Walking across the local playing fields on a lovely sunny warm day in Hertfordshire, I kicked off my shoes to experience the freshly cut grass. It made me think of a paper I’d recently read on the carriers in World War Africa where the author was commenting on the carriers not having shoes and that this was a sign of mistreatment. I wonder if it really was.
Growing up in South Africa, even in a city, I was barefoot as often as I could be and was even comfortable walking to the shop on the hot tar road shoeless. I couldn’t do it today as my feet are out of practice and too tender.
In East Africa today, most people on the Kilimanjaro wear flipflops (with socks and legwarmers in winter). If it wasn’t for the jiggerflea still prevalent, I’m sure bare feet would be preferred – the children definitely prefer no shoes when playing. At first, we were amazed at the flipflops, but they have the best grip on the slippery slopes in virtually all weathers (and it’s my preferred footwear).
The Zulu impi trained under Shaka were well used to running across the South African veld bare footed. Although this was 100 years before the First World War, during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Zulu were still fighting bare foot and photos of the Bambatha rebellion of 1906 suggest no footwear was still ‘part of the uniform’.
Walter Dobbertin who served in German East Africa with the Germans during the war, recorded his experiences through photographs (Lettow Vorbeck’s soldiers) A quick perusal of these (also found at the Bundesarchive) shows that some askari wore shoes whilst others were shoeless – including photos from the late 19th century. Pictures taken by Dobbertin of village scenes show that all the civilians were bare footed. This suggests bare feet was natural.
In May 1914, the Standing Orders for the Nigerian Regiment, West African Frontier Force were amended. This document which includes the issue of uniform to officers and rank and file mentions ‘sandals’ but has nothing annoted next to the term. They were issued with 2 pairs puttees on enlistment and 2 pairs annually. This suggests that the West African local soldiers also fought bare footed. (TNA, UK: CO 445/34 29603)
If people were not used to wearing shoes and were then expected to wear them because they were now enlisted (willingly or otherwise) in the armed forces (in whatever capacity) with little time for training and getting used to the changed circumstances, new shoes would be far more painful than possibly going without.
The urgent mass demand for manpower (including women and children) to undertake war work would have put an incredible strain on the Ordnance Department when the focus was on Europe and getting weapons to that theatre. The pressure on the supply units was great. There are accounts of white soldiers walking around in uniforms which were almost non-existent (Norman Parsons Jewell in On Call gives a graphic account of the state of uniforms at one point in the war as do AW Lloyd’s cartoons). It wasn’t for not caring – the items were just not available in the field and the demands of war meant there were no ships to transport such ‘luxuries’.
Another thought which crossed my mind when reflecting on the shoe issue was trench foot. How did that Western Front condition compare with shoeless carriers, askari and soldiers in Africa?
My plan isn’t to justify the failure to issue shoes or not, but to challenge how we look at the actions of the past. We cannot look at the past using today’s accepted practices. We need to step back in time to understand the conditions, beliefs and social practices prevalent at that time and in the particular space.