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Keeping time for the military

By Christopher Proudlove ©

Okay, enough at all this mamby pamby collecting stuff like Wade Whimsies and little models of rabbits made by PenDelfin. This week’s subject is much more manly. It’s all about one of the tools of the trade in wartime sabotage, espionage and derring-do: the military wristwatch.

Mention the subject today, and first thoughts turn to the cheap and nasty fake “Swiss” Army watches found on market stalls the length and breadth of the land. What follows is about the real thing.

Interestingly, the wristwatch is a relatively new invention. It appeared for the first time in 1880, invented by the Geneva horological company Girard-Perregaux, who realised its significance for military use.

Prior to that, the first portable timepieces were made as early as the 16th century, but they were cumbersome and inaccurate by today’s standards.

By 1786, Switzerland was producing 50,000 pocket watches a year but the wristwatch was still rare.

When it comes to fighting battles, time is of the utmost importance. Launch a combined attack on two fronts, and it’s handy if things start at the same moment. That’s why a scene of soldiers synchronising their watches is an essential element of any wartime adventure movie.

A reliable timepiece was a vital piece of kit for any prudent officer by the end of the 18th century, while their naval colleagues needing to determine the exact whereabouts in the ocean they were at any given time staked their lives on naval chronometers.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte became recognised as a great military leader, largely because he understood the need to militarise his troops strictly by the clock. In order to do so, he carried a pocket watch made by the greatest watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet.

By the mid-19th century, with the development of increasingly sophisticated weaponry and battle tactics, punctuality became the general watchword. Problem was, spend the time it takes to pull a pocket watch out and check the time and you could find yourself shot.

The answer was simple: attach to wire lugs to the pocket watch to accommodate a strap and the wristwatch was born. It quickly became popular, especially with infantry officers.

The things also became highly fashionable among the fairer sex who demanded smaller, elegant versions, whereupon men began to regard the wristwatch as effeminate.

However, the First World War (1914-18) had a massive impact. Attacks were regulated by precise zero hours, rolling artillery bombardments were shifted by detailed timing schedules and “going over the top” was timed to the second.

For the officer waiting in the trenches, whistle in one hand, revolver in the other, a reliable timepiece, the face of which could be seen at a glance without having to fumble in a waistcoat or trouser pocket, could make a vital difference when every moment counted.

However, in 1916, the Field magazine expressed dissatisfaction that “vast numbers of officers and men wear wristwatches”, the writer pointing out that a reflection from the glass covering the watch’s face could give away the soldier’s position and risk his life.

Hooded or shielded watches followed and soldiers of all ranks serving in the trenches quickly accepted the wristwatch as a necessity. And when those who survived came home, the wristwatch became a stylish accessory for both sexes.

Apart from the Depression years, when demand for luxury items withered and several leading companies went bankrupt, the period from 1920 saw an explosion in wristwatch manufacture and the industry boomed as more and more technological and design innovations were adopted.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, the wristwatch was available universally, although by then it was a luxury item that not everyone could afford.

Apart from its prestige, the wristwatch was considered less pretentious than the fob watch. However, military watches were far from fashion items.

Not a great deal has been written about collecting military watches, but there is huge scope for the collector who does not necessarily have to spend a lot of money on his hobby.

Different models were being made for the various branches of the services and a great many watch companies each made their own contribution to the war effort.

The first chronographs with luminous hands and capable of working underwater were developed and watch cases became rugged, with grids or protective leather covers to allow them to continue to function in the most difficult circumstances.

Although fakes abound, authentic military watches have plenty of clues as to their provenance.

For example, those used by aircraftsmen, particularly pilots, have a centre secondhand, while those belonging to an infantry man is more likely to have a subsidiary seconds dial in place of or immediately above six o’clock.

Pilots’ watches tend to have somewhat larger faces and can be found with longer straps so they could be fastened to the leg and used as navigational tools.

So-called “hack watches” date from the First World War, when one of the roles played by an aeroplane’s navigator was to call out time checks so his crew could synchronise their watches. This was known as hacking and relied on a watch proven to be accurate at low temperature and atmospheres and high altitudes.

A watch marked on the back “6B” is likely to have been used by an RAF pilot or the crew of an aircraft carrier, while British Army watches are marked with the ubiquitous Ministry of Defence arrow and the symbol “W10”. The U.S. Army usually marked theirs with the name of the corps or division, while the markings WWW stand for waterproof wristwatch.

Numerous other big watch companies manufactured military wristwatches and continue to do so today for fashion victims everywhere. They include Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Zenith and Hamilton.

It’s possible to pay £5,000 or more for a vintage military watch, but at the other extreme, £200 and £400 would buy a perfectly respectable wristwatch that saw active service during the Second World War and is good for many years to come.

Just make sure you don’t buy a fake, or a modern reproduction, they are everywhere.

Picture shows two Omega watches from the First World War. Note the protective grid covering the dial of the example on the right. Each is worth £400-600.

antiques@chris-proudlove.co.uk

Tags: Watches

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Keith Hutson // Apr 11, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Hi,
    I have an Omega 15 jewel watch with a subsidiary second (where the 6 should be), with the MoD arrow and the serial numbers Y9688 & 10673887; WWW & arrow appears on the outside and inside of the back case. I was wondering which branch of the services it came from.
    Thanks
    Keith

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