What Russian Soldiers Can Teach Us - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
What Russian Soldiers Can Teach Us

A handful of goose feathers (the first five flight feathers work best), a really sharp pen knife (they’re called “pen” knives for a reason), a little bit of practice, and you’re in business if you can’t get to the store to buy a BiC or sharpie. Permanent black ink can be made from lamp black, egg yolk, gum Arabic, and honey (if you can’t get gum Arabic, you can boil coffee, walnut shells, or black berries down, add a little vinegar and salt and mix together for a more than doable substitute). The kernels found in peach and plum pits make a great substitute for bitter almonds in baking. Twine from stinging nettles, jam from rose hips, and candles from improvised wicks and cans of lard or vegetable shortening are concepts our forefathers were on intimate terms with — and more than valid today if times get really tough.

Now, you can’t expect perfect success the very first time you try something new. The optimum viscosity of the various inks is perfected through trial and error. If you want to blot the ink to speed up the drying with sand — it’ll take some trial and error to figure out what granularity of sand works best for you. Ditto with trying to extract the kernels from peach pits without destroying the kernel, making twine that holds, boiling down rose hips (you have to strain out the “choke” and seeds), and minimizing the acrid smoke while maximizing the light from field-expedient candles. The best time to master these skills is before you need them.

Take one of my favorite hacks for when you’ve run out of socks, don’t know how to knit, can’t get to the store, or the internet is down, and overnight shipping has suddenly become a wistful memory. No problem. Socks are a relatively recent indulgence and didn’t become prevalent or affordable until the turn of the 19th century. For centuries, civilians and soldiers both prevented chafing, absorbed sweat, and improved the foothold of leather shoes and boots with footwraps. 

Remember those paintings of our doughty Revolutionary War soldiers suffering in Valley Forge, or Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow? Those weren’t “rags” tied around the soldier’s feet. They were footwraps, and, as the Austrians quipped in the mid-1800s, Ein eigener Fusslappen ist besser als ein fremder Stiefel (your own footwrap is better than a stranger’s boot). If your boots fell apart or you were caught with your pants down or, at least, boots off, footwraps alone were better than bare feet, and an extra footwrap or two tied around your boots or shoes provided additional protection, and even traction in the snow.

From the Americas to Europe and east to Russia, military quartermasters considered footwraps superior to socks. They were certainly cheaper to produce, easily improvised, more resistant to wear and tear, and simpler to mend. If you managed to wear a hole in a footwrap, you just repositioned the wrap so that the hole wouldn’t form a blister or sore. They were easier to wash, and quicker to dry, and arguably more sanitary than socks. And although many Western militaries phased footwraps out in favor of conventional socks by the early 1900s, French, German, Scandinavian, and Slavic troops used them through World War II. 

Almost any plan can be made to work, and there are as many ways to wrap a foot as there are to skin a cat. The fabric used, patterns produced, dimensions and sizes varied over time, from nation to nation and even regiment to regiment. Field manuals were written, and new recruits were indoctrinated on their proper care and use. Precise rules on how the footwraps were to be applied and worn varied considerably. There were right ways and wrong ways — folding, smoothing, and tucking techniques that kept the wrap in place inside of the shoe or boot while marching without shifting, puddling, creasing, or wrinkling were considered “right.” Careless, hasty, or sloppy attempts that caused chafing, irritation, sores, blisters, or infections could impede or incapacitate a soldier and were definitely wrong.

Footwraps could be rectangular, square, or triangular. Some authorities recommended cotton or cotton blends for summer use, and flannel or wool in winter. They measured around 16 inches on each side if square, 16 by 35 or 36 inches if rectangular, and around 30 inches a side if triangular. Stitched seams or hemmed edges are definitely no-nos. 

I’m partial to square footwraps salvaged from recycled cotton T-shirts. I lay the cloth flat on the ground in a diamond pattern and place my foot in middle of the cloth, aligned toward the “north” point, a little off center with my heel a little closer to the “south” point. Being careful to keep the fabric smooth, I pull the north point up and over my toes, and I pull the “west” point over my arch and tuck it underneath my foot snugly, smoothing out any wrinkles — this holds the first flap, or north point, firmly in place. I then hold the south point up vertical over my heel, fold the east point up and over my arch (on top of the west point), and wrap it around my ankle, securing the south point to my heel. I tuck the east point into itself to form a sort of collar around my ankle, smooth out any wrinkles, and step into my boot or shoe.

The Russians must be considered experts in the use of footwraps, or Portyanki. Peter the Great watched Dutch armies using them and introduced the concept to the Imperial Russian Army in the 1690s. Russia continued their use in one form or another through World War II and the Cold War, and long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, last issuing them in 2013 (their Warsaw Pact neighbors had abandoned them a decade earlier).  A Russian soldier was taught to step onto the Portyanki with his heel a few inches from one edge, at almost 30 degrees pointing toward the remaining length of cloth (left foot closer to the left edge, right foot closer to the right edge). He’d grab the corner closer to his toes and wrap it up and over his arch, tucking it under his foot — this formed a “pixie shoe” point over the front of his foot. He’d take the “long” end and wrap it up and over the arch, give it a twist, and keep going around the ankle, capture the flap behind the heel, and up the leg, drawing it taut and smoothing out any wrinkles before tucking it into itself to form a sort of collar.

I don’t suppose the odd ends of a footwrap poking above a pair of oxfords or trendy tennis shoes would make for much of a fashion statement. But if the chips are ever down to the point where footwraps are the answer, and you’re on your own plot of land, back forties, or bugout refuge? Fashion statements are probably the last things on your mind.

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