Fossils on the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield

August 16th, 2010

Cretaceous oysters in marly sediment near Baulny, northeastern France.

VIENNE LE CHATEAU, FRANCE–To my delight, while exploring the Meuse-Argonne area this morning, I found an exposure of marly Cretaceous sediments very near where my Grandfather’s tank brigade assembled for an attack at dawn on October 4, 1918. The sediment is poorly consolidated and saturated with water, as expected. Mud again — the same mud that must have been an annoyance and danger to those nervous tank crews that October morning.

The Cretaceous marl in a roadside outcrop near Baulny, France (N49.25672°, E5.01696°).

Some of the fossils from today cleaned up in the hotel room. (They must hate it when I do this.)

The fossils are small oysters, and they are there by the thousands. The only other species I saw were serpulid worm tubes attached to their upper valves. When found in place the oysters are articulated (both valves still in place). The facies is very similar to that of the Paleocene Clayton Formation we saw earlier this summer in Mississippi.

Could Rolland Snuffer, an 18-year-old corporal from Kansas, have imagined that 92 years later one of his grandsons would be collecting fossils in this war-ravaged place? I think he would have been very pleased. His experiences here must have been horrendous. He was the gunner/commander of a two-man FT-17 Renault tank in a unit which took heavy casualties during this action.

Corporal Rolland Snuffer was in Company C of the 345th Tank Battalion attached to the First Division. North is at the top. Map courtesy of Brad Posey.

The village of Fléville today (from N49.30578°, E4.96945°). The 345th Tank Battalion captured this town on October 4, 1918, but the infantry did not follow because of German fire from the west bank of the Aire River.

The village of Exermont then and now.

Corporal Rolland Snuffer in an undated family photograph.

There were over 117,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead, in the Meuse-Argonne battle, with about the same number for the Germans and another 70,000 French dead and wounded. This was the most costly battle ever fought by Americans. Our losses were far less than those suffered by our European cousins, but we still shared with them the profound effects of this war on a generation. It is hard to imagine this peaceful French countryside convulsed by war, but then it happened again 22 years later. That must have been a bitter pill for the veteran Doughboys to swallow after they survived the War to End All Wars.

A book on the battle I highly recommend: To Conquer Hell by Edward G. Lengel (2008, Henry Holt and Company).

Battle of the Mines: Vauquois, 1915-1918

August 16th, 2010

Mine craters on the Butte de Vauquois, northeastern France.

VIENNE LE CHATEAU, FRANCE–The influence of geology on war is shockingly clear on the Butte de Vauquois (N 49° 12′ 20.20”, E 5° 4′ 11.42”). This large hill (290 meters in elevation) is an outlier of the chalky detritic sandstone (silicarenite) [thanks, Jean-Claude Porchier] backbone of the Argonne Massif, with the small village of Vauquois originally on the top. (That “originally” should give you a clue to what’s coming.) It had immediate strategic value in September 1914 when the invading German Army captured it and began to shell French supply routes to Verdun running alongside the Aire River. The French desperately wanted it back.

The French Army attacked the Butte de Vauquois with thousands of men several times. Since they lacked the strategic advantage of topographic height, they suffered enormous casualties, only capturing the southern side of the hill in March 1915. The top, with its ruined village, became a no-man’s land.

The French then began building mine tunnels through the dry and stable bedrock towards the German lines. Soldiers from coal-mining areas were employed to dig caverns underneath the German trenches. These excavations were then filled with explosives and ignited, creating massive craters on the surface which troops attempted to exploit. The Germans, who employed over 100 military geologists in their ranks, responded with their own tunnels and explosions under the French lines. Eventually almost 25 miles of tunnels riddled the Butte de Vauquois, with each side building explosive caches and attempting to intercept the enemy tunnels. An astounding 531 French and German mines were exploded here by September 1918, splitting the hill in two parts with a row of craters. The destruction was so immense that the village of Vauquois completed disappeared. Thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed here, with 8000 completely missing and presumably buried in collapsed tunnels and trenches.

A tunnel constructed in 1916 from the French trenches into the Butte de Vauquois.

This hellish underground war finally ended in September 1918 when the American First Division bypassed the hill during the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the Germans retreated. To this day only a few of the Vauquois tunnels have been reopened. There is still much unexploded ordnance in the mines, and no one wants to disturb what has become a massive tomb.

Google Earth view of the Butte de Vauquois, with north at the top. The chain of craters through the middle of the hill is obvious. The tiny white dots on the southern edge of the craters near the middle of the image include the monument pictured below.

French monument to the dead on Butte de Vauquois. It stands where the village of Vauquois was completely erased by the underground war.

The military advantage of holding the Upper Cretaceous chalk highlands

August 15th, 2010

Upper Cretaceous chalk exposure in the gloomy Argonne Forest.

VIENNE LE CHATEAU, FRANCE–There is one strong geological control of warfare in northern France: the high areas are often thick, resistant Upper Cretaceous chalk while the valleys and plains below are usually poorly-consolidated greensands and clays. We’ve already seen these remarkable chalks this summer in Mississippi, Israel, and Germany. Cretaceous Chalk is nearly global in its extent (The White Cliffs of Dover in England and the Chalk Buttes of Kansas are made of it) and it tells us that there was something very different in oceanic chemistry and biology compared to today.

