Great War Trench WatchesCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.
A wristwatch provides a convenient and practical way to check the time compared to a pocket watch. British military men on manoeuvres first used leather wristlets to wear small pocket watches on their wrists from circa 1885. Following on from this early experience, military men were the first large group or section of the male population to routinely wear purpose made wristwatches. This practice continued unbroken from 1885. A wristwatch became an essential part of an officer's kit, and officers were expected to purchase one using the allowance that they were given to purchase their kit; uniform, sword, revolver, etc.
By the time of the Great War, wristwatches had evolved from the leather wristlets carrying a fob watch that were first worn by soldiers on the North West frontier in 1885 into purpose made wristwatches.
Even though civilian men didn't wear wristwatches before the Great War, some manufacturers realised that there was a demand from military men for wristwatches and created the first purpose built men's wristwatches with simple wire lugs to attach a leather wrist strap. I have a number of men's wristwatches from before the Great War, including a man's IWC wristwatch from 1906 and a Longines man's wristwatch from 1909, both of which were most likely originally purchased by serving officers in the British regular army.
The Great War began as a war of movement, with the opposite sides trying to outflank each other during late 1914 in the so-called “race to the sea”. Once the coast was reached in Northern France and there was no possibility of either side outmanoeuvring the other, it changed into a static war as the opposing sides dug into trenches. In the trenches activity continued day and night, and attacks were generally started in the early morning darkness to take the other side by surprise. Wristwatches made before the war did not have luminous dials, but it quickly became apparent that a luminous dial was a necessity for an officer's wristwatch in the dark confines of the trenches.
The trench watch shown here is typical of an officer's watch from the Great War. The most important features are the luminous dial and unbreakable glass. The vitreous enamel dial has skeleton Arabic numerals and skeleton hands called “poire squelette” to take radium based luminous paint. Unbreakable glass crystals made from celluloid were introduced in late 1915 instead of more fragile glass crystals that were vulnerable to the inevitable knocks in the cramped conditions of the trenches.
The Importance of Watches
The Great War was the first time in British Army history that battles were conducted by generals in remote field headquarters from where they could not see the front line. Army units deployed across the vast fields of battle had difficulty communicating with headquarters. The execution of orders and coordination of manoeuvres and attacks by timing was vital. Whereas in earlier conflicts a unit could time its movements visually by watching for signals or simply keeping watch on units on its flanks and advancing as they moved, in the Great War the front was too wide for these methods to be effective. Instead, timing was used, e.g. “The attack will begin at seven thirty ack-emma”. The phrases ack-emma and pip-emma were used for am and pm before the adoption of 24 hour time.
The importance of watches during the Great War is emphasised by the extract reproduced here from the 1916 British War Office document "Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action." A delay of even 30 seconds in starting must be avoided, therefore watches must be synchronised. A later section of the same document gives instructions for this; "All officers must acquire the habit of checking their watches daily with the official time, which can be obtained from the Signal Service. Commanders must pay special attention to this point during training."
Although wristwatches had been worn by civilian men before the Great War for special purposes, e.g. when bicycling or ballooning, at other times before the war a man was expected to carry a pocket watch. During the war the army expanded dramatically and large numbers of new recruits were exposed to the sight of officers routinely wearing wristwatches. Officers were emboldened by their service at the front to continue wearing their wristwatches when they were home on leave, whereas before the war they might have hidden them away. The sight of battle hardened veterans on leave from the fighting at the front and wearing wristwatches soon swept away the idea that wearing a wristwatch was effeminate and created a fashion that spread through wider society in Britain.
Most trench watches were purpose made as wristwatches. Purpose made men's wristwatches were available from at least the early 1900s. Conversions of fob watches into wristwatches occurred at the start of the Great War in 1914. This was due to lack of supply of wristwatches to fill the demand of newly commissioned officers who were eager to get kitted out and get to the front before they missed all the action — in 1914 it was thought that the war would be over by Christmas. There was a huge demand for officer's kit at the start of the Great War. In "Six Weeks: The Short And Gallant Life Of The British Officer In The First World War", Lewis-Stempel writes that the rush to uniform in later Summer 1914 resulted in queues at tailor’s shops to be measured for uniforms, and many items of kit were in short supply. Officers advertised in The Times newspaper for revolvers, field glasses and wristwatches.
A “Proper Wristwatch”
A “Proper Wristwatch”
The standard timepieces officially issued during the Great War by the War Department were pocket watches. But these were issued to signal batallions, gunners, and other ranks who needed to know the time, or to time events. These carry the War Department stamp of the “pheon” or broad arrow, the sign of military property. Officers were not issued watches; like the rest of their kit, they purchased their own.
Officers had known for many years that pocket watches were impractical to use on horse back, let alone in the cramped conditions of the trenches or the open cockpits of early aircraft, so they used wristwatches. Newly commissioned officers were given a kit allowance to buy everything that they needed, and their wristwatch was purchased using this, along with the other elements of an officer's kit; his uniform, sword revolver, field glasses, etc. Although they are sometimes said to be personal purchases because of this, that is to misunderstand the process; an officer was expected to wear a wristwatch and so he purchased one using his kit allowance.
The 1916 advert shown here by Thresher and Glenny, a gentlemen's outfitters specialising in officer's uniforms and military outfits, shows the epitome of style for a newly commissioned officer during the Great War; a smart turnout, and a wristwatch. The eminent military historian Dr. Spencer Jones told me that “The phrase a “proper wristwatch” (to denote a smart looking officer) had certainly emerged by summer 1916.” These early wristwatches are often referred to as “officers” or “trench” watches.
From J W Benson advert in "The Sketch" 15 Dec 1915.
The earliest use of the term "trench watch" that I have seen is an advert in The Sketch" magazine dated 15 Dec 1915 by J W Benson of Ludgate Hill and Old Bond Street London. The advert illustrates only ladies' bracelet watches but also mentions "Trench Watches in Silver Cases with leather strap from £2 . 2s."
The fact that these trench watches were purchased by individuals rather than being issued by the military authorities accounts for the enormous variety of Great War era wristwatches and makes them so interesting to collectors. It was not until near the end of the war that the British War Department started experimenting with wristwatches, which I discuss further down this page.
Expansion of the Army
At the start of the Great War the British Army was relatively small, in 1914 it numbered around 120,000 men, leading the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to describe it as a "contemptible little army", after which the British soldiers ironically referred to themselves as "the old contemptibles". Even if all of these soldiers had worn wristwatches, it would have taken a long time before the rest of British society noticed. It was the Great War (the first World War or World War One, 1914 - 1918) that ultimately legitimised the man's wristwatch and, because of the huge numbers of men involved, ensured that men wearing wristwatches were seen widely by the general public back home in Britain.
