In a situation where people had to stand for what they believed in and at the same time run on their feet whenever needed, it is important to ensure that they are able to do so. In a war where weapons and tactics and how to defeat the enemies were the main focus, it was fairly easy to forget about the significance of small things like socks. As ridiculous as it might sound, a small detail as this one could dictate the fate of the soldiers in a war, and history had proved that to be true.

Before Socks Were A Common Thing

Before socks became widely available, the go-to of boots wearers were footwraps. Also called foot cloths, or foot rags sometimes, are rectangular pieces of cloth worn by wrapping them around the feet before wearing boots. They are around 16 inches on each side if square or 30 inches per side on its triangular variant. The Russian army used flannel during winter while they used cotton in the summer. These are used to avoid chafing, absorb sweat, and improve the foothold. Advantages of using footwraps are that they are cheaper, quicker to dry compared to socks, and are more resistant to wear and tear. Now, the major con is that any folds in the wraps can quickly cause painful blisters or wounds that the wearer will have to endure for a long time. The use of footwraps remained in the armies of Eastern Europe until the beginning of the 21st century.

Trench Feet

It was during World War I that the importance of socks was greatly realized. The soldiers on the Western Front were enduring the terrible conditions in the trenches. The ditches were usually flooded due to the rainfall and lack of a drainage system. Their feet were constantly soaked in water and freezing during the winter season. The sores on their feet combined with their unchanged, damp socks were a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, and soldiers began suffering trench foot. As Jenny Raynor at Sydney Living Museum wrote:

A potentially debilitating fungal infection that thrived in the wet, cold and squalid conditions, and could lead to gangrene and amputation if left untreated. Feet needed to be kept as dry as possible, and it was recommended that men change their socks at least twice a day.

Posters. Health and sanitation. Trench foot is dangerous! Clean and dry your feet every chance you get. Never give a germ a break! Captain Hack. (Otis Historical Archives of “National Museum of Health & Medicine” (OTIS Archive 1)CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, the authorities recommended that the troops change their socks twice a day and keep their feet dry as much as possible. This, of course, equated to high demand for socks for the soldiers to use, and the government could not keep up. New recruits were even told to bring their own strong boots and knitted socks because the army could not provide for them.

The article published by Research Gate wrote:

The large numbers of trench foot casualties in World War I, especially among the French and British, convinced policymakers that this vital commodity must receive a higher priority in military production planning, but few nations in wartime could shift production to knitting mills rapidly enough to make a difference.

Despite having the largest stock of knitting machines in the world, the United States was still having difficulty supplying sufficient numbers of socks for the soldiers even when they entered the war scene in 1917. One hundred fifty million pairs of socks were needed, and the factories struggled to meet that expectation. With that, they asked the public’s help and started the “Knit Your Bit” campaign led by the American Red Cross.

You may think this is much ado about nothing, but it is estimated that Trench Foot casualties amounted to some 2,000 U.S. Doughboys and nearly 75,000 British troops in WWI with injuries including amputations, permanent loss of feeling in the feet, and severe infections. The cure could be as bad as the disease.  The open sores were treated with lead and opium.

THIS IS TRENCH FOOT. PREVENT IT! KEEP FEET DRY AND CLEAN. (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Answering The Call

And so, they turned for help to home knitters— women, children, elderly people, anyone left in the country who could knit, really. They started working and knit not only socks but also sweaters, hospital textiles, as well as scarves, gloves, cholera belts, and balaclavas. Patterns were deployed, although there were issues with quality control. Millions of pairs of socks were knitted and sent and sent to the soldiers in the trenches, often with a brief message of encouragement.

Sydney Living Museums further wrote:

In response to this demand, knitters across the British Empire worked tirelessly to provide a steady supply of socks for the soldiers. In Australia, organisations such as the Red Cross and Australian Comforts Fund distributed patterns and provided access to cheap wool, and it’s estimated that Australian knitters – predominantly women and schoolchildren – produced over a million pairs for the troops at the front.

Red Cross Knitting instructors, Nashville, Tennessee, 1917-1918. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

WWII didn’t have the same problems with socks as the US had enough capacity to provide the needs of the soldiers, so the knitters weren’t needed as they did before. The trench foot was still a problem but was ruled as self-inflicted due to some soldiers wanting to avoid being sent to the front lines. This was resolved by psychological appeal to embarrassment and application of modern technology through the Shoepac system. Nonetheless, it’s still interesting to know how small items like socks could greatly affect something as big as a war.