The Development of the American Field Shoe [Boot] During the World War
By Jim Bond
2nd Division Soldiers Show Their Footwear
Pershing Boot [L] 1917 Boot [R]
Doughboy footwear is a highly sought after item among American Doughboy Collectors. Strangely enough little information has been written to help educate the doughboy enthusiast about the types and process that went into the development of these shoes. It is my desire that the information contained in my article will help you identify and understand how very unique the Doughboy Field Shoes really were.
To begin with, I will set the stage by listing the types of Field shoes that were in existence just prior and during America's involvement in the fighting in Europe. There were basically four types of shoes that were in use during World War One by American Forces along with several variations of specific categories. They are as follows:
- The Russet Marching Shoe.
- The Model 1917 Trench boot, with specific variations.
- The Pershing Boot or Model 1918 Trench Boot, with specific variations
- The Victory Shoe.
THE RUSSET MARCHING SHOE:
Prior to America's entry into WWI, her soldiers were issued a field shoes known as The Russet Marching Shoe. This shoe enjoyed much acceptance by soldiers both in the field as well as in Garrison. It provided a clean neat appearance and could be easily polished. The shoe was constructed of machine sewed calfskin with the rough side turned in and lined with white duck. It had only a single sole. While providing a neat appearance, the shoes did not hold up well under the conditions U.S. troops were subjected to on the Mexican border. Because of this problem a new shoe was developed based on the pattern of shoes being manufactured by American firms and supplied to both The French and Belgian army. The new shoes were the beginnings of what would eventually become the 1917 Trench Boot. This shoe differed radically from the old Russet Marching Shoe. The shoe was constructed of a Chrome Vegetable retanned cowhide, a half middle sole covered by a full sole that had 5 rows of rounded hobnails and iron heel plates affixed to the heel of each shoe. The soles were attached by waxed linen stitching, screws and nails. This, along with the Russet Marching Shoe, simply did not hold up under the rough treatment they received in France. Both this shoe and the Russet Marching Shoe made it to France. I have in my collection a mint pair of the russet marching shoes and a well worn first pattern of the trench boot worn by Corporal John Nelson, 129th Infantry, 33rd Division.
THE 1917 TRENCH BOOT:
Due to the fact that the first pattern of trench boots failed to provide adequate protection from the wet conditions present in the trenches, an improved version was created. The problems with leakage were attributed to the configuration of the soles and the lack of waterproofing on the uppers. (Later referred to as dubbing) The 1917 Trench boot consisted of the same Chrome Vegetable retanned cowhide, rough side turned out, but now had an insole that was reinforced with canvas, a bottom filler of ground cork and cement, full middle and outer sole. The outer sole was impregnated with a solution that was supposed to make it water proof. Even though this shoe was a great improvement over the earlier field shoes, it still had some significant weaknesses. The boots tended to rip at the backstays after only a relatively short period of use. It still had the old problems of not repealing water. When looking at a true 1917 trench boot, you will notice only two rows of stitching along the backstays. There will be two full leather soles, that are studded with 5 rows of hobnails and iron heel plates covering both heels. A variation of this shoe, known as Specification 1269, was produced that had no hobnails or heal plates. This variation proved to be useful to those individuals who while not actually assigned to the trenches, were in need of a strong shoe. For these troops, the full trench boot sometimes proved to be a hindrance and safety problem. Try wearing a pair of hobnail shoes over a polished wooden, or tile floor and you will quickly understand what I am referring to! You will probably find yourself in the rear with the gear sporting a injured rear! To understand the frustration associated with finding the perfect "Trench Boot", there were at least 9 different recommended specification changes to these shoes between May 1917 and August 1918. (FOR YOU HARDCORE DOUGHBOY TYPES, I'LL BE GLAD TO SUPPLY YOU WITH THE REMAINING 8 SPEC NUMBERS, OVER SOME CANNED WILLIE AND SOME VIN ROUGE) The concern for producing the perfect field shoe was so great that the Chief Quarter Master for the U.S. Army made recommendations to a board of officers that met at Headquarter AEF in January of 1918. The findings of this board were sent to General Pershing. He approved of these proposed changes and cabled the study to The War Department for action. Thus was born the Pershing Boot, rightfully named for the Commander & Chief of the AEF Old "Black Jack" himself.
THE PERSHING BOOT, OR 1918 TRENCH BOOT:
The Pershing Boot came to be called "Little Tanks" by the doughboys at the front, for so they looked. The Pershing Boot had the best features of the 1917 trench boot but with the desired changes to the weakness of the former boot. The Pershing boot was made of a heavier leather, with a correction to the weakness found at the backstays. It was thought at the time that this ripping was caused by the bottom of the canvas legging rubbing against top of the backstay. The truth of the matter turned out to be that 60% of the ripping of the backstays were from the inside of the backstay, caused to a lesser degree by the weight and movement of the uppers. The problem was addressed by adding three rows of stitching at the backstays instead of the two found in the 1917 boot.
