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Socks and War


Although I don’t identify as a historian of technology per se, I have presented at the Society for the History of Technology before. And the technologies I deal with in my work are seemingly mundane–clean sheets, showers, fly-proof screens for meat. Not surprisingly then, I tend to believe that smaller day-to-day technologies are more meaningful for understanding the past than the big technological systems historians of the field have traditionally focused on.

Suzanne Fischer covered the recent SHOT meeting in Cleveland and is reporting for the Atlantic on some of the papers she saw there. Among them, Rachel Maines’ paper arguing for the importance of clean socks in fighting trenchfoot during World War II.

Trenchfoot, a condition where feet become necrotic due to excess moisture, took many casualties in the First World War as well as in the beginning encounters of World War II. In the Alaskan engagements in the early 1940s, 40% of the casualties were due to trenchfoot. It often caused permanent disability.

The simplest solution to trenchfoot was dry socks that fit well and were changed often. In World War I, the US textile industry, despite having the largest stock of knitting machines in the world, couldn’t scale up to the 150 million pairs of socks needed to outfit soldiers. So auxiliary factories were called into production: home knitters. Women, children and elderly people―anyone not on the front―were asked to knit socks, sweaters and hospital textiles. New hand-knitting technologies were deployed, including a pattern for knitting two socks at once. But these socks suffered from quality control problems. Maines quoted a veteran’s ditty:

Thank you kind lady,
Your socks are some fit.
I use one for a hammock
and one for a mitt.

By the Second World War, the US had enough industrial capacity to provide all the socks soldiers needed, and home knitters weren’t needed for production. But trenchfoot remained a problem.

Interesting stuff. This also gives me a chance to plug one of my all time favorite history books, Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm, a study of how the vibrator developed in the late 19th century. I once taught this book in a class entitled “Food, Drugs, and Sex: Bodies and Environments in History.” The students loved the book but instead of talking about the Gilded Age, really just wanted to talk about how the story related to their own experiences today. Eventually I gave up moving back to the 19th century because in the end, if a history book touches people in a special way, it’s best to encourage that. No pun intended.

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  • Margarita

    if a history book touches people in a special way, it’s best to encourage that. No pun intended.

    Why do people say, “No pun intended,” when it clearly was? This is perplexing.

    • Because there was actually no pun intended. It just came out this way and I realized what I wrote.

      • Warren Terra

        On the other hand, it’s a written medium, and editable, and not posted in real time. “No pun intended” works in a real-time context, but here you obviously recognized the pun, and decided to go with it. So, by the time anyone read your words, the pun was had your conscious blessing, and so was now intentional, whatever its earlier status. Clearly, the disclaimer should have been “pun accidental”.

        On the third hand, who cares, and please carry on.

    • Saying “no pun intended” is a way of drawing attention to a word choice that arguably is a pun, and thus making a pun after the fact.

    • John F

      So they can bring attention to it, just in case the reader missed it.

  • Well, the Red Army didn’t need no stinking socks, or socks at all, to march all the way to Berlin. That’s true, too- they didn’t use socks, and the Russian army only started using socks a few years ago. Before that, what people used was a cloth that looked a lot like a cloth dipper folded in a special way around the foot. Supposedly, if you do it write it’s better than a sock, but it also takes training. I wore them under Russian military boots while riding horses in Mongolia, and they were good, until they slipped apart because my wrapping was sub-standard. But really- no socks in the Red Arm.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      I would ever so gently point out that the Red army has never been known for coddling its soldiers with luxuries. For those of you who don’t “get” understatement, the Red army has a reputation for treating its soldiers with unsurpassed cruelty.


      Alan Tomlinson

  • Robert Farley

    “The students loved the book but instead of talking about the Gilded Age, really just wanted to talk about how the story related to their own experiences today.”

    Yeah, well, a lotta letters to Penthouse Forum start the same way…

    • “I’m a soldier in a major Allied army…”

  • beaker


    Back in the good ol’ days of U.S. Antarctic research, program participants were required to attend a series of pre-deployment trainings. imho, the gem among them was a scare lecture about cold weather injuries, given by a military doctor. A few pictures of Argentine feet during the Malvinas War is all it takes to revolutionize your thinking about foot hygiene.

    • that’s beaker asshole to you

      They still show a slideshow with trenchfoot as part of snow school, accompanied by the instructor saying “just change your socks at least once a day, for christs sake!”

  • Bighank53

    Another seemingly mundane item is cartridge brass. It has to stretch enough to form a gas-tight seal against the breech and bolt, yet be springy and recoil a few thousands of an inch so the empty cartridge can be extracted. It has to be soft enough to crimp around the bullet and primer, making it watertight, but also hard enough that the extraction mechanism doesn’t just rip a notch out of the base. The history of firearms tends to focus on the weapons–they are pretty dramatic–but the chemistry of the propellants and the metallurgy of cartridges and bullets have been the limiting factors all along.

    • stickler

      Yes, indeed. See, for instance, “Martini-Henry Rifle,” and cross list with “Isandhlwana.” It’s really, really important that your shiny new rifles don’t jam in the African heat if you’re facing 35,000 angry Zulus.

