The Army Handbook in 1914 has a useful paragraph telling soldiers how to care for their feet:-
To prevent sore feet cleanliness and strict attention to the fitting of boots and socks are necessary. Before marching the feet should be washed with soap and water and carefully dried. The inside of the socks should be well rubbed with soft or yellow soap. After the march the feet must be again washed and clean dry socks put on. Soaking the feet in salt or alum and water hardens the skin. The nails should be cut straight across and not too close. A blister will probably be occasioned by an unevenness or hole in the sock, or an unevenness in the lining of the boot; the cause therefore should be ascertained and removed. The edge of a blister should be pricked with a needle and the fluid drained away by gently pressing the blister; a small pad of cotton wool or soft rag should be applied, and kept in place by a small piece of sticking plaster. Men are cautioned against getting boots too small for them.
Unfortunately once men got to the Front conditions were far from ideal. Soldiers sometimes had to march up to twenty miles a day and there was little or no fresh water to wash in. Soldiers often had to wear the same clothes for weeks at a time. Winter time was the worst time of year in the trenches. The soldiers had to cope with abysmal weather for weeks at a time. The heavy rain flooded the trenches and turned the soil into thick, slimy mud. Submersion of the feet for long periods led to a terrible condition called ‘Trench Foot’ – a fungal infection that could turn septic, resulting in amputation. This is why a clean dry pair of socks and a decent pair of boots was so important.
Women and young girls set to work knitting hundreds of useful items for the soldiers and sailors such as socks, balaclava helmets, gloves, and mufflers. At Hereson School, the girls worked very hard and in December 1914 they sent off 105 knitted garments. Ramsgate Knitting Association received many grateful letters from the men whose real need for the warm well-made socks, helmets and mufflers can be read between the lines of their messages.
Letter from “Somewhere in France” April 1915:-
Your mittens came at just the right time as I was just off to live in the trenches after a rest and it was bitterly cold there. I put them on on Easter Day and have not taken them off yet like my boots and the rest of my kit.
Private Livesay wrote in a letter to his parents in 1915:-
Our trenches are ankle deep in mud. In some places trenches are waist deep in water.
Soldiers had to sleep rough in the bitter cold Flanders winter and many died of exposure. A mug of tea iced over in minutes. Mud quickly coated boots, socks and trousers which could not be changed for at least a week.
Parcels sent by families and organizations like the Red Cross of luxuries such as razor blades, soap, chocolate and tobacco were great morale boosters for the troops. The parcels also contained practical gifts such as hand-knitted socks, and mittens. The contents of any parcel would be shared out. Cigarettes were handed round, new socks passed onto a man whose own had fallen to pieces, and a cake would be divided up.
Despite the horrendous conditions, morale was amazingly high among the troops. Lieutenant Presnall of the 3rd Royal West Kent Regiment sent a letter from the front praising the East Kent Buffs:-
The Buffs are marvellous. Straight from the trenches their spirits undamped by water, and defiant of gas and shell; feet swollen and sore from immersion in icy water; but, thank God, though they may have “trench feet” sometimes, they always have “trench hearts”. There they sat on Boxing Day, munching mince pies, and rubbing white oil into great swollen red things that faintly resembled feet.
Bugler Holmes wrote to his mother in Margate in January 1915:-
I cannot write too much just now as I am tired and have swollen feet. We have done four days in the trenches over our puttee tops in water. I am suffering with frost-bitten feet, in fact nearly all of us are.
Bugler Holmes was fortunate as shortly after writing this letter he was sent to a London hospital where he had to stay in bed for a week, pure luxury for someone who had spent hours standing in freezing cold water under constant bombardment. After a few weeks of recuperation and treatment Bugler Holmes went back to the front.
The main symptoms of trench foot were pain, numbness and swelling. The feet would swell up to twice their normal size and go completely numb. If the swelling started to go down the men screamed with the pain.
Early in 1917 Edward Thirkettle from Broadstairs, a Lewis Gunner with the Royal Naval Division, was admitted to the 1st Canadian General Hospital at Etaples suffering with severe Trench Feet and was sent back to Britain on HMHS Brighton. He was taken to Northamptonshire War Hospital and from here he wrote to his parents. The letter was published in the local paper:-
We marched up to the firing line, through water and mud, and stood all night in a shell hole half full of water. That froze hard, my feet froze with it – and here I am.
In December 1917 Edward was assessed as “unserviceable”, because he was suffering from frost bite in both feet and had lost all toes except for two stumps on his left foot. He had to wear special boots for the rest of his life and re-trained to be a boot maker.