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War Surgery and Medicine

The Military Boot and Other Footwear

The Military Boot and Other Footwear

It has to be realised that for the large majority of recruits entering camp there is a violent change in footwear and in the work that the foot has to accomplish. The average civilian wears light shoes and light socks, and does little in the way of walking, and certainly not with heavy loads. It is not to be wondered at that he has difficulty in accommodating himself to the heavy rigid boots, the thick socks, the marching in formation with packs. The soldier's feet have to be broken in, and common sense should lead one to do this gradually.

In the provision of boots there is need for great care. The size of the boot required may be, and often is, different from the size of the light civilian shoe usually worn. There must be provision for a thick sock and maybe two pairs of socks, and provision also for some swelling of the feet after long marches.

In the British Army, officers are required to see that boots are fitted in accordance with instructions. Experience has shown that very few soldiers know how to select suitable boots. It must be remembered that the foot spreads out a quarter to a third of an inch in length and one-fifth to one-half of an inch in breadth under the weight of a full marching load. Boots should be fitted indoors in a long room in which men can walk up and down. They should be put on over regulation army socks. If there is any doubt, the larger size should be taken. The soldier should select the boot page 402 which gives him greatest comfort. This is a different method from that often seen, where a pair of boots of the size named by the soldier is simply given to him at the same time as he receives other articles of his kit, without any provision for trying the boots on.

There was at times criticism of the army boots and shoes issued to the New Zealand soldier, but in general they were satisfactory if they fitted. Difficulties, however, did arise:


There was an insufficient supply of broader boots. This was of considerable importance as the Maori foot is wider than the normal European foot, as his general physique is sturdier. This width is seen whether the foot is short or long. (This peculiarity of the Maori foot was recognised by Dr Thomson, surgeon to the 58th Regiment during the Maori Wars.) There is no special provision made for the Maori soldier in this respect, though frequent complaints were made and recommendations also made by medical officers associated with the Maori Battalion, and by the consultant surgeon. As a consequence of wearing the narrow boots, bunions and callosities developed both over the prominent heads of the first metatarsal and also over the fifth metatarsal. Removal of the prominent bone was often resorted to in consequence, and it seemed as if we were trimming the Maori's feet to fit the boots rather than providing boots to fit the feet. The strong recommendation is made that special lasts be provided to enable adequate provision of broader boots for Maoris and the relatively few Europeans with the same shape of foot.


When boots were repaired provision was not always made for the soldier to get back his own boots, and he was issued with some other soldier's second-hand boots. This was at one time the established custom in the MEF, and the records show that the same thing happened in New Zealand. Strong comments naturally were made by medical officers, with sometimes little effect on administration officers. It cannot be too strongly urged that the practice should be condemned and that fuller provision should be made for the repair of boots, so that every soldier can without difficulty get his own boots repaired.


Complaint was made that the wearing of rubber shoes on transports was detrimental to the feet and caused disability in subsequent training. Leather-soled sandals were recommended and were supplied later in the war.

The provision of special boots for soldiers with abnormalities of the feet was arranged for both in New Zealand and overseas. In New Zealand the main hospitals agreed to supply special boots page 403 and to adjust the boots as required. In several of the hospitals well-equipped departments with skilled personnel were available. Overseas, light boots were supplied by the army when required, and special boots were also made for selected cases on the order of the consultant surgeon. Adjustment to boots was carried out both at the hospitals and in the camps. A special department was developed at Helwan Hospital.

The ordinary adjustments to the boots such as the raising of the inside of the heel and its prolongation forward, and the raising of the inner part of the sole, were useless in the desert, where the boot sank into the sand. The adjustments simply increased the weight and clumsiness of the boot and aggravated the fatigue which generally underlay the real disability.

The need for constant attention to boots was stressed in the army, and many memoranda were issued to this effect. It was recommended that the boots be kept in good repair to prevent the feet getting wet, and that if the boots did get wet they should be dried slowly and then well oiled. The boots should also be softened regularly with vaseline, neatsfoot oil, or dubbin.

Socks: Soldiers were issued with four pairs of socks, and in addition most of them had some hand-knitted pairs. The need for cleanliness, with constant washing of the socks and care to prevent shrinking, was ever present. Thick socks capable of absorbing perspiration were provided.

Foot Cleanliness: Of all matters concerned with the feet this was the most important. The provision of facilities for washing the feet, especially after long marches, was essential. The provision of showers was important to any army. The use of foot powder after thorough drying of the skin was of great value. A useful foot powder was salicylic acid, 3 parts; boric acid, 10 parts; talc, 87 parts.

The Care of the Feet after Illness: The natural sequel to any debilitating disease or to any prolonged rest was an absence of fitness for physical exercise or strain. This was specially noted in regard to the lower limbs, and, in consequence, foot strain was frequently complained of when convalescents resumed their military training.

The necessity for graduated training with physical exercise for the lower limbs became obvious, and the British type of convalescent depot was mainly occupied with this training. The British physical training instructors were invaluable in the training of convalescents, and one of their depots well forward on the North-West European front was one of the most efficient medical units observed during the war.