Beaten by mud, inglorious mud

August 15, 1997

As a conference on violence opens, Alan Thomson looks at research into the topic

TENS OF thousands of men died in the first world war because commanders did not know the importance of battlefield geology and topography, new research reveals.

Peter Doyle, lecturer in the school of earth and environmental sciences at Greenwich University, said that infamous battles such as Gallipoli (36,000 Allied deaths) and the Somme (1,000,000 deaths) were won and lost on the strength of the forces' understanding and exploitation of soil and rock structures, and geographical position.

Using aerial photographs and maps, he has developed an accurate picture of geology and topography of the battlefields. "The outcome of most of the worst battles were undoubtedly controlled by topographic and geological factors."

While geological factors are always important in wars, they played a decisive role in first world war battles because the conflict was so static. Dr Doyle explained: "There is strong correspondence between the ground conditions and battle outcomes. Geology and topography had a major impact on things like the digging of defensive positions and water supply."

During some battles, many troops drowned after trenches and craters left by shelling filled with water, particularly on battlefields where there was a heavy clay soil.

Historical records back Dr Doyle's theories. His paper, Military geography: the influence of terrain on the war on the western front 1914-18, has been published in the Geographical Journal.

* see research papers


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