Robert Graves, the war poet, joined up in 1914 soon after the war started, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In May 1915 he was sent to the front in France. On joining his new company at the front he was briefed by Captain Dunn the commander of "C" company. Graves remarks in his autobiography "Goodbye to All That" that after explaining the usual daily routine of inspections, sentry duty etc., "He looked at his wristwatch." There was no explanation or remark about this, evidently by 1915 seeing a military man wearing a wristwatch gave no cause to comment.
Graves survived the war despite being badly wounded when a shell fragment entered his back, passed through a lung and exited through the front of his chest. He was so badly wounded that it was assumed that he would die, and even that he had died. His parents were informed that he was dead and an obituary appeared in The Times. Graves was greatly amused by this, saying that "People with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life, wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my mother". The only inconvenience was that Cox’s Bank stopped his pay and he had difficulty in persuading them to honour his cheques.
The February 1915 issue of the Horological Journal carried a news item saying that "There is some talk of the military authorities putting a stop to the wearing of wrist watches at the front. Many wounded soldiers have been found suffering horrible wounds as a result of their wrist watches having been struck by bits of shrapnel, which caused a great spreading of the wound and imbedded [sic] parts of the watch in the wrist." I doubt the veracity of this story; if you were hit hard enough by a hail of shrapnel to smash your wrist watch to pieces, bits of watch embedded in your wrist would be one of the least of your list of immediate concerns. Certainly no such order was ever issued, but the fact that this statement was published at all gives weight to the view that many soldiers at the front were wearing wristwatches by February 1915.
Wristwatches in the Great War
In more mobile conflicts such as the Boer War, watches worn on the wrist were used for timing and coordination of manoeuvres. No doubt they were used for this purpose too during the Great War, and for timing the firing of gun batteries. But the most notable requirement for having a wristwatch in trench warfare of the Great War was to ensure that everyone was ready to attack or go "over the top" when the signal was given. Every one of the young lieutenants who blew his whistle and scrambled out of a trench to lead his company of men towards enemy fire was wearing a wristwatch; a trench watch.
The extracts from books and articles that follow show how wristwatches were used by officers as the time set for an attach approached.
In "Now It Can Be Told", the war correspondent Philip Gibbs related a scene during one of the battles around Hooge in Flanders, Belgium during August 1915:
The men deployed before dawn broke, waiting for the preliminary bombardment which would smash a way for them. The officers struck matches now and then to glance at their wrist-watches, set very carefully to those of the gunners. Then our artillery burst forth with an enormous violence of shell-fire, so that the night was shattered with the tumult of it. ... The men listened and waited. As soon as the guns lengthened their fuses the infantry advance would begin.
Then the time came. The watch hands pointed to the second which had been given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the guns lifted and made a curtain of fire round the Chateau of Hooge, beyond the Menin road, six hundred yards away. "Time!" The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden clatter from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men girdled with hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and made their first rush forward.
It is interesting that Gibbs says the officers had to strike matches to see their wristwatches – they evidently were not luminous watches. Luminous wristwatches were not only easier to see in the dark, the striking of a match in itself was dangerous because it might be seen by an enemy sniper. This gave rise to the habit among cigarette smokers of never lighting three cigarettes from one match because that gave time for a sniper to home in on the light and pick off the third man.
Robert Nichols (1893-1944) Great War military service lasted from 1914 until he was invalided in 1916. He was a Winchester and Oxford writer and poet, and friend to the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. In his poem "The Assault" (1916) Nichols wrote;
The beating of the guns grows louder.
“Not long, boys, now.”
The whistle's twixt my lips ....
The pale wrist-watch ....
The quiet hand ticks on amid the din.
Looking today at the small seconds hand of a wristwatch from the Great War era as it smoothly glides round, it is easy to imagine someone waiting in the trenches surrounded by tense and heavily armed men, watching the same seconds hand ticking silently away while all around was thundering, crashing, deafening noise; it is less easy to imagine the feelings and emotions of the person watching it at the time; waiting for the hands to reach a certain point indicating the time when he would blow his whistle, and every man would go "over the top" . . . .
This also gives the reason why the small seconds hand was important. In the din of battle, it showed that the watch hadn't stopped and was working correctly.
In "Six Weeks: The Short And Gallant Life Of The British Officer In The First World War", Lewis-Stempel relates the story of Second Lieutenant Milton Riley of 8/East Lancashire Regiment who had a Company Sergeant Major with a rather dark sense of humour: “I stood on the fire-step appalled and probably wide eyed, with the inferno of an attack so near. Nearby was the sardonic CSM. In the presence of men of my platoon he said, with a nasty grin, “When we go over on the 31st, I'm going next to you Sir.” Somewhat coldly I replied, “Why sergeant-major?” Then came the punch line - “Because Sir,” he said, “I like your wrist watch!” ”
Douglas Haig was commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1915 until the end of the war. I read somewhere that Haig didn't like wristwatches and never wore one, but then BobBee sent me this picture of Haigh from 1916, which clearly shows him wearing a wristwatch.
Wristwatches weren't only worn by officers.
George Coppard enlisted in August 1914 at the age of 16 (the minimum age at that time was 19). He was posted to France in 1915 and fought in the battle of Loos. He fought in the front line almost continuously through the campaigns of 1916 and 1917, including the battle of the Somme and the battle of Arras. He became a c machine gunner and was one of the first taken into the newly formed machine gun corps. He rose from private to Corporal, and was due to be made sergeant on the day that he was nearly killed in November 1917 by a bullet through the leg. This resulted in his hospitalisation and from which he was still recovering when the armistice was signed. He wrote of his experiences in With a Machine Gun to Cambrai published by Cassell Military Paperbooks. He recorded that in October 1915 that at a post parade he received a wristwatch from an aunt and uncle. It was the first watch that he had ever owned.
The Coventry Standard of Saturday 1 January 1916 recorded in its Miscellaneous section that Gunner F. Kirby, a Coventry soldier, writes: “The wrist watch was received quite safely, and my comrades and I are very grateful to you and your readers for it. Such watches are the most useful articles out here.”
Rifleman Victor Denham joined the London Rifle Brigade at the age of eighteen and was sent to France in August 1917. He was wounded in the head during the German offensive at Arras on 28 March 1918 and taken prisoner of war. Conditions were tough and rations short. Denham wrote "Hunger at last made me part with my wrist-watch - the only article of value I had besides my boots. It was a great moment of decision when I took it to the Italian cook. He gave me a small sack of dried crusts of bread, kept back from our rations, no doubt." Denham was not an officer so it is notable that he had a wristwatch. When he says that it was the only article of value he had besides his boots, he is not saying that it had cost less than his boots, it would have cost considerably more. But of the two most important articles that he possessed at the time, it was the only one that he could afford to part with. Denham survived the war and was repatriated from Lamsdorf Camp in December 1918. He was discharged from the Army in September 1919.
