Fussing over socks
During the First World War, there was a considerable fuss over socks. Not just any ordinary socks but hand-knitted socks. Camden women hand-knitted hundreds of pairs of socks. So what was going on?
As it turns out there was a good reason for all the fuss.
Soldiers on the Western Front suffered in terrible conditions in the trenches. They were constantly wet and cold. In winter there were freezing temperatures.
Under these conditions, there was a constant danger of the soldiers getting trench foot. Jenny Raynor at Sydney Living Museum writes that this was
a potentially debilitating fungal infection that thrived in the wet, cold and squalid conditions, and could lead to gangrene and amputation if left untreated.
Soldiers wore stiff leather boots that were poorly insulated with two pairs of socks in freezing winter conditions to keep out the cold and wet.
Authorities recommended that troops change their socks twice a day to avoid trench feet. Reports from New Zealand maintained in 1915 that
a pair of socks lasted no more than two weeks when on active service.
So it was unsurprising that there was a constant shortage of socks.
Shortages from the start
Sock shortages commenced from the outbreak of war and illustrated how the progress of the war completely overwhelmed military authorities with their unrealistic expectations.
At the Liverpool Infantry Camp in November 1914 military authorities were advising that three pairs of woollen socks would be adequate for the duration of the campaign, while new recruits were advised by bring ‘strong boots’ and ‘knitted socks’ because the army could not supply them.
Military supply authorities never really got to grips with the problem of shortages throughout the war. Even the vast US military machine could not supply sufficient numbers of socks to their troops when the US government entered the war in 1917. The U.S. government Committee on Public Information sponsored the ‘‘Knit Your Bit’’ campaign conducted by the American Red Cross.
Knitting for the troops was not restricted to the American Red Cross.
Knitting was part of the homefront response to the outbreak of war across all British Empire countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Across the globe, millions of knitted items found their way to the trenches on the Western Front.
Socks were only one of a large list of items that women made for the war effort. Other knitted items included cholera belts, scarves, gloves and balaclavas, and this was supplemented by a considerable effort sewing hospital supplies.
Women volunteer to supply socks
Australian women volunteered to supply knitted from the start of the war. Unlike women in the United Kingdom, Australian women did not replace men in their civilian roles during the war.
In Australia, the push for knitted-socks, and other items, was co-ordinated by the Red Cross, the Australian Comforts Fund and other groups including the Soldiers’ Sock Fund.
In Queensland, the Governor’s wife, Lady Goold-Adams, established the Queensland Soldiers’ Sock Fund.
Knitted socks were part of the soldier’s bag that Red Cross volunteers signed up to supply on the foundation of branches throughout New South Wales in August 1914. Red Cross knitters in Camden and across Australia supplied thousands of pairs of knitted socks to soldiers.
In Camden, the new Red Cross branch supplied ‘a large number of socks’ in the first weeks of the war’ including supplies to the Australian Light Horse regiment and the 4th Battalion of Infantry. By September 1915 Camden Red Cross workers had supplied 456 pairs of knitted socks to Red Cross headquarters in Sydney amongst a host of other hand-made items.
Annette, Lady Liverpool, the wife of New Zealand Governor Lord Liverpool,
Lady Liverpool instigated ‘Sock Day’, when the women of New Zealand were encouraged to knit enough socks to provide every soldier with two new pairs (around 30,000 pairs in total).
The First World War was not the first time that women volunteers had supplied knitted socks to Australian troops in wartime. In 1900 Camden women supplied 120 pairs of knitted socks to Camden troops in South Africa in the New South Wales Mounted Rifles. These were similar to the activities of British women.
Millions of socks
It has been estimated that Australian women knitted over 1.3 million pairs of socks for the Red Cross and Australian Comforts Fund for the war effort.
Often with a small personal note inside the sock informing the digger who had knitted the garment along with a brief message. (The Conversation 11 August 2014)
Knitting patterns were distributed and cheap wool was made available to knitters.
In 2012 volunteer knitter Janet Burningham from Wrap with Love found that it took about a day to knit each sock. She used a rare grey sock pattern and Paton’s 8-ply grey wool and needles. Socks were knitted in the round on double-pointed needles leaving no seams.
The iconic sock knitter
The solo woman sock knitter was one of the everlasting iconic images of the war at home in Australia.
The iconic image of The Sock Knitter is a 1915 painting by Grace Cossington Smith found at the Art Gallery of NSW. The gallery states
The subject of the painting is Madge, the artist’s sister, knitting socks for soldiers serving on the frontline in World War I. Distinctly modern in its outlook, ‘The sock knitter’ counterpoints the usual narratives of masculine heroism in wartime by focusing instead on the quiet steady efforts of the woman at home.
Knitting mediating grief
The action of Camden women and others who became wartime sock knitters was an act of patriotism. They were supporting their boys using one of their traditional domestic arts.
Knitting, sewing, and other domestic arts were unpaid war work and a form of patriotism when women in Australia did not replace men at home in the First World War, unlike the United Kingdom. Historian Bruce Scates has written that women invested a large amount of ‘emotional energy’ in their knitting and sewing.
Women were the mediators of wartime grief and bereavement and knitting and sewing groups were women-only spaces where they could comfort each other and ease the loneliness.
Suzanne Fischer writes that the sock problem and trench foot still existed in the Second World War for American troops stationed in Alaska. She states:
Characteristically, Americans finally reduced their trench foot casualties by throwing more technology at the problem. Thee Shoepac system, introduced in 1944, combined a rubber foot and an impermeable outer leather layer with a felt liner to keep feet dry. These boots were also stylish, which increased their use.
Updated 17 April 2020; original posted 10 March 2020.