      • Warren Terra

        My recollection of reading about Islandhlwana (Washing Of The Spears) was that the rifles performed well, but the quartermasters didn’t keep the soldiers stocked with ammunition – that because of a problem with wastage, the ammunition crates would only be opened with a special tool, of which there weren’t enough, and ammunition could only be resupplied with ample paperwork.

        Of course, the real lesson of Islandhlwana is that you don’t quit when your winning – the large African force, having won, largely disbanded afterwards.

        • John F

          Nah the crates were opened by bashing on one side with a rock, archaeologists found plenty of remains of the crate lids with bent retaining nails…

          I think the bigger problems were that the guns were overheating and jamming after firing too many rounds per minute for too many minutes. Plus the defensive circle was too wide, too much separation between defenders, once it was breached that battle likely did a 180 degree turn from Zulu being slaughtered to Brits being slaughtered, the Brits needed close quarter weapons- pistols/swords… but really only let officers have them…

          Of course in a few years the imperialist armies had maxim guns and the idea of a bladed weapon mass infantry charge- hell any mass infantry charge- was suicidal

  • Charlie

    Trenchfoot was still a problem in the last years of WWII. My dad made it to the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge as a replacement troop. The knowledge may have been there to provide changes of socks but the logistics must have not been. My dad did around 45 days at the front lines in cold wet conditions. They sent him back to a hospital in England only when the fighting had subsided. The damage to the circulation in his feet has been an issue for him 77 years and counting.

    • DrDick

      I remember my father talking about the value and importance of socks (as well as the wholesale theft of the same by everyone) during WWII. He was in the Pacific.

  • This is from Ludovic Kennedy’s “Pursuit”, just before Hood and Prince of Wales engaged Bismark and Prinz Eugen:

    In all the ships, officers and men went to cabins and messes and put on clean underwear and socks, a ritual the British Navy has always observed before battle to prevent wounds from infection

  • John

    I just had my students read Graves’s Good-Bye to All That for my WWI class, and Graves has an interesting take on trenchfoot. Basically, he says it only happened in units with poor morale. In units like that, where people basically stopped caring if they live or died, they would stop taking care of themselves and would basically go to sleep repeatedly with wet feet with no attempt to dry them, and trenchfoot would become a big problem. In units with good morale (like Graves’s Royal Welch Fusiliers), people would take care of themselves, and wouldn’t get trenchfoot. Not sure how true that is, but it seems plausible enough.

    • I am pretty skeptical to connect disease and morale in any but the most superficial sense. There could theoretically be a minor connection, but I see little possibility of anything real.

      • John

        I don’t think he was saying that bad morale causes the disease, but that bad morale causes carelessness about one’s health, and that it was hard to get trenchfoot if you weren’t careless about your health.

      • dave

        Trenchfoot isn’t a ‘disease’, you don’t ‘catch’ it. It’s a condition that occurs under certain specific and avoidable circumstances. Why on earth would the presence or absence of a will to avoid those circumstances NOT be relevant?

        This is a pretty basic two-paragragh summary, but it makes it clear that there could BOTH be mistaken assumptions about a direct influence of morale, AND practical measures to combat it that relied on detailed attention – the kind of thing much more likely in units with high morale.

    • ajay

      Graves is absolutely right about immersion foot (as it’s now called). Follow the drills and you will generally be fine (assuming you can get hold of dry socks). Let them slip and immersion foot will start. And it starts fast – in 24 hours or less sometimes.
      dave: Immersion foot is a disease, but not an infectious one, which I think is the point you’re trying to make. (Arthritis is a disease. So is scurvy.)

      Relevant: the Ernie Mauldin “Willie & Joe” cartoon with Willie saying “Joe, yesterday you saved my life and I’m going to repay you. Here’s my last pair of dry socks”.

      Also relevant: 25% of British casualties in the Falklands were foot casualties – ankle injuries, frostbite, frostnip, immersion foot and blisters.

  • Philip Eagle

    Unfortunately actual historians of sexuality are extremely negative about that Maines book – essential cultural implausibility, sources that turn out not to support the claims they’re quoted as evidence for. See eg http://www.lesleyahall.net/factoids.htm (written by a respected historian of sexuality from the Wellcome Institute in the UK)

    • Dave in Northridge

      and there’s a thread on the problems of the Maines book going on now at H-Sexuality.

      • dave

        Erik? Erik!

        Hmm, maybe he’s off revising his bibliography. Or whatever the young people are calling it today.

  • Jim Lynch

    Check out General Patton’s WW2 diaries. His concern for the welfare of his troops feet was all abiding. Lord help any officer under his command who failed to insure his soldiers were provided clean, dry socks.

  • One of my uncles was in the Green Berets in Viet Nam. He and his team were stuck on a hill with nothing to do. They were not getting any supplies, but always got their mail. My grandmother sent them new socks, waterproof matches, guns, ammunition, and cookies for all of them every week, without fail, that they were stuck on that hill. They needed ammunition to kill the rats.

    Can’t imagine even my grandma getting away with that today.

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