The 1916 Annual General Meeting of H. Williamson Ltd., a manufacturer and wholesaler of clocks, watches and gold and silver wares, was told that “ The public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. In these days the watch is as necessary as a hat - more so, in fact. One can catch trains and keep appointments without a hat, but not without a watch. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can. Wristlet watches are not luxuries; wedding-rings are not luxuries. These are the two items jewellers have been selling in the greatest quantities for many months past.” (Emphasis added.)
Wristwatches were also prized as spoils of war.
In The Greatest Day in History: How the Great War Really Ended Nicholas Best wrote:
Private Nimmo was sorry to see [the German prisoners] go, because he hadn’t had a chance to collect any souvenirs before they left. The New Zealanders liked wristwatches best, although revolvers and field glasses were useful too, or an Iron Cross at a pinch.
A correspondent told me that her grandfather was given a 'demob watch' when he left the Army after the war. I very much doubt this, I have never heard of demob watches and the story was most likely made up to explain the possession of a watch "liberated" from its legitimate owner, friend or foe, by someone who wouldn't have been expected to buy one. A wristwatch really was the "must have" gadget for young men at the time; especially a trench watch, with its eerily glowing luminous dial.
Knowledge for War
Captain Lake's list of Officer's Kit for the Front
A book published during the war as early as 1916 "Knowledge for War: Every officer's handbook for the front" by Captain B. C. Lake of the King's Own Scottish Borderers included the list of Officer's Kit shown in the picture.
Quite remarkably, the first item on the list, ahead of otherwise indispensable items such as "Revolver" and "Field glasses" is "Luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass".
The presence of luminous paint and an unbreakable crystal quickly became the signature features of a trench or "Service" watch, and featured prominently in adverts during the war.
Note that at the bottom of the list it says "Trench boots (waders) are now issued, so that it is no longer necessary to take them out." This implies that the officer was expected to provide all the kit on the list himself, including revolver, field glasses, etc. The small number of wristwatches with official military pheon or broad arrow marks is very small, and there were a large number of adverts for "Service watches" during the war, with luminous dials and unbreakable glass, so there is no doubt that most wristwatches were private purchases that officers were expected to purchase along with the rest of their kit.
The Thresher and Glenny advert reproduced above is similar to many of the time. They usually list all the items of clothing that an officer would require, often offering a fixed price for a complete set. I was surprised to think that an officer was even expected to supply his own revolver, but times were very different then.
The luminous paint used on the dials and numerals of the "luminous watches" was powered by radium salts so that it glowed strongly all the time and didn't rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge up the luminous effect. If you find a watch with the original radium based paint like this you will find that it no longer glows in the dark, because the fluorescent material has long since worn out, it had a lifespan of three or four years from new. However, the radium in the paint is still radioactive and needs to be treated with caution, see my page about luminous paint.
Canadians advancing on Vimy Ridge, April 1917
As the war progressed and the techniques of warfare developed, the role of the wristwatch changed from being a convenience, to a life or death requirement when the "creeping" or "walking" barrage was introduced to protect advancing troops. A creeping barrage involved artillery fire moving forward in stages, so that the shells were falling just ahead of the advancing infantry. First used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it was soon appreciated how important it was for the attacking troops to follow the barrage closely, "leaning on the barrage", not allowing time for the defenders to emerge from their dug out shelters. This strategy required precise timing by both the heavy artillery and the infantry. Failure to achieve this would result in the artillery killing their own soldiers. The creeping barrage was used to great effect in the Canadian success at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
1918 Electa Advert
Copyright © The Gallet Group
Swiss manufacturers were far and away the largest makers of smaller movements before the Great War war, and had been trying the market with wristwatches before the outbreak of the war, were in an ideal position to capitalise on the demand for wristwatches. Although initially short of skilled labour as men were called up into the Swiss army at the outbreak of the war, they were soon able to ramp up production and produced many thousands of wristwatches throughout the period of the war.
Such was the rate of production by 1918 that when the war ended that many manufacturers were left with large inventories of stock on hand. There was a short boost of economic activity in the years immediately after the war, but then there was a slowdown and a slump that eventually culminated in the Wall Street crash. In these conditions it took many years for the stocks of movements made during the war to be cleared. As an example, I have a Longines wristwatch that looks like a trench watch but the case is hallmarked for 1924/1925. When I queried this with Longines I was told that the movement was made in 1918 but was kept in stock until 1925 when it was fitted into a watch and sold. Watch movements were made mechanically in large batches and could sometimes remain in stock for some time, but this was an exceptional length of time and reflects the rate at which Longines were making wristwatch movements by the end of the war, and the depth of the post-war slump.
Electa, a division of Gallet known for making high quality small lever movements, was one of the manufacturers who benefited from this boom during the war but was unable to survive the trying post war conditions. The advertisement shown here, from the 1918 edition of the Indicateur Davoine, was provided to me by David R. Laurence, Managing Director of The Gallet Group, Inc. www.GalletWatch.com, and shows a cavalry officer inspecting his "Electa" wristwatch. Whether it was a Borgel watch cannot be determined from the picture, but many Electa watches were cased in Borgel cases and this advertisement is a clear indication of why these watches are often called "officer's watches."
The war led directly to some serious problems for British importers of Swiss watches. In September 1915 the British Government imposed an " ad valorem" duty of 33⅓% on imported luxuries including clocks and watches to conserve foreign currency reserves. This meant that any watches imported into London, even if only for checking for subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this high rate of tax. As a result of this, companies like Rolex, Rotherham and Sons, George Stockwell and Baume & Co. etc. set up Swiss offices and sent watches direct to their outlets overseas, bypassing London and the 33.3% import tax. Rolex opened their Bienne office in 1915, and subsequently the Rolex headquarters moved from London to Geneva. Prior to that Rolex checked all Swiss made watches in London before re-exporting them to the Empire.
The American Watch Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts, had a long established presence in the UK and started advertising wristwatches soon after the start of the Great War, the advert here is from December 1914 and you can see that it is a purpose made wristwatch with wire lugs and a plain appearance, although without the luminous features that soon became regarded as essential.
Waltham Advert 1914
Rather strangely, Waltham continued to advertise watches with ordinary non-luminous dials throughout the war - I have not found an advert for a Waltham watch with a luminous dial. This must have had a negative effect on their sales, because a wristwatch was an essential piece of an officer's kit, but a watch without luminous hand and numbers was regarded as quite useless at night. Non-luminous watches could have luminous dots added to the dial and the hands swapped for luminous ones, but that was for watches that were already owned. If a newly commissioned officer was looking for a wristwatch there were many widely advertised with luminous dials and hands.