The Argonne Massif is a range of chalk hills running roughly north-south with the Aisne and Aire Rivers cutting through it, along with many smaller streams. The Champagne-Ardenne/Lorraine regional boundary runs through the long axis of the massif. In World War I the Germans occupied most of the highlands in the north since capturing them in 1914. They built relatively spacious and dry bunkers and trenches in the chalk, whereas the French and then later the Americans were mostly confined to the unstable clay-rich lowlands. The most bitter battles here were over the possession of key high points, and the geology of the rocks and soils was a critical factor in success or failure.

The Argonne Massif covered mostly by forest. North is at the top of the image.

Wooster Geologist in France

August 14th, 2010

Landscape near Vienne le Chateau, France.

VIENNE LE CHATEAU, FRANCE–I’m on the last part of my European trip this summer. The International Bryozoology Association post-conference field trip ended in Frankfurt yesterday. I rented a car at the Frankfurt airport and drove southwest into northeastern France where I will spend three days. I am visiting the World War I Meuse-Argonne battlefield to find those places where my Grandfather fought in the 345th Tank Battalion of the American Expeditionary Force (September and October, 1918). I hope to have posts related to the geology of the battlefield and how it affected events. I am staying in a small hotel in the Argonne Forest (N 49.19130°, E 4.88281°), so I’ll have plenty of time to explore.

An overgrown World War I entrenchment near my hotel.

Tunnels yet again — and a loess connection

August 13th, 2010

OPPENHEIM, GERMANY–This jewel of a town, with its large cathedral, half-timbered buildings and narrow streets, share surprising geological connections with Vicksburg, Mississippi — a city visited by Wooster geologists earlier this summer. Both are river towns which profited in good times as trade centers, and both are underlain by Pleistocene loess sediments. Loess is wind-deposited silt and clay that can be easily excavated yet retain vertical walls because of the angular nature of its grains. Residents of both cities dug caverns into their loess deposits to store goods and to escape the dogs of war above them.

Model of a family hiding in a loess cavern underneath Oppenheim, Germany.

Oppenheim is almost completely undermined by up to 200 km of connected tunnels and cellars known collectively as the Kellarlabyrinth. The digging began sometime in the Middle Ages as a way to safely store and transport goods between buildings in the prosperous town. When the religious wars of the 17th century began, Oppenheim was almost continually besieged and occupied by one side or the other. The labyrinth below became a good place to hide from marauding soldiers. The system continually grew as the Oppenheimers dug laterally through the thick bed of loess below their town. The tunnels are still in partial use today after renovation and structural enhancement. In 1945 the American Army successfully crossed the Rhine near Oppenheim. As one of General George Patton’s tanks moved through the streets of Oppenheim, it crashed through the street into a tunnel below. Heavy vehicles have been rerouted around Oppenheim ever since!

You can't have an extensive Medieval cavern system in Continental Europe without some part of it turned into an ossuary. There are the remains of at least 20,000 people in the Oppenheim bone caverns.

Geology and religion: le Grand Animal de Maastricht

August 10th, 2010

The discovery of a mosasaur in the Maastricht tunnels (1770). Engraving by G. R. Levillaire; image from Wikipedia.

MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS–Next month I am giving a talk on campus about evolution in a lecture series on “science and religion”. I was particularly intrigued, then, to hear a story about the famous mosasaur discovered in the Maastricht tunnels that highlighted tension between geology and the religious establishment long before Charles Darwin started rocking boats. It was a delight to be in the very tunnels where the drama began.

In 1770 a group of quarrymen in Maastricht discovered the skull of a very large and toothy animal. It was brought to the attention of Johann Leonard Hoffman, a local surgeon and fossil collector, who immediately knew it was very curious and would be of great interest to the savants of Europe. He corresponded with many, producing what we would call a buzz today about this creature. It clearly represented an animal which went extinct — a new concept at the time. How do you explain the existence of a large fossil like this deep underground in The Netherlands? Was it an animal which missed Noah’s Ark? Did God create some animals doomed to extinction?

In 1794 an army from revolutionary France occupied Maastricht. Some officers wanted to seize the fossil and put it on display in Paris because of these questions about God and Creation. They wanted to use this mosasaur (the name came much later) to show that either there was no God or that God was a distant deity unconcerned with Creation. Apparently through bribery and rewards, they found the fossil and indeed shipped it off to Paris. To this day it is in the Paris Museum of Natural History and only a cast of it is in the Maastricht Natural History Museum. (The Dutch have various ways to remind visitors that the French stole the original specimen. European unity only goes so far!)

Cast of the famous Maastricht mosasaur in the Maastricht Natural History Museum.

In Paris the famous geologist Georges Cuvier took an interest in “le Grand Animal de Maastricht” and correctly identified it as a reptile — specifically a kind of marine lizard (a conclusion still supported today). Cuvier used it as evidence for his catastrophic ideas of disasters followed by re-creations of life on Earth.

