Boots, Boots, Boots: A Living History Case Study

For the last twenty years, I have been actively involved in a living history organization dedicated to portraying the British 1st Airborne Division during World War II.

Much has changed in that time, both within our organization and in the overall living history community. In many ways, it is much easier now than it used to be.  When I first got involved, original WWII British uniforms and equipment were rather scarce, and there were few reproduction items available.  While books on WWII were plentiful, most of the ones available in the US were either general histories or had an American focus.  The internet was in its infancy.  It was not easy to research the history of the British Army while living in the US.

I want everything that I do to be historically correct, down to the smallest detail. Recently, I have been reevaluating many of the basics, and I have learned that some things that I was taught when I was new have turned out to have been incorrect, largely because the resources we have now were not available back then.

A couple years ago, I discovered that I was tying my bootlaces incorrectly.

Ammunition boots (or “ammo” boots) were adopted by the British Army during the Victorian period and were not replaced until the 1960’s. Ammo boots were ankle-high lace-up boots, made with pebble-grained leather uppers and hobnailed leather soles.  They were as tough as the men that wore them, and British soldiers marched in them across the world.

Ammo boots were “ladder laced”; that is, the laces gave the appearance of parallel lines, like the rungs of a ladder. They were never worn using the American-style crisscross pattern.  There are different methods of achieving the ladder effect.  The method that I was originally taught gave the correct parallel-lines appearance, and resulted in a normal bow at the top of the boot.  Sometimes the bows would give a bulky appearance to my gaiters, and every so often part of a bow would become untucked from under the gaiter, or worse, become untied.

GrenGuards 1944

Princess Elizabeth inspects the Grenadier Guards, May 1944.  The ammo boots, as to be expected, are clean and polished.  If one looks closely, one can see the parallel lines effect of British-style “ladder lacing”.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

A few years ago, a friend directed me to an online discussion board on British reenacting, including a debate over the correct British Army method of lacing boots. There were several people who posted comments insisting that bootlaces should never be tied in a bow.  The correct method, according to this discussion, was to start by tying a knot in one end of a lace and threading the lace through the bottom eyelet from behind.  The lace is then threaded through the other bottom eyelet from above, creating the first “rung” of the ladder.  The lace is taken diagonally back to the first row and threaded through the next eyelet, again from behind, then crossed over again to create the second “rung”.  This is repeated to the top of the boot.  There is then a length of lace remaining, which is wrapped a couple times around the ankle, and the loose end tucked under the wrap at least once, possibly two or three times.

The proponents of this method had served in the British Army in the early 1980’s, and used this method on DMS boots, the replacement for ammo boots.   Another fellow added that his father had been taught this method when he performed his National Service in the 1950’s, with ammo boots.

I was intrigued by this discussion, but I was concerned that the evidence given was from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. I wanted evidence from WWII.   I started looking closely at photos from the period, which all showed ladder-laced boots; but all the photos I found showed men wearing gaiters, which covered the boot-tops.

Fus Tom Payne Front

Fusilier Tom Payne, Royal Welch Fusiliers.  Fusilier Payne was the subject of a number of official photographs taken in Normandy in 1944, intended to show the appearance of a typical British soldier fighting in France.  While in the field, soldiers were not expected to polish their boots, although routine cleaning was essential to making them last.  The “ladder lacing” is clearly evident.

I stumbled across the evidence I needed quite by accident. I was preparing for an event and wanted to brush up on infantry tactics.  I pulled out my copy of the official 1937 Infantry Training manual; my copy was reprinted in 1941.  Even though it is an official publication, there are a number of advertisements at the front and back of the book; officers typically had to purchase their own copies, and the ads helped keep the cost down.  One of the ads is for Kiwi boot polish and includes a photograph of a pair of boots being worn without gaiters.  The photograph clearly shows the bootlaces wrapped around the ankles, without bows.  I finally had the evidence that I needed.

scan0013

Advertisement from the 1941 reprint of the 1937 Infantry Training manual.  Notice the bootlaces wrapped around the ankles.

 

I tried this method of lacing my boots and wore them at the event, and I was pleased with the result. There was none of the bulky appearance to my gaiters that had previously concerned me, and nothing came untucked or peeked embarrassingly out from under the gaiters.  I have used this method ever since.

UPDATE:  Since I first published this article, I have received a number of requests asking for a tutorial on lacing ammo boots in the correct, 1940’s manner, including photographs. It is now available as a new article, found here:  Boots, Boots, Boots, Part 2:  A Tutorial

 

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