Battlefield Remnants - WW2 Australian Boots

A comment made by a trekker, on a recent trip over the Kokoda Track has prompted me to elaborate on an issue that is rarely even considered - let alone written about.

It concerns footwear or more specifically; boots worn by Australian troops over the Kokoda Track and in later "jungle" campaigns. Whilst, at face value - it may not seem an interesting prospect to discuss footwear; it is probably one of the most prominent items that any modern day ‘Kokoda Trekker' will ponder over. The questions that niggle in the back of one's mind prior to departure. Such as "Have I chosen the right boots?"......"Have they been broken in sufficiently" and the big question...."Will they give me blisters??" may come back to haunt you as the trekker begins that climb up Imita Ridge or up to Isurava from Kokoda. Well, in 1942.......there was no such luxury as ‘choice' and any questions posed to the quartermaster regarding his boots at the clothing store no doubt resulted in a colourful "soldier's" response.

In July, 2008 we were at the Jap Ladder Campsite (between Ofi Creek and Nauro), looking at a piece of rusty metal with protruding nails. For all intents and purposes it looked like a "horse shoe". However judging by the size of this item, my trekker came to the conclusion that the ‘horse' must have had an extremely small hoof to fit a shoe of this size. Just short of a Shetland pony, what animal would fit a ‘horse shoe' this small?

Australian ‘heel' plate found at Jap Ladder Camp - July 2008

The item of course was NOT a horse shoe !!! Rather it was the heel plate from an Australian issue service boot. Being an avid preserver of Australian Militaria, I had seen countless of these items over the years.....the only difference being - mine were all still attached to their boot. Indeed in 1942, I dare say that the soldier who was wearing these boots at the time - did not even realise that the plate had come off his heel. Add exhaustion, injury or sickness and I would say that his care factor was minimised even further.

When a country mobilises for war, the whole industrial might of that nation goes into full swing. Production at all levels is doubled and sometimes even tripled - when compared to peacetime output. You only have to consider how many people enlisted to form the 5 Australian Divisions during the First War (the AIF) - and 4 Divisions during the Second War (Second AIF). Plus, during World War Two - we had the unique situation of placing a "Militia" army also into the field. Each and every one of these men needed to be ‘kitted out' and this meant boots. Hundreds of thousands of them.

It always frustrates me - when other collectors or backyard historians claim that leather goods made for the Army all had to be "this colour" or argue blind that "this or that is wrong". The fact of the matter is; one single Government factory simply cannot produce sufficient goods on its own - to equip an entire army in a specified period of time. Especially when a pledge is made - to supply a certain number of troops, to support the Mother Country at the soonest opportunity. It is quite correct to say that the Government had a certain "standard" or "pattern" so as to make their items of kit conform to a standard uniform. However, to accommodate such large orders, the Government simply out sourced its demand for items to civilian manufacturers - so long as their product COMPLIED with the standard and passed an inspector's examination. Henceforth, boots for Military service had a certain appearance but may have varied slightly from one manufacturer to another. Civilian companies commissioned to produce Military footwear included Blundstone, W.Peatt, J.J. Whyte, Rossiters Ltd and Slatters; just to name a few.

In the First World War, historian Charles Bean described the footwear of the First AIF, simply as being like a "workman's boot". Volume 1 of the Official History of World War 1 (Page 63), states that the boots were as pliable as civilian boots and far stouter. It was also said that in France, countless favours were obtained in exchange for Australian boots, such were their popularity amongst English troops. This basic design with only minor modifications (i.e. number of eyelets etc) was in military service prior to 1914 and remained so, up until 1941. The boot upper merely consisted of two (2) pieces of leather stitched together (a toe section and the main ‘body' of the boot) with a third piece stitched over the heel - as reinforcing to the back of the boot. There was no toe cap, subsequently the boot had a ‘soft toe' appearance. All of this, stitched onto a full leather sole may - or may not - have been completed with a metal heel plate. This is clearly illustrated by these two boots produced by different manufacturers. Those made by ‘W.Peatt' in 1940 have the metal ‘horse shoe' and nailed sole whilst the other pair; made by ‘J.J. Whyte' in 1941 have a clean sole, completely devoid of metalwork.

