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Army Boots - British

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Army boots can be a bit of a pain. Ask any soldier - boots can make or break you. You cannot march or fight well with painful feet as a result of ill-fitting boots. Boots are essential footwear for most of the world's soldiers. Yes, most, for there are still some soldiers who are expected to fight in native footwear, which includes none at all.

Before progressing, that last remark prompts a story...

Malaya 1949. British soldiers are searching a longhouse in the jungle for signs of communist guerrillas. Tommy disturbs a basket and large, hairy spider rushes out. Tommy, with stout leather boots jumps back in fright. Native, with bare feet and smile on face, crushes spider underfoot.

It ain't what you got, it's the way that you use it.

A Guide for the Non-Military

British Army boots, otherwise known as ammunition boots, have always been traditionally black, however, during the reforms of 1908, brown boots were recommended as better camouflage, although 'best' boots were still black. The Field Army of 1914 was issued with two pairs, one black and one brown, both of which were carried on active service. Sadly, from 1914, only black polish was provided for use in the field and because of production issues, the brown boot was discontinued. Officers, on the other hand bought their own footwear and polish and still wear brown shoes with Service Dress.


The design criteria for army boots is mightily complex because different trades have different requirements. Protection is foremost followed by foot health and comfort. Good strong boots protect your feet from the environment, but some are murder on your feet (which can be the lesser of two evils).

I had a pair of green jungle boots (c1965) which were great to wear, dried out quickly but, having proofed canvas uppers, had no protection for the top of the foot and only rubber reinforcement for the toes


Army boots are made of leather, but tropical wear boots have fabric with leather reinforcement. This fabric is either natural or man made, although most prefer natural as it does not lead to sweating (sweat = smell = bad feet). One man-made fabric that is popular is Gortex. It is breathable and waterproof. It just costs a lot. However, no polish is needed or desired on Gortex as this negates its breathability.

British boots are also unlined, or have a lining only in the toe end of the boot. Canadian combat boots, which are fully lined are a joy to wear - until they get wet because they take longer to dry out. It was not until 1983, with the Falklands conflict, that the BCH (Boots Combat High leg) that every other NATO army had, reached British troops. They were wonderful until worn for any length of time. The first design did not allow sufficient flexing of the leather at the heel and it buckled in after use. This put pressure on the Achilles tendon and caused injury to more than a few. The current pattern is far better in this respect.

As an aside, the British Army saw fit to issue polyester socks because they were harder wearing than woollen ones. Unfortunately, they also made the feet sweat more. In this case too, the Falklands campaign showed just what rubbish they were and 70/30 wool mix socks replaced them. Initially, these were issued only to new recruits and longer-serving soldiers had to wait until theirs were worn out. This was difficult to achieve, because everyone bought decent socks and no one wore the polyester ones.


The original leather sole was reinforced with metal studs and plates, and promoted good marching. The Guards still use them for ceremonials. The US army began issuing composition-soled boots during WWII, frightening many British civilians as they marched at night while training in the UK.

The Brits issued quiet rubber-soled boots for specialists and ammunition storemen (because they produced no sparks) but finally adopted the DMS (direct moulded sole) boot at around 1958. It was still an ankle boot, which served well until it died a death in the Falklands conflict. They were issued, as usual, two pairs per man, but for the first decade, one DMS and one pair ammunition boots (for best wear) were issued. The British soldiers even had their fitness run in them at one period of time, until someone realised that it was causing injury


All British boots until the BCH had a toecap. Beloved of Sergeants-Major, they were originally added as reinforcement, but were ideally suited to 'bulling'. This involved spending many hours with cloth, boot polish and water (not spit) to produce a flawless gloss. Rumour has it that bulling was introduced to British regiments in India to occupy their spare time, which would otherwise be spent drinking or womanising. Bulling is officially not practised now, however, the words, 'polished to a deep shine', mean exactly the same thing.

Breaking in

The traditional method of 'breaking in' or softening boots was to urinate in them just before lights out, then empty them, apply polish without buffing and leave them overnight. They were worn the next day which worked wonders on the hardest leather. The urine was replaced with warm water at some point in time, making this a less odorous activity. Modern methods include applying waxes and liquid softeners and then there's the old, but effective, method of getting the recruit's feet wet and muddy for the first few days.


Laces are the principle fastening, either woven cotton or leather. The traditional method is the King's Tie or Lace. All, until the introduction of BCH, went horizontally across the laceholes.

The King's Tie or Lace

The following method sounds a bit strange - but it works. Laces are the best item for fastening, but there is a zip insert that can be attached to the boot (by laces!) to make it easier to get on and off quickly. This is fine until something goes wrong with the zip and then it's back to laces again. The BCH does not lend itself to this method and to counter the tight lacing which caused the Achilles tendon injuries already mentioned, the soldier was allowed to vary the lacing to suit.

Tie a knot at one end of the lace, big enough to prevent it pulling through the lace hole. Thread it through one of the bottom pair of laceholes with the knot inside. Thread through the other lacehole from the top and feed vertically up to the next higher lacehole, then through and out to the front. Continue up the boot until all laceholes are laced. All that should be visible are the horizontal laces across the front of the tongue. Tighten and wrap the loose end around the top of the boot, tucking the loose end under itself to secure.


Boot polish applied regularly can keep leather supple and waterproof. True waterproofing will make the leather unable to breathe and will cause damage to the feet. Most soldiers are taught to remove boots and air the feet at regular intervals to prevent foot infections. A major problem with ammunition and DMS boots was the lack of a seal for tongue and laceholes. They leaked like sieves. Conversely, they were easy to empty and dry.

The Boots Combat High (BCH), on first issue, were supplied with waterproofing wax. This lasted about a month before reversion to wax polish. The BCH, like most modern boots, has the tongue attached to the boot by gussets along the whole length. The lace holes, therefore, have no connection with the inside of the boot. As long as the gusset leather is treated to repel water as well as the body of the boot, then they are relatively waterproof.

Some Thoughts About British Army Boots

However the gussets are a pain if you have high insteps like me, since you have to undo all the laces to get the b****rs on.
The British army boot was originally designed for marching in, as was the German jackboot, or 'dice-shaker' as the infanteer called it. Willi, a cleaner in one of our German barracks during the 1970s, marched nearly to Moscow and back in his. After WWII the emphasis changed and the infantryman was carried into battle and was only expected to move about three miles on foot. The Falklands conflict threw that into touch and we started marching again.
I have painful memories of all these boots. I joined the Army Cadet Force in 1965 and wore the old, leather-soled ankle boot. I left the army after Regular and TA service in 1999 having lost acres of skin from my heels and two sockfuls of blood... Me and thousands of others.

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