Although Waltham may not have advertised men's wristwatches with luminous dials they certainly did make them. I have one such in a silver case by Dennison with Birmingham hallmarks for 1914/15.
The tax on imports would of course have provided an excellent opportunity for the British watch industry, but British made wristwatches from the Great War era are very rare. The only English watch maker that made in any significant quantities small movements suitable for wristwatches was Rotherhams of Coventry, and during the war Rotherhams went over entirely to making military materials such as fuse timers for artillery shells, producing no watches at all for the duration of the war.
The other English watch makers who still existed in 1914 were almost entirely geared up and equipped to make pocket watches, still largely by hand; the London makers in small numbers for an elite few, the provincial makers larger numbers of cheaper pocket watches which were still expensive when compared to imported watches. They were unable to react to the sudden huge demand for wristwatches that the war caused, and change in fashion away from pocket watches that followed. This together with the post war depression, that reduced demand for all types of watches, killed off the remains of the English watchmaking industry.
Back to the top of the page.
Goldsmiths Advert 1915
Great War "Service" Watches
During the Great War, many jewellers and retailers advertised watches that were intended to appeal to military men and which were often called or referred to as "Service" watches. Amongst the best known of these were J W Benson of Bond Street and Ludgate Hill who advertised "Benson's Active Service wristlet watch", S Smith & Son, Watchmakers to the Admiralty who advertised "Smith's Allies Watch", Sir John Bennett who advertised "The Service Wrist Watch", and Harrods who advertised "Harrods Military Luminous Watch".
These "Service" watches usually had the features required by Captain Lake's list of Officer's kit described above; luminous hands and figures, or "luminous dials" as they were often called, and unbreakable glass.
Service watches also were often described as being suitable for rough wear, some with screw back and bezel construction and many with Borgel screw cases. The name Borgel isn't stated in the advert because it would have meant nothing to the public at the time. The picture of the watch, with typical Borgel onion crown, pin set and with milled bezel together with the description of a one piece case into which the movement screws, dust and damp proof, sometimes with reference to it being a patent case, shows clearly that these were Borgel screw cases.
The advert shown here by The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company advertising their "The Military Luminous Watch" appeared in The Times in February 1915. Described as "an ideal watch for Naval and Military Service" the watch has the compulsory luminous hands and figures and "the original patent screw case".
This is a Borgel screw case which, as the advert correctly states, was the original screw case, and the watch in the picture has the typical features of a Borgel screw case; a milled bezel, onion crown mounted on a stem tube and pin-set for hand setting. The advert says that "This watch is specially manufactured for the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company" and that they "always have large stocks ready for immediate delivery". Lots of other companies advertised Borgel wristwatches during the war, so it is difficult to see how this claim was justified, especially as I have only ever seen one Borgel wristwatch with The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company name on it, inside the case back.
J C Vickery Advert 1916
In 1916 J. C. Vickery advertised "Vickery's Perfectly Reliable Active Service Wrist Watch" shown here with luminous hand and figures, a Borgel screw case and a two piece or cuff strap like the ones I supply. Alongside it is a curious little humanoid mascot called a "Fumsup". These charms first appeared in 1880s and were very popular during the Great War, often sent to troops at the front by Sweethearts. The mascot has raised thumbs, hence the name Fumsup for "thumbs up", and a wooden head so that its owner could "touch wood" whenever he felt the need.
An interesting feature of the J. C. Vickery advert is the wide back pad that runs behind the watch case.
Because the lugs on trench watches are usually only 12mm wide, they have to be fitted with a 12mm strap, which on a man's wrist is quite narrow. Sometimes that's all they get fitted with, a narrow strap not much wider than a decent bootlace. Although this is authentic - there are plenty of pictures showing men wearing watches with very narrow straps, to modern eyes a narrow strap on a man's wrist looks completely wrong and ruins the appearance of the watch. And if you have ever worn a watch with a strap like this, you will know that it is also very uncomfortable to wear.
There is evidence, such as the J. C. Vickery advert from 1916, that the benefits of a wider strap were soon recognised. These had to be have a narrow strap to pass through the lugs of the watch and were made wider with a separate back pad for comfort and improved appearance. The J. C. Vickery advertisement says that the wide strap gives great support to the wrist. A strap like this with a back pad not only looks a great deal better than a narrow strap, it is a lot more comfortable to wear.
Another watch that was advertised during the Great War to men in the Naval, Military and Air Services was Birch & Gaydon's “Land & Water” wristwatch. This watch used a Zenith movement and a case with a screw bezel that is sometimes mistaken for a Borgel screw case although it is actually quite different. You can read more about the Land & Water wristwatch on my page about Birch & Gaydon.
Back to the top of the page.
Mappin "Campaign" Watches
1915 Mappin & Webb Advert
During the Great War Mappin & Webb ran the advertisement shown here many times. The advert for "Mappin's famed Luminous 'Campaign' watch" states that "This fine movement wristlet watch was first used in great numbers at Omdurman. And desert experience is the severest test any watch can have" and "During the last Boer War it renewed its high reputation for reliability under trying conditions."
The advert is clearly trying to make an historical link between the Campaign watches worn at Omdurman, which were small pocket watches in leather wristlets, and the watch in the advert by referring to "This fine movement wristlet watch ..." although by 1915 the watch has evolved from a pocket watch in a leather wrist adaptor into a purpose-made wristwatch with wire lugs attached to the case.
The watch is described as "... compensated and jewelled. In silver case with inner dome, it is absolutely dust and damp proof" which is rather a bold claim and the actual watches wouldn't have been up to the copywriter's flight of fantasy; no snap back case can be absolutely dust and damp proof, even with an inner dome and given the expectations at the time.
The watch is "... fitted with a luminous dial, which shows the time on the blackest of nights." The luminous paint was powered by radium salts so that it glowed strongly all the time and didn't rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge up the luminous effect. If you find a watch with the original radium based paint like this you will find that it no longer glows in the dark because the fluorescent material has long since worn out, it had a lifespan of three or four years. However, the radium in this paint is still radioactive and needs to be treated with caution, see my page about luminous paint.
Back to the top of the page.
British Military Issued Wristwatches
Timepieces officially issued to British military personnel, like other British military equipment, carry a stamped mark of a broad arrow or "pheon". Henry VIII created the Office of Ordnance in 1544 and the pheon was introduced Sir Philip Sidney, Joint Master of the Ordnance in 1585/6 to mark and identify government property. Many pocket watches from the time of the Great War marked with the pheon and a military stores reference number still exist. Wrist watches were different. As in many conflicts before and since, British officers were expected to supply much of their own kit for which they received an allowance of around £50. Before and during the Great War this included a wristwatch, but such purchases don't carry a military pheon.
