be handled? Some chalk strata was filled with bits of flint. When shovels struck them, the sound was especially capable of being heard at great distance by listeners with geophones. And how to dispose of the excavated earth? Some of the clays had a distinctive blueish color when exposed to air, and aerial observers could use that as a sign of the enemy working at depth.

But there were two other areas of concern for military geologists that are less thought of but of obvious critical importance: how to supply water to all those men on the Western Front and keep corpses and bodily wastes from contaminating that water.

Another area of concern was finding local building materials for road and railroad beds and concrete fortifications.

Doyle’s superb books goes into great detail on all these matters. The book is full of contemporary photos and geologic maps as well as modern diagrams and maps illustrating Doyle’s points. The book has several case studies from areas on the Western Front showing in detail how geology affected military operations at a particular site. Color photos of archaeological excavations and the landscape at those locations are often provided. There are also illustrations from contemporary military manuals on how trenches were dug and maintained, and even diagrams explaining the best way to defend the area around a shell crater in a given area. It’s a pleasure to just page through this book and look at the illustrations.

Doyle also has plenty of quotes from official sources and soldier’s accounts illustrating his points as well.

On top of that, we get a full index, footnotes, a bibliography, and an extensive glossary of military and geologic terms.

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