Three Views of the Pershing Boot
The soles were three full leather soles, sewn, screwed and nailed together. This nailing was done with a method known as the "Clinch Nail Method" that greatly strengthen the sole. The only problem with this is the rigidity of the shoes hindered the natural bending of the foot. The soles were again studded with hobnails and heel plates, but now, with an additional half moon shaped iron toe cleat that was attached to the end of each shoe. These toe cleats were also studded with hobnails. To address the problem of waterproofing several things were done. In spring of 1918, an experiment was conducted at St. Aignan, Loire-et-Cher, testing the process of waterproofing shoes. The experiment was conducted with the left shoe of each pair applying a waterproofing called dubbing. Later variations of the shoe had a waterproofing treatment done during the manufacturing process. This was discontinued due to the grimy appearance the shoes had upon their receipt by troops in the field. Another such waterproofing experiment was conducted by members of the U.S. lst Division. They produced a concoction of 2 parts beef tallow to 1 part Neats foot oil. This solution was brushed and hand rubbed into the boots. One pair of my trench boots still retains this dubbing even after 80 years. Dubbing was later produced commercially. Some information available states that the Pershing boot was relatively waterproof even without the dubbing applied. Supposedly this was because of the superior sole construction and thickness of the leather.
Two other important improvements in field shoes are worth mentioning. One was the addition of iron or brass rivets located at the side of the shoe in the area known as the blucher ears. This was done to strengthen the shoe at this point. The other improvement over the 1917 boots was in the area of thickness of the soles in relation to the nearness of the iron hobnails to the foot. In the 1917 boot, soldiers often complained of cold feet. It was discovered that the hobnails acted as conductor for the cold. The Pershing shoe eliminated this problems by the sheer thickness of three soles vs. the two soles.
In summary when attempting to decide whether a boot is the 1917 Trench boot or the Pershing Boot, look for the following identifying features.
A Pershing boot will have:
- Three full soles
- Iron or brass rivets at the sides of the shoe.
- Toe cleats studded with hobnails attached to the toe of each shoe.
- Thicker leather than the 1917 shoes.
- Three rows of stitching at the backstays.
- Iron heel plates
Pershing Boots [L], 1917 Model [Ctr], Russet Marching Shoe [R]
THE VICTORY SHOE:
Our last shoe is what was called the "Victory Shoes". This shoe, supposedly had all the features of the Pershing Shoe, but had a solid one piece backstay. I have never seen a pair of these shoes, so I don't know if they ever made it to France. It is my personal belief that this shoe never made it to production. I have never seen a photo of them in use nor is there a picture of them in "Americas Munitions" the source that mentions this shoe.
With the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 the need for the trench boot ceased. Contracts were modified to remove the hobnails, extra soles and heel plates. Many contracts were diverted to stateside destinations.
As World War One came to a close an era also ended in a unique theater specific field shoe. Alas! The humble but sturdy trench boot has gone the way of the dinosaur.
MISCELLANEOUS TRENCH BOOT INFORMATION:
Since the Trench boot was not lined with anything that would remotely provide the soldiers with insulation, soldiers adopted the practice of wearing two pairs of wool socks. This required them to wear shoes two sizes larger than their actual foot size. This practice became so widespread that General Pershing instructed the Chief Quarter Master to curtail the shipment of shoes sizes 5-5 1/2 length and A width.
Just a few words are worth mentioning about markings. Generally speaking U.S. field shoes will have a Quarter Master marking on the outer soles and on the inside of the shoe. Depot markings were done in ink and are located on the inside of the ankle. If a shoe has been worn at all it will be difficult to read much of it, due to the fact that the ink wore off quickly.
Doughboys actually preferred refurbished trench shoes as the stiff leather was already soften up and easier on their feet. The practice of carrying extra shoes was both common and authorized. It was also common for the doughboy to wear or carry extra trench boots supplied by the French or British. I have even read accounts of Doughboys removing shoes from the bodies of dead German soldiers in an effort to replace their badly worn field shoes. Doughboys of the 1st, 42nd & 89th divisions entering Germany at the end of the hostilities were issued British Ammo Boots. They complained bitterly about the problems caused by wearing British boots as the quality of this boot was not the same as the U.S. field shoe.
As to the tanning processes associated with the Trench Boot, Pershing Boot and Victory Shoe, the process of Chrome Vegetable Tanning was adopted. This process used chromium salt and vegetable matter in the tanning process. This was apparently adopted from the Germans, as we discovered that their boots seemed to last longer. The earlier method was a straight bark or vegetable tanning. Shoes tanned by this method began to deteriorate quickly when subjected to animal and human urine, manure and waste common on WWI battlefields.
As to how the doughboy felt about the Trench boot; I have a letter written in 1917 in which an American Soldier attempts to describe his thoughts to a friend back home, "I received the strangest looking boots today. . . They have nails in the soles and horseshoes on the heels . . . . I don't believe you could wear them out!"
- Americas Munitions 1918-1919
- The Medical Department of the U.S. Army during the World War,
- Vol. VI
- The Army Shoe, then and now by The Chief Quarter Master for the Army,
- July - August 1921
- Hearings Before The Committee On Military Affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-Fifth Congress,
- Second Session, Part 2, December 18-19, 1917
- Letters and Photos from the Jim Bond Collection.
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