Boots on the Ground – The Phrase and a History of Combat Boots

world war II service shoes
March 26, 2024  
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Categories: Gear Curious
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It is common – almost too common – for politicians to promise there will be no “boots on the ground,” meaning that U.S. forces won’t be sent troops (who would obviously be wearing combat boots) to some far-off war. Of course, it isn’t just the United States that uses the saying, which has been favored in recent years by Western leaders to express the deployment of combat personnel (in military boots) to a foreign country. The idiom was used frequently by former President Barack Obama as well as the former British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Yet, the term’s origins are a bit murky.

The British military used the word “boot” as an alternative to soldier as far back as the First World War, while “boot camp” has been employed by both the British and American militaries to refer to basic training. The BBC also found that British military officer Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson used a similar phrase in his 1966 book on his experiences of counter-insurgency in Malaya and Vietnam – with chapter 15 entitled “Feet on the Ground.”

Thus, the concept was there in spirit, even if it wasn’t he actual “boots on the ground” sentiment that is so common in the modern vernacular.

It seems we can thank the late New York Times columnist William Safire, who investigated the origins of the phrase “boots on the ground” in 2008. Working with a U.S. Army historian, Safire was able to trace the origin back to an April 11, 1980, dated Christian Science Monitor (CSM) story regarding the Iran Hostage Crisis. The first was attributed to General Volney Warner, who served as Commander-in-Chief, United States Readiness Command (USCINCRED) from 1979 to 1981.

The passage read:

“US options grow more difficulties [sic] as the chance of a Soviet response increases. However, many American strategists now argue that even light, token US land forces — ‘getting US combat boots on the ground’ as General Warner puts it — would signal to an enemy that the US is physically guarding the area and can only be dislodged at the risk of war.”

Today “boots on the ground” is widely used figuratively or idiomatically. Yet, it is important to note that it isn’t quite universal. As footwear in general in the Islamic culture has a negative connotation – think how shoes are thrown a political opponent – the phase isn’t largely used.

Likewise, China has the term “iron hooves” instead – a reference first employed to describe the British Army’s horses in the Opium Wars of the 19th century. During the more recent Vietnam War, Chinese media often railed against the “iron hooves of the United States” in Southeast Asia.

The Origins of U.S. Military Boots

Though it might be easy to think that the term “boots on the ground” should date back centuries, there is actually a good reason it doesn’t. For centuries boots were as much by civilians as by soldiers – and not just to be fashionable or for specific jobs. Boots were just commonly worn, so they were long on the ground already.

Early Republic

Until the early 19th century, there was also little difference between military and civilian boots. Those first official U.S. military boots were far from anything special. Known as the “Jefferson Boots,” they were introduced in 1816, and while they were laced up and ankle high, there wasn’t actually specific right or left.

russet marching boots

These Russet marching boots look little different from a workman’s boot of the day.

In fact, it was only after the American Civil War that there were specific boots for the left and right foot, but even then, the U.S. military also only produced boots in four sizes. That no doubt resulted in a lot of blisters, and those with especially large feet had to have their boots custom-made.

Many officers, especially those with the means, tended to buy their own boots. There were no set specifications, and as a result, there was a variety in all lengths but generally without buckles as at the time that was seen to be the mark of an aristocrat. Yet, it still was said at the time that you could tell a man’s worth almost by the height of his boots!

Finally, in the latter half of the 19th century the U.S. military boot evolved into a simple Service Shoe for both officers and enlisted men alike. Those weren’t true boots, and instead were low cut shoes worn with puttees or webbed gaiters. The idea was that it would save on material and manufacturing costs. The Service Shoe were updated in 1904 as the Russet Marching Shoe, and it was the standard footwear when the U.S. military went “Over There” during the First World War.

The World Wars

As the nations of Europe already discovered, ankle high boots weren’t exactly ideal for the mud-soaked trenches. Fortunately, American manufacturers were already making so-called Trench Boots for the French and Belgian military, and in January 1918 the Chief Quartermaster for the U.S. Army along with officers from the American Expeditionary Force HQ conceived a variation on the Trench Boot, which was dubbed the “Pershing Boot.”

Due to the boot’s larger size, soldiers gave it the moniker “Little Tanks.”

Only during the Second World War did American military planners update the boots again. When the U.S. entered the conflict soldiers were issued a new version of the Service Shoes with updated gaiters, but soon specialty boots were developed for the various types of conditions that the soldiers faced. That notably included the paratrooper boots.

double buckle boots

The Service Shoe gave way to the “Boots, Combat Service,” which was commonly known as the “Double Buckle Boots.” Those were modified Service Shoes with a leather high-top cuff added, which closed using two buckles. It was a marked improvement over the gaiters or leggings that were worn by soldiers and provided greater stability and the boots were used throughout the Korean War when the brown leather boots gave way to the shined black combat boots in 1957.

The Cold War

jungle boots

The famous, or infamous, Jungle Boot.

The Second World War also saw the introduction of Jungle Boots, which had been tested in Panama prior to America’s entry into the conflict. The design was based on the idea that no boot could actually keep water out, so instead the boots were designed to allow jungle water as well as perspiration to drain – and in theory let the wearer’s feet dry. The design was further refined during the Vietnam War.

A similar concept was employed with the so-called “Desert Boots” that were on the ground in Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. Though the U.S. Army had tested a variety of boots for use in hot, dry climates, Operation Desert Shield/Storm was the first time they were used in the field.

Those boots were also different in that these were produced via vegetable tanning rather than chrome tanning, and the former allows the boots to breathe. In addition, the boots were produced with the rough side out, which meant no polishing was needed while the boots took on characteristics of athletic footwear.

That latter fact is somewhat fitting as such notable brands as Nike, Oakley and Garmont produce today’s AR 670-1 compliant boots. The military calls for boots these to be 8 to 10 inches in height, made of tan or coyote flesh out of cattlehide leather with a plain toe and sole matching the color of the upper, with rubber or polyether polyurethane outsole and all leather or leather and non-mesh fabric.

It is now those boots that will be on the ground anytime American troops are deployed. At least they’ll be far more comfortable than those worn by U.S. soldiers a century and more ago.

 

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

About the Author

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, The Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many (many) others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

2 Comments

  1. Pierre A. VLIMANT

    Hi,
    In addition to this thorough article, it’s interesting to say that ww2 saw the beginning of use of rough-out leather service shoes.
    The QM tested the addition of attached gaiters on early service shoes (smooth side out), then produced it en masse with roughout lower shoes, smooth gaiters. While the US Army simplified its standard boot to a “one-piece” boot as it entered the 1960’s, it’s interesting to note that the French army kept the laces+buckle top (in black leather) combination until the early 2000’s.

    The major innovation for the US boots after Korea, as stated by Rose Anvil on youtube (fun channel to watch, by the way… spoiler – not for the collectors, as they recklessly slice open antique boots in perfect condition 🙁 ), was the Panama sole, which provided grip and stability even in the muddiest terrain. The transition from full-leather stitched to sole to nylon fuzed to rubber sole was a turning point the footwear of the US soldier.

    Small improvements since, although no real breakthrough. Would you consider Gore-tex and GT-like membranes a breakthrough or an evolution ?

    Reply
  2. Pierre A. V.

    Funny to see that the main pic of the article displays leggings worn backwards… (hooks pointing forward…)

    Reply

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