Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hob nails, Shoody goods and Trench Foot

Barefoot warriors were commonplace in antiquity but sometimes the upper foot was covered for protection. The Romans militarised their sandals and made them robust with copper tacks to secure the union between the sole and upper. The origins of hob nailed boots can be traced back to Roman times. Protruding nails on the sole of the sandal extended the lifespan of footwear as well as give added traction. In the 20th century the British Army were supplied with hob nailed boots as an ecomomy. This Blutcher or Derby style footgear flowed through to the industrial working boot.

In the Great War it was estimated some 2,500,000 pairs of shoes were made for the Allied troops. Laid end to end this would cover the complete coastline of Western Australia. 380,000 cattle required to be slaughtered to provide the equivalent of 17.5 million square feet of leather or 400 acres. The soul leather alone would weigh 4,000 tons; metal for nails would be 1,150 tons; with 55 tons of thread; and 78,000,000 eyelets. War has always meant big business to the shoe and textile industries. Sadly, this has not always brought the best from friendly suppliers and it is estimated human greed can account for almost as many casualties as enemy fire in modern warfare. Soldier’s boots need to be suoerior quality for the conditions of combat otherwise then their fighting ability is undermined.

During the American Civil War, the US cavalry were demoralised because of shoddy workmanship. Supplied with sub-standard cardboard, cowboy boots, their feet and legs were cut to ribbons. The term shoddy was added to the English lexicon meaning ‘inferior quality, second rate’.

During the Second World War footwear supplies to the front were fatally delayed because vital supplies were misappropriated by Black Marketeers. It was quite common to find non-combat units wearing superior footwear intended for their colleagues at the front. Trench fighting during the Great War meant the men were stood in very cold mud for long periods of time. Their footwear was no match for the atrocious conditions of the trenches and many suffered Trench Foot.

In the Second World War, trench foot was responsible for putting more Allied Forces out of action than the German 88 (artillery). In December 1944, northern Europe's witnessed its coldest winter during which 45,000 men - the equivalent of three full infantry divisions, were pulled out of the front line because of trench foot. Three days before the Battle of the Bulge began so great were the casualties to trench foot, men unable to walk were carried from sheltered pillbox positions at night to firing positions in the day time. Behind the US Lines it was decreed any soldier suffering trench foot would be tried for court martial. Senior officers were suspicious some soldiers were hoping to avoid combat by actively encouraging symptoms of trench foot.

One reason why trench foot was so common was soldiers slept with their boots on. During engagement they were recommended to dry and warm their feet as best they could, and sleep with their boots off. This was often impractical and most ignored the directive.

Conditions in the Falklands War were also extreme. The British soldiers were severely challenged by their inferior boots. The direct moulded sole failed to keep their feet dry and water poured through the lace holes. The impermeable sole provided a perfect reservoir and feet was immersed in cold water for long periods. Trench foot was commonplace and a major concern to the assault forces. The Argentine boot, on the other hand, was superior in every way and provided ideal protection to the elements; hence it became a valued prize of war.

Reviewed 22/03/2016

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