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Two different types of Australian WW1 style boots - note the boots on the left are completely devoid of any metalwork

The pattern for Australian military boots was altered after 1941. The main difference being a "toe cap" which was incorporated into the manufacturing process. This resulted in a line of double stitching being evident on the ‘upper toe' of the boot and it is easy to discern the difference between the two designs. Again, variations between manufacturers could result in some items displaying metal heel or toe plates and others having just a plain, leather sole. Certainly, there are some variations in the colour - from light tan (London Tan) to brown. Some manufacturers altered the design of the heel plate, so that the plate was complete around its perimeter or circumference - and not open at one end, like a ‘horse shoe'. A major variation however was the addition of brass "Jungle Cleats" which were added to improve grip in muddy conditions. A lesson no doubt learnt from experience gained on the Kokoda Track.

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Photo on the left shows the difference in the manufacture of the 'toe caps' NOTE the stitching across the toe. Photo on the right illustrates the brass "Jungle Cleats" and altered design of the Heel Plate

In the harsh jungle climate, leather boots and shoelaces rotted. Socks simply disintegrated (it was not uncommon for diggers to cut the sleeves of their woollen jumpers to use as substitute socks) and footwear could remain on one's feet for up to two weeks at a time. Laurie Howson of the 39th Battalion once commented "The days go on. You are trying to survive, shirt torn, arse out of your pants. Some days you carry your boots because there's no skin on your feet."

During the Australian withdrawal, the 2/14th reached the supply base at Myola late on the night of the 3rd and early hours of the 4thSeptember, 1942. Exhaustion had set in and most simply dropped straight off to sleep in their cold, sodden clothes. In Peter Brune's "Those Ragged Bloody Heroes" he details how they woke into a ‘Promised Land' with all of the luxuries that they had not seen for some time. The torn and mud stained clothes were removed in favour of fresh, clean uniforms. Boots and socks were cut away and in many cases the rotten skin simply came off with them. The men's feet were exposed to the fresh air and the unit chiropodist (Corporal Clark), set about the task of paring away the rotten tissue and smoothing out the wrinkles. Few passed up the opportunity to replace their boots at Myola, prior to destroying the remaining stores when the area was evacuated.

Lieutenant Hugh Dalby, M.C. (previously from the 2/27th and transferred to the 39th) stated "My condition, feet wise had deteriorated because by boots had worn out. I had pulpy feet: like crevices; ridges a quarter of an inch thick. You were soaking wet all the time. White puffy skin just started to peel off."

Rusty Heel Plate, recovered from the top of Imita Ridge in 2007

So how does all of this relate to me as a trekker on the Kokoda Track? Well one merely has to compare our modern apparel with that of a soldier in 1942. Consider the condition of the track on the ‘Golden Staircase' of Imita Ridge- or the 3500 odd timber steps cut into the ‘ascent' towards Ioribaiwa by Australian Engineers. If you can imagine, wearing boots with a flat leather sole. Make those boots soaking wet and then negotiate uneven steps. Add 20 to 30 kilos worth of kit, a reduction in concentration levels due to a poor diet and exhaustion and then place your leather sole on the slimey timber. One can only imagine how many ‘bloodied shins' were the result. Or clamber down the muddy slopes towards Menari, with a Battalion of men in front of you - and see just how much grip our 1941 boots gave us in the tortuous conditions. In modern times, we can certainly ‘experience' the rigorous terrain of the Kokoda Track. However, we can never fully appreciate just what it was like for a digger in 1942 - no matter how hard we try.

There is an old saying - that you should never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Well, the more I learn about the men of this era....and the type of equipment made available to do what was expected of them (which was built for war use - not for the comfort of the wearer) I judge their efforts to be nothing short of ‘extraordinary'. When we think of the words inscribed on the Isurava Memorial - then without a single doubt in the world, these men definitely put the "E" back into the word "Endurance".

Australian World War 1 style boot - made by W.Peatt in 1940