Wristwatches were issued to “other ranks” who wouldn’t be expected to purchase their own. These were signallers, telegraphers or telephonists who would put the time on received messages. In 1914 a British Expeditionary Force Infantry Battalion of 1,000 men received eight issued watches. One went to the Signalling Sergeant, the others were shared among 16 Royal Engineers Signallers. In 1914 these would have been pocket watches, but it would have been realised that at the front wristwatches were easier to use, and also less likely to be lost.
1917 Issued British Military Wristwatch
In his book "A concise guide to Military Timepieces 1880-1990" Ziggy Wesolowski remarks that: ... the War Department procured a variety of wristlets for evaluation and issue, circa 1917. All the wristlets that were made available have a number of different unsigned Swiss 15 jewel lever movements, while the case designs came in two types. Some had snap-back cases, which could not form an adequate hermetic seal and consequently were judged unsuitable for field conditions; many of these were sold off as surplus in the 1920s and bear the broad arrow cancellation mark. Other wristlets came with screw-back cases which offered better protection. All the wristlets had black enamel dials and radium numerals and hands.
Ziggy's date of 1917 is not correct, I have seen an earlier dated wristwatch with a pheon. It is likely that wristwatches were issued to signallers and others who needed them from early in the war.
The broad arrow "cancellation mark" referred to by Ziggy appears on officially decommissioned military equipment. It was formed by striking a second arrow arrow, placed point to point opposing the original issue arrow. The first broad arrow "->" was marked when the item entered service to show it was military property, the second opposing broad arrow was added when the item was later decommissioned to make a mark like "-><-". Most watches from this era have just a single broad arrow showing that they were unofficially "liberated" from Army service.
The picture here is of one such watch in my collection, identical to one of the watches pictured by Wesolowski with the "pheon" or broad arrow on the case back which denotes it as War Department property. The watch has a screw back and bezel case made from nickel, and the movement is one of the apparently unsigned Swiss 15 jewel lever movements Wesolowski refers to. Thanks to fellow watch collector Cary Hurt, this movement has been identified as made by A Schild, and during a recent service the tell tale letters AS in an oval were found on the top plate underneath the dial. You can see a picture of this movement on my Movements page.
One of the continuing mysteries behind these issued wristwatches is what the codes engraved on the back mean. The one pictured here has "S•0•805" on it beneath the pheon. Others have completely different combinations of numbers and letters. If we could get together a big enough collection of these engravings we might start to see a pattern emerging, so if you have one of these watches, please let me know what is engraved on the back, preferably with an image of the marks, and I will compile a database.
Dennison Screw Cases
The substantial "screw back and bezel" case of the watch shown above is made of nickel, and so it carries no hallmarks or sponsor's mark to show who made it, but the case has several very distinctive features; the milling that gives a grip when unscrewing the back and bezel, the flattened pumpkin shape of the crown, and the large diameter stem tube that is cut away at the back and front to allow the bezel and back to screw down.
Issued British Military Wristwatch in Dennison hallmarked case with pheon and stores number
The pictures here of another of these watches shows another of these wristwatches with War Department markings in a silver case. The manufacturers marks and hallmarks those show that this case was made by the Dennison watch case company of Birmingham and hallmarked in Birmingham. The assayer's mark (date letter) "t" shows that the case was hallmarked in the Birmingham hallmarking year 1918 to 1919.
Examination shows that the silver case is clearly from the same manufacturer as the nickel case discussed above. The milling that gives a grip when unscrewing the back and bezel and the large diameter stem tube cut away at the back and front to allow the bezel and back to screw down are the same. The large onion crown is a recent replacement for the original crown that was missing when the watch was found. There is no doubt that both cases were made by Dennison in Birmingham.
April 1915 Dennison Screw Case Advert
The same cases in silver with Dennison marks are seen quite frequently without the military broad arrow, but silver cases with the broad arrow are uncommon, this is the only one I have ever seen. The background to this silver cased wristwatch with a pheon is a mystery. A nickel case was perfectly serviceable for military use, and was rustproof, so the extra cost of a silver case was not justified by military requirements, but most privately purchased trench watches were silver.
The advert here appeared in an April 1915 edition of Land & Water magazine and showed that Dennison were making these screw cases from at least 1915. The case in the advert has a screw back and bezel case with the same milling on the bezel as the issued wristwatches, but the crown is next to the case and there isn't the large diameter pendant or stem tube of the issued cases. The case in the advert is for a movement that is normally set; the cases with the large diameter stem tube are negative (American) set set and the tube is required to accommodate the detent mechanism.
The advert proclaims that this Dennison case is “the Original Screw Case”. There is no further detail to back up this claim, but it refers to a Dennison patent of 1872 for a case with a screw back and bezel, although the bezel was screwed into the middle part of the case from inside, not outside as in the watches here.
The advert also states that "Whatever watch you choose can be supplied in a 'Dennison Quality' case." This claim is rather puzzling because almost all wristwatches at the time were Swiss and came into the country complete with case - it seems to imply that people would get the case of a Swiss wristwatch changed by a jeweller, which is most unlikely. An alternative explanation is suggested by the fact that these Dennison adverts often appeared next to an advert for Waltham wristwatches. There was a very close relationship between Dennison and the UK branch of the American Watch Co. of Waltham. In fact, the Dennison factory may originally have been set up in the 1880s by Waltham to manufacture cases for Waltham movements imported from the US, and it may be that the Dennison advert should have read that you can have any Waltham watch you choose in a Dennison case. There is more about the Dennison Watch Case Company on my page about Dennison.
These Dennison screw cases were not used only for Waltham movements because they are also seen with Swiss movements. The Waltham movements that the cases were originally designed to accommodate had negative set or American keyless mechanism, and the Swiss movements fitted to these cases are also usually seen with negative set keyless mechanism.
Back to the top of the page.
Anatomy of a Trench Watch
Many people call any watch with wire lugs a "trench watch", even watches that are clearly ladies watches (which I discuss at Ladies "trench" watches?). But are there any features that distinguish a "trench watch", i.e. one that was designed to be used "at the front" in the trenches during the Great War, from other wristwatches of the period? Yes, there are; the two principal features are luminous dials and unbreakable crystals, and the ultimate is a wristwatch with a luminous dial, unbreakable crystal and waterproof Borgel case.
Wristwatches that were going to worn in the trenches would be exposed to dusty and damp, often wet, conditions, so a feature that was appreciated by military men was a waterproof case. The Borgel name never appears in the adverts of the period, but references to patent screw cases and pictures of watches with the typical Borgel features of a milled bezel, onion crown and pin set for setting the hands are found in many adverts of the Great War era and show that a watch with a Borgel case was often the wristwatch of choice for the officer preparing to go to the front.
From J W Benson advert in "The Sketch" 15 Dec 1915.
