I try to avoid reproduction items as much as possible when creating a display. My pursuit of historical artifacts is fueled by the desire to tell stories of the past. Reproductions cannot tell the same story that real artifacts from the past can. However a reproduction is the only option because an original example is near impossible to procure. When that is the case I carefully research available reproductions and choose the absolute best I can afford. When this decision was made concerning WWI British combat boots: I could not have been happier with the product I purchased.
One of my projects has been to recreate a First World War New Zealand combat infantryman display. Alongside web equipment, uniform, ect., have to be boots. After learning about WWI British/Commonwealth equipment I discovered that the boots needed for my New Zealander display were the B5 pattern British combat boot. It was the boot issued to soldiers on the western from 1916 until the end of the war. My display will show equipment used late 1917 in Flanders, so it is most likely the solder would have been issued B5 boots in that place and time.
A pair of Original WW1 B5 Boots from the Imperial War Museum collection. These boots have been made with the smooth side of the leather facing out, while most boots have been noted as rough side out boots. During the war boots were made across the UK and different factories used slightly different methods to made the same pattern boot. William & Lennon made their boots rough side out. Also note the holes drilled in these boots for “display purposes”. Image source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/
From the beginning of the project I knew that the boots would have to be reproduction items. It is a general rule of thumb that finding original boots for any display is often one of the most difficult items to source. Original boots were worn out in horrible combat conditions or if examples made it home they were often worn out in the garden. Original B5 Boots are so incredibly rare today I had a tough time researching their value because they so rarely come up for sale. I did find pair that were listed for sale in 2018 for $1870.0 USD. Such a price tag alongside scarcity necessitates buying a reproduction.
After spending some time researching reproduction boots online the name William & Lennon Rufflander Co. kept appearing. Willian & Lennon are a footwear company based in Stoney Middleton which is a village roughly 14 miles South West of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The shoe company was established in 1899 and is still located within its original 1904 factory. A very interesting fact is that William & Lennon was one of the original contractors of the B5 boot during WWI. Their website states that they use original WW1 era patterns and boot examples to make new production boots.
As explained previously I do not buy reproductions lightly. However it seemed that the William & Lennon boot was as close to an original as possible. So in June of 2020 I ordered my boots. The price paid was $267.00 USD plus shipping. I had emailed the contact email on the William Lennon website and inquired as to how to best choose a size for my feet. The 4700 mile distance prohibited me trying on a few pairs to find the best fit. A lady named Libs emailed me back and requested a tracing of my feet on a piece of paper with measurements written from toe to heel and across the ball of my feet. I sent Libs an email back of my sock foot traced out in sharpie with the dimensions requested. Libs responded back with the proper (UK) size and recommended me to order the “full metalwork” finish for a WW1 accurate boot. Finally after my order was in, Libs gave me an estimation of when the boot would be ready. On September 23rd, exactly three months after my order was placed, I was emailed a tracking number and confirmation my order had been shipped. A few weeks later I received a box from UPS.
What was inside the simple shoebox was a time capsule: a pair of brand new military boots from WW1. It was off-putting at first and strange to see such a perfect reproduction in brand new shape. Usually reproduction products look like reproductions in other ways rather than just being new and lacking wear. Either the color is off, or the material is wrong, or the shape is not quite correct. But the William & Lennon boots were just perfect. They looked just like the photos I had studied from museum collections. The stitching and quality of the leather was directly comparable to old military boots I have handled. The leather was very high quality and when I opened the box the smell of an old-school leather store filled the room. I knew before I tried them on they were some of the best reproduction items I had ever seen.
The brand new unworn William & Lennon B5 boots as they came out of the box. Image source: MMH
I first wore the boots for yard work to help shape them to my foot. I quickly learned that heavy wool socks were necessary because the boots had no padding inside: just smooth leather insoles. I also quickly learned how to walk in boots with hobnails because I have only worn rubber soled shoes that gripped surfaces differently. The B5 boot was designed to hike in fields and traverse battlefields. My modern environment is an urban jungle where hobnails clatter like tap dancing shoes and skid across cement if weight is put on the heel at the wrong time. I nearly fell on my posterior a few times clattering around my yard where there was inclined cement to traverse. I learned to walk on grass as often as possible. I did notice that the hobnails griped soil better than any rubber sole I have ever worn. When walking on cement I learned to tread less heavily and balance more weight on the ball of my foot where the hobnails provide the most grip.
