One of the more bizarre claims I have heard made to try and ridicule the British army of the Second Boer War was that, so utterly outdated was it, that the men were issued boots with no specific left or right ‘cut’. I was gleefully informed by one especially woeful battlefield guide in Natal that this meant that the Tommies suffered terribly, and was a great example of how hopelessly hidebound by tradition the British Army was in comparison to these forward thinking, progressive, clever old Boers.
I found a couple of things interesting about the delight that this guide took in passing on this tale. Firstly, I wondered if he had ever stopped to think whether this was normal at the time. If it was, this would be a little like gigglingly telling his group that the silly old, hidebound-by-tradition British did not even have radios at section level – as though this were some sort of archaic anomaly, rather than just standard practice of the times as the technology had yet to be invented. It would be meaningless to ‘mock’ the British military establishment for issuing non left / right specific boots if the armies of other nations of the time were shod similarly, or – indeed – had only recently made the switch.
More importantly, however – and bearing in mind that this was the same battlefield guide who claimed that the British infantry wore red coats at Talana Hill and, indeed, that Penn-Symons’ Brigade was ‘based in the Transvaal, rather like a UN peace keeping force!’ – I wondered if he had ever wondered if what he was telling his spellbound audience was actually true… which it wasn’t, as his claims were utter rubbish.
Until the mid-1800s, there was no such thing as left / right boots and certainly not for the ‘common people’. This of course meant that British soldiers and the troops of all the other nations involved fought the likes of the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and even the Crimean Wars in non-specific left / right boots. It is just how things were at the time and is in no way indicative of the British army being ‘reactionary’ or ‘stuck in the mud’.
Unfortunately, for this truly hapless battlefield guide, however, Imperial troops were issued with left / right boots from 1873, as confirmed to me by the helpful staff at the Australian War Memorial and Nigel Webster (Vice President of the Military Historical Society of Australia and a member of the Anglo-Boer War Study Group of Australia). They also confirmed, for example, that the troops of the New South Wales Contingent sent to the Soudan in 1885 were issued with the 1873 Blucher pattern boot.
And not only that, but long before the Boer War of 1899-1902 the 1873 boot had itself been superseded by the first marque of the famous ‘Ammunition Boots’, the Pattern 1037. This was introduced in 1887 and remained in service until 1907. Indeed, in various marques which tweaked very minor things such as the number of tacks on the heel and such like, Imperial and Commonwealth soldiers wore the “ammo boot’’ not only in the Boer War, but also in both World Wars and in Korea. In fact, it was only in the late 1950s that these were finally replaced by the new ‘DMS’ boot… and even after that, the ammo boot – suitably bulled up and gleaming – remained a favourite of drill sergeants, provost corporals and various others who enjoy shouting and stamping about parade grounds and depots.
So what, you might ask, would inspire a battlefield guide to spout such nonsense? Did he simply make this ‘fact’ up? Or was it a genuine misunderstanding? If it was the latter, did it never occur to him to double-check it before re-telling it, day-in, day-out to his gullible tour groups? The deeper issue is that 99% of people who hear him peddle this rubbish will unthinkingly accept it as Gospel, and then will repeat it to others, thus spreading the myth still further. There seems to be no hesitation from some to grasp on to any shred of ‘evidence’ which might suggest that the British troops were fuddy-duddies / stupid / cowardly / mendacious… and to hell with whether or not any of this is actually true.
The solution is simple: when it comes to the Boer War (in particular), keep an open mind, crosscheck anything that seems strange and do not believe everything you read or hear. There are often (at least) two sides to any story, and by their very nature many subjective statements about any given battle (‘the Boers fought bravely’ or ‘the fighting was tough’) are impossible to prove or deny. Simple out-and-out falsehoods about equipment issue (‘the British wore red at Talana Hill!’ or ‘the British boots were not left / right specific!’) however, are not subjective matters, but clearly verifiable facts.
Alas, even that does not stop some from desperately spreading these myths.