The earliest use of the term "trench watch" that I have seen is an advert in The Sketch" magazine dated 15 Dec 1915 by J W Benson of Ludgate Hill and Old Bond Street London. The advert illustrates only ladies bracelet watches but also mentions "Trench Watches in Silver Cases with leather strap from £2 . 2s."
From Thresher and Glenny advert 1916
The eminent military historian Dr. Spencer Jones told me that The phrase "a proper wristwatch" (to denote a smart looking officer) had certainly emerged by summer 1916. A smart looking officer, such as the one shown in the extract here from an advert by the leading London gentleman's outfitters Thresher and Glenny from 1916, would want to make sure that he had all the latest military kit; after all, his life might depend on that kit. So what would a wristwatch that an officer, or an NCO or "other ranks", was wearing in the summer of 1916 look like, and how did it differ from pre-war or civilian wristwatches?
It is of course impossible to know whether a wristwatch was actually used in the trenches purely from its appearance, but as the Great War progressed through 1915 and 1916 a number of features became increasingly important to the men at the front. Features that were of little importance to the civilian population, but became vital in the cramped, wet, muddy trenches, where operations were often conducted in darkness, and lights could not be shown for fear of attracting enemy fire.
Wristwatches were made before the Great War in small numbers, and watches from the pre-war period will certainly have been taken or pressed into service when the war broke out, either existing wristwatches or converted fob watches. There is a popular story that ladies had their fob watches converted into wristwatches to give to their man when he went off to war and that these are called “sweetheart watches”. I am not sure whether there is any truth in this charming story. Conversions do not make a satisfactory wristwatch, and because the converted watches were made pre-war they are not luminous; an essential feature of an officer's watch. An officer would have purchased a proper purpose made luminous wristwatch, but an “other ranks” who couldn't afford, or didn't have access to, such a watch would perhaps have been happy to receive a sweetheart watch.
The easiest way for watch manufacturers to satisfy the sudden increase in demand for wristwatches that arose during the Great War was to add small loops of wire, called fixed wire lugs, to an existing design of small pocket watch so that it could be attached to a wrist strap. But the principal idea of a wristwatch was to enable the time to be easily read without using both hands, so wristwatches were made with open face cases. This presented a problem in that existing Lépine or open face watches had their crown at the 12 o'clock position and so were not ideal for for a wristwatch. When wristwatches are seen with the 12 o'clock at some unusual angle, this is often a sign that the watch was not actually manufactured as a wristwatch but was converted some time later, usually by a local jeweller.
Pocket watches called savonnette or hunter, with a hinged metal cover that protects the crystal, had the dial arranged so that with the winding stem at 3 o'clock the seconds dial was at 6 o'clock. It was a simple matter for a manufacturer to take a savonnette movement and put it into a Lépine or open face case that had loops of wire attached to take a leather wrist strap. Note that this was not a conversion of a pocket watch, it was putting together parts that were already being made in a way that they normally wouldn't be assembled. The case was specifically made to be a wristwatch case, without a pendant at all or with a shorter one than for a pocket watch, and with fixed wire lugs for the wrist strap. These were the first true, purpose designed, wristwatches
1914 Borgel wristwatch
As the Great War went on, wristwatches were embodied with a number of features that mark them out as being intended to be used in the trenches. These watches were widely advertised in British newspapers and magazines as being suitable for "military and naval service".
The most obvious of these features are the luminous hands and numerals, so that the time could be read in the dark. From 1916 onwards unbreakable crystals became available and these were immediately regarded as an essential feature. The display of seconds was also important, I think essential for reasons I will explain below. And of course another feature that was very important in the trenches was resistance to dust and water.
It is often said that a watch that has the number 12 on the dial picked out in red (or sometimes blue) is a military watch, but this is simply not true. When the wristwatch was a new idea the position of the 12 wasn't immediately standardised at its now familiar position 90° anti-clockwise from the winding crown and so the 12 was often picked out in a contrasting colour to make it easy to quickly locate it. A red 12 isn't a sign of a military watch, or even of a man's watch; it was used just as much on ladies wristwatches in the early days of the wristwatch, before the Great War. Trench watches often do have their number 12 picked out in red as a carry on from this, but it is often impossible to see this below the luminous paint, which during the Great War was far more important.
Pictured here is a trench watch with a Borgel case and a high grade Electa 17 jewel movement with Reed's whiplash micro-regulator. In the case back are London import hallmarks for 1914/1915, and the outside bears the inscription Presented to Capt. Thorpe with best wishes from No 6 Reserve Bgde RFA(T) for Auld Lang Syne 1917. The initials RFA(T) refer to the Royal Field Artillery (Territorial). Captain Thorpe appears to have been George Robert Thorpe of the Honourable Artillery Company who was made an acting Captain on 3 April 1917 and was killed only a few days later on 25 April 1917. In early 1917 many RFA Brigades were detached from Divisions and placed under orders of higher formations, so the watch may have been a present to Captain Thorpe when this occurred, or on the occasion of his promotion.
This then is a genuine trench watch that we can be sure saw service during the Great War, and in my view it is a typical example of the archetypal service or trench watch. It has the luminous hands and numerals and unbreakable crystal that came to be regarded as essential features of a trench watch. The hands and numerals are skeletonised and have a thick paint applied to them. This paint was made luminous by the use of radioactive radium salts, and if the original paint is still present, as it is in this watch, it is still radioactive today, even though it no longer glows in the dark.
The small seconds display was an essential part of a trench watch. As Robert Nichols wrote in his poem "The Assault" (1916); “ The pale wrist-watch .... The quiet hand ticks on amid the din. ” Trench watches were of course quite likely to receive knocks for all sorts of reasons, and without shock protection (which didn't come in widely until much later) a sharp knock could break a balance staff pivot and stop the watch even though superficially it might still look perfect. The subsidiary seconds dial at 6 o'clock then becomes very important to reassure that the watch is working when it can't be heard ticking because of the deafening crash of an artillery bombardment.
The Borgel case was one of the earliest cases that was designed to be resistant to dust and moisture, a serious problem in the trenches for a wristwatch in its exposed location, and it was one of the few dust and moisture resistant case commercially available during the Great War, the other being the screw back and bezel case made by Dennison and which is discussed above. But the Dennison case was made in England, which didn't suit the Swiss manufacturers who made the vast majority of wristwatches produced during the Great War, and so the Borgel case, made in Geneva, was very widely used for trench watches and it appears prominently (although unnamed) in many of the period adverts for "service" watches, such as the advert here by Smith & Son from May 1916.
Finally the large "onion" winding crown is very typical of a trench watch, it gives a good grip in what were most likely less than ideal conditions. These crowns are often worn down so that the fine ribbing or fluting, which is so well preserved on the one shown above, has disappeared.
