Pissing in boots

Hardcastle, the hero of James Lansdale Hodson’s  Grey Dawn – Red Night (1929) is a fastidious man who has worked his way out of the slums, and on enlisting finds himself among the kind of people he has been trying to get away from. He is deeply unimpressed by the manners of his fellow- recruits. He dislikes their crudity and violence, and

above all, their use of a certain foul adjective which will not be found in these pages, nauseated and revolted him.

He has to learn how to keep an eye on his possessions to prevent them from being stolen, and learns to ensure

that his boots were so placed that no one could use one during the night to avoid a visit to the latrine. The practice had its adherents.

Pissing in boots seemed to me such an outlandish and disgusting practice that when I read Hodson’s novel I assumed that it was engaged in by only the most debased and crude of soldiers. J.B. Priestley’s Margin Released (1962), however, makes me think again.
Priestley was one of the ‘First Hundred Thousand’, and the unit he trained with combined ex-clerks like himself with a scattering of old soldiers who were returning to the colours.
He describes how

Until the rains of winter finally washed us out of this camp altogether, we slept twelve in a bell-tent, kneeling after Lights Out to piss in our boots and then emptying them under the flap. The old soldiers told us that this was good for our boots, making them easier for route marches.

Priestley seems only to have pissed in his own boots, but it is possible that the practice that to Hardcastle was an extreme example of the working-class grossness that he detested was related to an old army custom, and one that (apparently at least) had a practical use. One can see how in parts of India and elsewhere, to leave the tent at night might be very unwise.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted January 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I think pissing in new boots to soften the leather is a longstanding British Army tradition.

  2. janevsw
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Beat me to it Alan. It crops up in several WW1 memoirs but brain fudge prevents me from remembering which.

  3. Posted January 28, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Alan and Jane. The only incidence of the practice that I had noticed was the disgusted reference in Hodson’s novel.
    Maybe there’s a thesis to be written on military uses of piss – one of the first improvised gas masks was cloth soaked in urine, wasn’t it?

  4. janevsw
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Found a reference:

    Lynn Macdonald. _1914-1918: voices and images of the Great War._ (Penguin, 1991).

    page 55: “I told him that my new boots were just about killing me and he suggested that new boots sometimes required certain treatment before they became comfortable, and that the infallible method adopted by infantrymen was the sweet pea mixture.”

  5. Sean M
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to mention that I first read of the habit in Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall”. So, it obviously survived into the Second World War.

    Excellent site – BTW.


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