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These boots aren’t made for walking

A retired lieutenant general looks at the history of the Army boot, and the discomfort of breaking it in

The other day while browsing through TV channels, I watched the 1973 movie Yaadon Ki Baaraat for a few minutes. The scene showed gangster Ajit distributing the spoils to his henchmen after a brutal armed robbery. Ajit is sitting on a chair with his feet on the table. One of the henchmen notices that the soles of the typical white and brown gangster shoes showed a different size for each foot — sizes 8 and 9. The henchman comments on it, and Ajit frowns with disapproval.

This scene brought back a flood of memories going back half a century. Do humans have different foot sizes? Is it common? Can one function normally wearing a different shoe size?

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.” Surprisingly, 80 per cent of humans have different sizes and shapes for each foot. So long as the difference is of half a size, it does not matter. If it’s more than that, it necessitates a different shoe size for each foot. People affected with such problems either get their shoes handmade, or buy two pairs of different sizes. Nowadays there are shoe companies catering to such special needs.

Now I’m blessed with feet exactly of the same size. Being an Army kid, I was among military boots from the moment I started crawling. There was no end to the number of shoes my father had: half-Wellingtons with spurs for mess dress; Oxford pattern black and brown shoes for formal wear; Peshawari chappals in black and brown for casual wear; sambar shoes and python shoes made from skins of shikar kills; brown ankle boots for ceremonial affairs with a Sam Browne belt; and ammunition boots, as the combat boots of the Army were popularly known.

My mother told me that as a toddler, I had licked and bitten all the shoes of my father, but I was particularly fond of the ammunition boots. Despite this obsession with Army shoes, including their upkeep, I spent four critical years of my training at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA) wearing a different size ammunition boot on each foot!

There is an old proverb, “the Army marches on its stomach”, to highlight the importance of food and logistics. But while the Army needs food to survive and fight, it literally marches on its feet wearing combat boots. Without the boots, a soldier is useless. The first thing that we do when we capture prisoners of war is to “disarm” their feet to prevent escape.

The first known use of military footwear was by the Assyrians, 25 century BC. Their use by the Romans is well documented. The Romans became one of the first civilisations to regularly use footwear. According to the website Authorised Boots, “Leather sandals or thongs were most commonly worn by the middle and upper class. Caligae, while similar in appearance to modern day sandals, were boots worn by Roman legionary soldiers and auxiliary for battles and marches. They were made from vegetable tanned cow or ox hide, with an open design made for comfort and ventilation. The adjustable nature of the straps led to fewer blisters and foot related injuries. The hobnails in the leather soles provided good traction for uneven ground, and hobnailing was practiced until end of the 20th century.”

The military combat boot has continuously evolved, and is today considered the most important item of a soldier’s personal kit. The modern combat boot is as comfortable as the best hiking boot.

Being “tradition” bound and starved of funds, the Indian Army continues to use a combat boot introduced in the late 1880s, with the only variation being the introduction of the directly moulded sole (DMS) in the 1980s, a hundred years after the hobnailed leather sole.
Wikipedia has this to say on the boots:

“Ammunition Boots, also known as Boots, ankle, General Service, were the standard footwear for the British Army and the Indian Army from the late 1880s. The term “Ammunition boots” comes from the original unusual source of the boots. They were first procured by the Master Gunner and the Munitions Board at Woolwich, the Regiment of Artillery’s headquarters, rather than Horse Guards as the headquarters of the British Army was known then. Ammunition Boots were unlined ankle-boots with leather laces, iron horseshoe heel-plate and toe-plate, and a leather sole with 15 hobnails which were later reduced to 13. The vamp (front) and quarters (sides) were often made of a contrasting type of leather than the toe case (toe cap) and counter (heel cap), one made of “pebble-grained” (dimpled) leather and the other of smooth leather. They were designed to be hard-wearing and long-lasting rather than comfortable.

Ammunition boots soon began to be manufactured in India from buffalo hide, and exported to all armies of the empire.

As soon as I reported to the NDA, all cadets were huddled into the Quartermaster’s Fort to be kitted for training. We were asked to pick up our size boots from a huge pile. The laces of each pair were tied together to avoid mixing up. I quickly pulled out a size 8 boot to try on.

Trying or wearing a buffalo hide boot is a herculean task. The foot had to be literally forced into the hard raw leather. The heel and toe portion were two layered and rock hard, and created a painful vice like grip. I somehow managed to force my left foot in. The size seemed to fit and I collected the pair. The shoes were soon taken away by the bearer to prepare them for the drill parade. Hot wax was poured on the shoe’s toe and heel to create an extra shine. The shoes were shined to perfection, a process repeated every day.

As I forced my feet into the boots for the drill parade, I realised that my left and right shoes were of a different size — sizes 8 and 9. I panicked, but it was too late. In minutes I was at the drill square, trying to adjust and adapt to the different sizes, that too in the most uncomfortable boot that could possibly be designed.

By the time the drill period ended, all of us had blisters and there was excruciating pain in the heel and the toe, due to the vice-like grip of the hard leather. NDA training is enslaved to time. Ask a cadet for anything but time. I neither found the time nor the courage to ask for a replacement for my boots. Moreover, having used this one I would have to pay for the new one. Since our kits was self-financed, I thought that I15 was too much to pay for the boot.

It took us one month to “break in”, or I should say “break into”, our ammunition boots. Innovative remedies were tried. The boots were put into hot water to soften them. Army folklore says in the bygone era, even urine was used. Hammers was literally used to break the hard portion. All this made only a marginal difference, and eventually our feet themselves hardened. The thought of “breaking in” a new pair further deterred me from ever changing my boots.

The difference in the two pairs was noticeable to the discerning eye, but then, those who may have noticed never said a thing. Who could imagine a cadet drilling in boots of a different size? Of course, I added an inner sole to the right foot to make myself comfortable. I marched out of the NDA as the Academy Cadet Adjutant wearing a different size shoe on each foot.

As one arrives in the IMA, life begins afresh. We were juniors once again for the first six months. Once again, we were at the Quartermaster’s Fort to collect our kit. I pulled out a size 8 pair and tried the right foot. It was perfect fit for the hardened foot. Despite my experience at the NDA, I did not check the size — which is engraved on the sole — for the left foot.

History was to repeat itself. As I forced my way into the boots for drill parade, to my horror, I realised that my left boot was size 9. Once again it was too late. This time, it was the opposite foot with the larger size. The agony of “breaking in” and “breaking into” the boots was repeated once again. I passed out of the IMA, third in the order of merit, yet again wearing a different size boot on each foot.

It might be hard to believe, but the only fact that I may have gone wrong with is the extent of discomfort of our ammunition boots. The discomfort continues to date to a lesser degree, with the DMS Boot introduced in the 1980s. India manufactures some of the best shoes in the world, but the Indian Army wears the worst combat boot in the world, which has remained unchanged in design for 130 years, except for the DMS sole. That it costs only I500-600 in the open market is a reflection on its quality!

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