The advert reproduced here from 1916 by Smith & Son Ltd. is quite interesting. It shows two trench watches, called the "Smith's 'allies' watch wristlet", both of which have Borgel cases, called a "screw in" dust and damp proof case in the advert, luminous hands and numerals and unbreakable crystals, or "unbreakable front" as the advert puts it. A Borgel case added considerably to the cost of the watch, at three pounds three shillings it was a lot more expensive than a watch that is available "without screw case" at two pounds ten shillings. The Borgel case was also a lot more dust and damp resistant than many people think today, which you can read about on my page about Borgel.
This is the earliest advert that I have yet seen for a watch with an unbreakable "UB" crystal, or unbreakable glass. The advert says No more watch glasses! No more watch glass protectors! It is impossible to break the front. Why? Because the front is of unbreakable material with the transparency of crystal glass. The unbreakable crystal appears to add five shillings to the cost of a watch, because the advert says that watch wristlets with ordinary glasses are available from two pounds two shillings, whereas the "Allies" watch in a non-screw case but with an unbreakable crystal is two pounds ten shillings, an extra eight shillings.
Wristwatches with wire lugs were being made before the Great War, so is there anything in particular that distinguishes what might be called a “true” trench watch? A date during the Great War is clearly a significant factor, but the singular most important distinguishing feature of a true, purpose built, trench watch is a luminous dial, which means that the hands and numerals are made luminous so that the time could be read in the dark.
Captain Lake's list of Officer's Kit for the Front
In "Knowledge for war: Every officer's handbook for the front" Captain Lake placed at the head of his list of officer's kit for the front "Luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass". This is ahead of other indispensable items such as "Revolver" and "Field glasses". Of course wristwatches that were made without luminous dials before or during the war were pressed into service, but wristwatches that were particularly made and advertised as being intended for use in the trenches had the characteristic purpose made luminous dial.
One of the earliest adverts during the war for wristwatches dated 10 August 1914, just after the declaration of war on Germany by Britain on August 4, was by J. W. Benson who offered wrist watches for Officers in all Branches
The luminous dials of trench watches have outline or ‘skeleton’ numerals and hands like those of the Borgel trench watch in the photograph here. The hands and numerals carry luminous radium paint that glowed all the time when it was new, and glowed very brightly in the dark, but the luminosity has long since worn out.
1914 Borgel trench watch with radium luminous dial
The original radioactive radium luminous paint gradually lost its glow over a few years because the radiation in the paint damaged the fluorescent material so that it no longer glowed. The radiation also breaks down the varnish that was used to bind the radioactive substance and fluorescent material together into a paint, which becomes brittle and breaks up into flakes and dust, which are themselves radioactive.
Even though the radium paint no longer glows because the fluorescent material is worn out, the paint is still radioactive – often surprisingly so. The radium luminous paint used during the war contained a lot more radioactive material than paint that was used in later years when the dangers of radiation were more fully understood. Luminous dials from the Great War era still today easily send the reading on a radiation detector off-scale.
Radium has a half life of over 1,600 years so in the last 100 years it has lost hardly any of its original radioactivity. Great caution must be exercised when handling hands and dials like this because breathing in or swallowing the radioactive flakes of paint or dust would be dangerous to the lungs or bones, see my page about luminous paint.
The shape of these hands was called in Swiss/French “poire squelette” (pronounced “pwoir skelette”) i.e. pear skeleton, after the pear shaped bulge on the hour hand. These are often referred to as “cathedral” hands because they look a bit like stained glass leaded windows.
This style of hands is referred to in manufacturers catalogues of the time as “Luminous” or often simply “Radium”.
Luminising Non-Luminous Dials
Article from November 1915 about upgrading a non-luminous watch with radium luminous paint
If a soldier already had a perfectly serviceable pocket watch or wristwatch that simply wasn't luminous, then this could be upgraded to a luminous watch by putting dots of radium paint on the dial next to the hour numerals, and changing the hands to the luminous radium type, as described in the article shown here from November 1915. A Borgel wrist watch that has been upgraded with replacement luminous hands and luminous spots on the dial is shown in the second photograph. The dial has a red 12, which is not a military feature but was put onto the dials of early wristwatches so that the 12 was more visually prominent. In addition to the luminous spot on the minute track above the 12 a second luminous spot has been placed below the 12 to fulfil the same function in the dark.
The article states that a pocket watch could be upgraded for 10 shillings, a wristwatch for seven shillings and sixpence. British Army rates of pay as defined by War Office Instruction 166 (1914) give the pay of an infantry Lieutenant as 8 shillings and 6 pence a day, so the work cost him about a days wages. The work is said to take about three hours with no distinction made between pocket and wristwatch, the difference in price between the pocket watch and wristwatch is due to the cost of the "best quality" luminous paint.
1914 Borgel watch dial upgraded to radium luminous markers
An article in the British Horological Journal in March 1915 described methods of fitting luminous hands, which the author H. Otto called “radio-hands”. He explained this rather strange term later in the article, saying that its use would stop customers later asking the watchmaker to buy back the precious radioactive substance, which they did with watch movement jewels or rolled gold. He mentions that "radium-bromit" (radium bromide) cost £20 per milligram, and that mesothorium, discovered by Otto Hahn in 1906, was about £7 per milligram. Mesothorium is an isotope of radium, radium-228, which has a half-life of 5.8 years and was cheaper than radium-226 because it was extracted from plentiful thorium ore used by the gas lighting industry to make gas mantles, so it was used in radioactive luminous paint as a cheaper substance to boost the glow. The more expensive radium bromide contained the longer lived radium-226 isotope.
If you find a watch with the original radium based paint like this you will find that it no longer glows in the dark because the fluorescent material has long since worn out. You will notice that the article says that the "best quality of luminous paint" will last about three years. Radium luminous paint was made by mixing radium salts and zinc sulphide in a binder, a type of clear varnish. The radium gives off alpha particles which can't be seen, but when they hit the zinc sulphide they cause it to give off a flash of light. This gradually wears out the zinc sulphide, giving the luminous effect the three year life discussed in the article, but radium, which has a half life of about 1,600 years, will still be very nearly as radioactive as when it was new and you need to be aware of this and take some basic safety precautions - see my page about Luminous Radium Paint for more information.
Medical Trench Watches
Nurse's Fob Watch Dial with Luminous Seconds Hand © David Weare
The watch on the right of the Smith's advert reproduced earlier has the unusual feature of a luminous sweep centre seconds hand. It is called a "Medical Watch", and said to be "Invaluable for Hospital Work". The cross symbol on the dial above the 6 would be painted or enamelled red, the familiar symbol of the Red Cross organisation and widely used to imply medical use.