After a few days of yard work I began to take long walks in my neighborhood. I found that losing hobnails is expected and common when wearing boots, especially on concrete surfaces. I found new old stock (NOS) WWII British hobnails that are sold in bulk on ebay. I paid $25.00 Shipped for 50 WWII British nails that closely resemble the ones my boots came with. I now replace heavily worn or missing hobnails myself in my workshop.
Period photographs showing varied hobnail patterns in use. It seems soldiers either had their boots hobnailed to their own preference, or the boots were hobnailed in batches to the preference of the particular cobbler. Image Source: http://www.greatwarforum.org
Another way I care for the boots is dubbing them after heavy use. Dubbing re-hydrates leather, waterproofs, and also helps give boots an aged look. As leather wears it loses oil that makes it appear dark. That is why old improperly cared for leather appears pale brown and eventually cracks. Some oils are better than others for preservation but that is a topic for another article. For my boots I decided to treat them like modern work boots and use a modern leather conditioning product. I use Pecards Leather dressing, which is a heavy product that has the consistently of heavy axle grease.
I wear the boots regularly to age them and help them blend into my display of original items. The more I wear the boots the more their color changes and transforms into the color I am so familiar with seeing in original leather. When I first saw my boots in their factory tissue paper they were a near black color with a slightly oily sheen. The more I use them the more aged they appear so that one day they will look indistinguishable from original boots.
The dubbing process is simple. First I let them dry if they are wet. Then I clean them with a brush, removing loose dirt. After the leather is clean I apply the Pecards with a clean rag. I coat the boots evenly and then let them dry for a few hours or overnight. Then I use a clean rag to wipe any excess of the surface. The boots are then ready to be worn again or put away. Dubbing is the original way WWI soldiers kept their leather boots supple and serviceable. Dubbing also water proofs the leather. After each dubbing the color of the leather changes to a more complex and used look.
The hobnails on the William & Lennon B5 boots are good replicas of those used on the original WW1 production boots. It seems there were several types of hobnails used, most likely from different companies supplying the nails. Original B5 boots had a variety of patterns of hobnail placement, possibly as unique as the individuals who wore them. In that spirit, I have added nails over the areas that my boots wear the most from my own walking gait.
I waited almost three months to write this review so that I can confidently give comprehensive feedback on this product. These boots are perfect reproductions and I am pleased to own them and have them in my collection. I will now join the ranks of William & Lennon customers who give wholehearted praise to their product. With that being said, consider these points if you are looking for a pair of replica WW1 boots. First understand you are buying custom made boots which will take months to get to your door and onto your feet. Coupled with COVID-19 slowing production and increasing wait times know that patience will be required with the ordering of this product. Secondly, be prepared to experience a break-in period that is a bit longer than when wearing modern trainers or boots. These are true old-world style boots and I found it took a few days and multiple miles for them to stop feeling flat against my soles. In addition you need to wear heavier socks just like WW1 soldiers were issued. Also understand these are not the best boots for urban walks on cement. They make lots of noise that attract odd looks from joggers and dog-walkers you may encounter on your walk.
But these points of consideration are not negative in my opinion. They are unexpected ways I have connected with elements of a story that cannot be read about or observed in a photograph. The William & Lennon B5 boots are not just items but an experience. It may seem trivial to some, but I guess those are the people who would never seek out such a detailed replica in the first place. For those of us truly interested in military history and desire a pair of WW1 replica boot, the B5 from William & Lennon will physically help you walk in the footsteps of history.
*I do not use Pecards on historic leather items, and I do not recommend doing so. My B5 boots are new items and are used regularly which is what Pecards is designed to service. Pecards is not made to treat old leather that is not in-use. I will one day have to explain more about historic leather care in another article- as it can be a very complex topic.
William Lennon Co. B5 Boot ordering: https://www.rufflander.co.uk/product-category/heritage-footwear/world-war-1-b5-boot/