When the First World War began, the army was in the middle of field trials for an improved version of the Boots, ankle, General Service (BGS). They were designed to be hard-wearing and long-lasting rather than comfortable. They were worn with long puttees – rolled round the legs from the top of the ankle boot to just below the knee.

The Field Army of 1914 was issued with two pairs, one black and one brown, both of which were carried on active service. The B2 boot had just been introduced. The regulation field boot for most of the war was almost square-toed, in thick hide with the rough side out. The soles were cleated with metal studs which covered almost the whole of the sole in the infantry boot only the toe area for mounted troops.

From 1907 until 1911 the 1037 pattern was made while research into the new boot was conducted, it was replaced by patterns 7325 and 7326. After the reforms of 1908, brown boots had been recommended as better camouflage, although ‘best’ boots were still black. So, the men who beat the Great Retreat after the Battle of Mons might have been part of all this development work.

It was a very severe test. Most of the men covered around 250 miles averaging 20 miles a day, hungry, with little sleep, constantly harried by the pursuing German forces. The novelist Alan Sillitoe once told me that he had hoped to‘re-enact’ this retreat. Despite his physical wiriness and great determination, Alan failed in the attempt. I seem to remember it was his feet which let him down.

In any event the boots had to make way for the B5. Our modest sized professional army fit for home and imperial demands had to give way to a continental army of up to two million volunteers. The B5, widely introduced in 1915-16, was created to save leather and to simplify production. In place of the pre-war leather laces, there were woven cotton, and there was no leather toe-cap. The upper was made from heavy gauge, oiled ‘rough out’ kip type leather. They had a leather insole, a double leather outsole and a military ring tipped heel. The sole was nailed with military-type flat ‘gripper’ studs. The War forced a return to brown leather boots for the Other Ranks. Later in the war a distinctive crescent toe-cap was introduced.

“This avalanche of boot orders”

Hansard records a debate on Army Contracts. Some of the £350m War Loan would be used for “orders for boots will amount to some millions of pounds and a large proportion will doubtless go to the Northampton district.”

During the First World War some 70% of all boots used by the army were made in the 100 or so shoe factories of Northamptonshire. 50 million pairs were made during the war not just for our troops but for the French, the Italian and Russian allies.

Within a couple of months of the outbreak of the War, the Northampton Independent devoted a leading article to the boom in the production of army boots. “The pulse of Northampton’s trade is beating in a way that may be the envy of other towns …” thirty manufacturers were busy with the contracts.

There were new opportunities for women. They had always been employed on stitching and sewing, but with the departure of the men, they took on new roles.

The retreat from Mons

(based on the Diary of Corporal Denore 1st Royal Berks Regt: 1 Army Corps)

An early start every day “We started off about 5am – at dawn we started – again at dawn we started – as we were leaving about 4am – the first four or five hours we did without a single halt or rest – at 2am we moved off and marched all day long. It was hot and dusty and the roads were rotten … I believe we did about twenty-five miles that day – again at dawn we started … The roads were in a terrible state, the heat was terrific, mixed up with us, wandering all over the road were refugees with prams, trucks, wheelbarrows and tiny little carts drawn by dogs.”

The Germans “the Germans were after us almost immediately. God only knew how they got over (the blown-up bridges) so soon … we retired about two or three miles, we waited until the Germans came up and we began all over again, and then again, and then again, all day long. It was terribly tiring, heart-breaking work, as we seemed to have the measure of the Germans and yet we retired.”

Sleep “every time we stopped we fell asleep: in fact we slept while we were marching, and consequently kept falling over – Men were falling down like nine-pins. They would fall flat on their faces on the road, while the rest of us staggered round them, as we couldn’t lift our feet high enough to step over them – All through the night we marched rocking about on our feet for the want of sleep, and fully fast asleep even if the halt lasted only a minute – I was always tired, hungry, unshaven and dirty.”

Boots and feet “My feet were sore – Some of the fellows had puttees wrapped round their feet instead of boots, others had soft shoes they had picked up, others walked in their socks, with their feet all bleeding – My own boots would have disgraced a tramp, but I was too frightened to take them off and look at my feet – I, like a fool, took my boots off and found my feet were covered with blood … As I couldn’t get my boots on again, I cut the sides away, and when we started again, my feet hurt like hell – instead of boots we had puttees, rags, old shoes, field boots – anything and everything wrapped around our feet.”

At the end “we were filthy, thin and haggard. Most of us had beards: what equipment was left was torn … our hats were the same women’s hats, peasants’ hats, any old covering, while our trousers were mostly in ribbons – I discovered the company I was in covered 251 miles in the Retreat from Mons …”

By Keith Pybus