The Maastricht mosasaur, now known as Mosasaurus hoffmanni, thus was one of the first fossils to be used in the science-religion debates, and this was well before the modern theory of evolution emerged.

Mosasaur skeleton reproduction in the Maastricht Museum of Natural History.

Geology and Art History

August 9th, 2010

Tunnels in the Maastrichtian Formation (Late Cretaceous) in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Location = N50.82667°, E5.67978°.

MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS–The tunnels dug into the soft Maastrichtian Formation limestones in this city have a long history starting with the Romans. At first the excavations were intended only to extract building stone, but with all the battles, sieges and other military actions in this region, residents realized that these dry and deep caves also provided places of refuge. Bakeries, chapels, storehouses and dormitories were constructed in these spaces for times of war since the Middle Ages.

During World War II, the Dutch hid several works of art in these tunnels to protect them from the Germans. These included the magnificent Night Watch by Rembrandt and The Street by Vermeer. They were guarded by Dutch military police successfully throughout the occupation. We can view this art today because of the extent, thickness and composition of this Cretaceous limestone sequence — and the courage of Dutch patriots.

Rembrandt's The Night Watch (from Wikipedia).

The advantages and disadvantages of building your city on clay

August 4th, 2010

Lübeck, Germany–Do not adjust the image above. It is of the Holstein Gate (“Holstentor”) on the western side of the Free and Hanseatic City of Lübeck. On the left is a side view and the right is from the front. It is a double-towered medieval gate which has suffered some serious tilting because its foundations (one under each tower) were built on glacial clays in marshy terrain. It is an emblematic German structure (it is on a commemorative German two-euro coin) and northern Europe’s equivalent to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The advantages of building a city on clay? This is what they use to make the bricks!

The Marienkirche in Lübeck. This is one of the tallest brick churches in the world. It was heavily damaged during an air raid in 1942 and has been massively reconstructed.

A riverside view of western Lübeck. Brick is still the predominant building material. Prewar buildings often stand surrounded by newer structures which filled in the bomb damage.

Kiel Fjord and Canal, northern Germany

August 3rd, 2010

The very southern end of the Kiel Fjord. Not the most attractive geological photograph, but the best I can do so far!

KIEL, GERMANY–Geologists always try to see the geological context of cities they visit, usually by studying the form of the landscape (“geomorphology“) and peering under bridges and the like to find exposed rocks. I have been notably unsuccessful at this here in Kiel. The asphalt lies heavy on the city, and the slopes are gentle. Kiel, however, has a very geological reason for its existence: it surrounds the end of a deep fjord of the Baltic Sea.

A fjord is a long, narrow valley carved by glaciation and then flooded by the sea. The Kiel Fjord was cut from south to north toward the ancient Baltic Sea during the Late Pleistocene. The Kiel Fjord was originally settled by Vikings who found it to be a convenient base to berth their ships as they pillaged the countryside. By the Middle Ages it was an important German port well protected from storms and attack because the deep water penetrated so far inland.

The Kiel Fjord from Google Earth.

The Kiel Canal is an extraordinary waterway which connects the Kiel Fjord (and thus the Baltic Sea) to the North Sea. It was completed in 1885. One of its first uses was to allow the German Navy to bypass the complicated (and stormy) Jutland Peninsula when passing from the Baltic to North Seas. It was enlarged between 1907 and 1914 so that large battleships (Dreadnoughts) could pass. This greatly concerned the British and was one of the many tensions which led to World War I.

The entrance to the Kiel Canal from the Kiel Fjord, magnified from the above Google Earth view.

Tomorrow we have our first field trip of the meeting, so I expect to be able to report on more geological scenery of northern Germany. At least I can show you now some German food!


Christian Albrechts Universität zu Kiel (our IBA meeting venue)

August 2nd, 2010

KIEL, GERMANY–It is always interesting for an academic to visit another college or university … and we get many opportunities. The International Bryozoology Association meeting is being held at the Christian Albrechts Universität zu Kiel (University of Kiel for most English speakers) in northern Germany. It was founded in 1665 and later became one of the most important universities in Prussia. It presently has 23,000 students and a strong science program.

You may ask why such an old university has no buildings built before 1945? You know the answer. The original campus was heavily bombed in World War II. (Kiel was an important German naval base, especially for U-boats.) This new campus was moved to another location where the only signs of the old are occasional relics like the statue below.

Statue of Aristotle on the pre-1945 campus (left); same statue pulled from the wartime rubble and displayed on the new campus.

The Geology Department here has a small museum with a modern design featuring lots of natural light. It is a very pleasant and quiet place to have a meeting such as this.

Geology museum at the University of Kiel with glass walls facing east.

A Silurian reef display from Gotland, Sweden. This is very similar to the reefs Wooster students worked with in Estonia last year.

A modern lava pillow for Meagen and other petrologists. "Aus 2700 m Tiefe mit Fernsehgreifer geborgen, Mittelatlantischer Rücken nördlich Jan Mayen."

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