The luminous centre seconds hand is interesting, I have a few trench watches with non-luminous centre seconds hands, but trench watches with luminous centre seconds hands are rare. Field hospitals would have been illuminated dimly at night and a luminous seconds hand would have been very useful when taking a pulse. The luminous centre seconds feature adds considerably to the cost of the watch at four pounds and fifteen shillings.
The picture here, courtesy of David Weare, shows the dial of a small 1921/22 silver cased 29 mm fob watch, also with a red cross; from its size presumably intended for use by a nurse. This watch retains its original skeletonised hour, minute and seconds hands and most of its original radium luminous paint on the hands and dots next to each hour on the dial. The remaining dot at 12 is offset to one side because originally there would have been two dots there so that the location of 12 was obvious.
Symbols Instead of Numerals
Article from February 1915
There was great interest in luminous dials during the Great War, as the November 1915 article says, they were regarded as "practically a necessity for service work." The powerful luminous glow in the dark from the numerals was something new and intriguing in an era before electric light was common. The article here from February 1915 "A New Luminous Watch" discussed replacing the normal "figure" numerals with special markers at 12, 6 and 3 and 9, the hours in between being marked with dots. It was said that this made the dial easier to read in the dark.
Dial with Luminous Symbols © David Weare
The image here courtesy of David Weare shows one of these dials. All of the numerals apart from 12 have been replaced by symbols exactly as described in the article; at 12 there is a triangle, at six an oval, and at three and nine "T" shapes. The hours in between are marked by round dots. Much of the original luminous paint has been lost, the triangle and the round dots would originally have been filled with paint like the oval and T shapes.
It is usual for the original radioactive radium luminous paint to fall off over a few years because the radiation in the paint destroys the fluorescent material so that it no longer glows. It also breaks down the varnish that was used to bind the radioactive substance and fluorescent material together into a paint, which becomes brittle and breaks up into radioactive flakes and dust. Great caution must be exercised when handling dials like this because breathing in the dust would be very dangerous to the lungs.
The red cross suggests that this watch was used by a medical person, which suggestion is further reinforced by the fact that it once had a sweep centre seconds hand. The hole in the centre boss of the minute hand is where the arbor for the seconds hand should protrude, and the very outer track of the dial has divisions at each fifth of a second. An 18,000 vph train, which was the frequency used almost exclusively of any other at the time, beats at fifths of a second, so in theory the time could be read in daylight to one fifth of a second.
I am not sure how much easier the symbols would be to read in the dark than a conventional dial with luminised skeleton numbers, but it certainly makes the watch look much more military and like a serious piece of kit so I am surprised that it didn't take off.
The hour and minute hands currently fitted are not correct, originally all three hands, hour, minute and seconds, would have been skeletonised and carried radium luminous paint like the symbols on the dial. It is worth bearing in mind that it would be no use being able to see the symbols clearly without knowing where the hands were!
The advertisement shown here by S. Smith and Son from 1916 is very typical of adverts by Smiths and other jewellers during the period of the Great War. This particular advert is interesting because it is proclaiming the virtues of the new unbreakable crystals that were being fitted to watches at that time, as advised by Captain Lake in "Knowledge for war" - at the head of his list is "Luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass".
Smiths Service Watch 1916
In the cramped conditions of the trenches, with constant activity and material being flung about by artillery bombardments, one of the things that was an immediate concern was the fragility of wristwatch crystals made from mineral glass, so new "unbreakable" materials were employed - as demonstrated somewhat dramatically in the advert by the gentleman with the hammer. The "Actual size" legend presumably refers only to the watch!
Unbreakable or "UB" crystals made of celluloid were patented in 1915 and became available in 1916. Celluloid had been used for films since the late nineteenth century, and cellulose acetate was developed as a less flammable alternative by Kodak in 1908, so both materials were available before the war broke out. Adverts such as the one by Smith's show that UB crystals were certainly used from this stage of the Great War. It seems likely that watches manufactured for the purpose of appealing to military men as "service" or trench watches would have had both of the features that Captain Lake advocated, luminous dials and unbreakable crystals, as soon as they were available. Luminous dials had been developed well before the Great War, but it took the conditions of the trenches to bring about the innovation of unbreakable crystals.
At first flat celluloid was used in place of glass crystals, but there were two problems with this; celluloid was not as dimensionally stable as glass and would shrink over time or in cold weather and fall out, and it was also highly flammable. Cellulose nitrate, the basic material of celluloid, is similar in composition to gunpowder and will burn explosively if ignited. To overcome the dimensional stability problem the technique of fitting the crystal to the bezel under tension was developed. This involved cutting out a circle of material that was slightly larger than the bezel, then pressing it into a dome shape which, when released, sprang into the recess in the bezel with some residual tension so that even in cold weather the crystal was still held firmly in the bezel. An alternative to celluloid that was much less flammable was cellulose acetate.
Watch crystals made from either celluloid or cellulose acetate, the only two materials available during the Great War, will have long ago yellowed and deteriorated to the point at which they will have been replaced.
Acrylic watch crystals were not available during the Great War. Acrylic "glass" (polymethyl methacrylate) was invented in 1928 and first brought to market in 1933 by the Rohm and Haas Company as Plexiglas, in Britain it was made by ICI and called Perspex. A watch from the Great War era with a clear plastic crystal has been fitted with a modern acrylic crystal, which is a good replacement for what it would have had originally. These are sometimes referred to as polycarbonate, which is a different material that so far as I am aware has not been used for watch crystals.
The watch shown in the Smiths' advertisement has a Borgel case - although this is not stated in the advert it is quite clear from the distinctive milling around the bezel together with the pin-set and the onion crown mounted on a short pendant tube shown in the image, and the "Screw in silver case" listed at three pounds three shillings. An alternative watch with a case having a hinged back ("jointed" in the advert, joints being the watch case maker's term for hinges) is listed at two pounds ten shillings, considerably cheaper.
S. Smith and Son of Trafalgar Sq, London, described themselves as watch and instrument makers. The business was founded in 1851 by Samuel Smith. By the end of the nineteenth century they were recorded as "watchmakers to the Admiralty", selling high-class watches with certificates from the Royal Observatory, Kew. However, it is not clear that they actually manufactured any watches themselves at this time. It seems more likely that they were purchasing watches from English wholesale manufacturers such as P. & A. Guye, Ltd. and Nicole Nielsen & Co., and retailing them under their own name. Towards the end of the second world war, the British government persuaded Smiths to begin manufacture of watches for strategic reasons. High quality pocket and wrist watches were produced in a factory in Cheltenham, but the enterprise was never very profitable and withered, eventually being closed down. The modern Smiths Group is descended from the original company.
Back to the top of the page.
24 Hour Dials
The twenty four hour system of indicating time is used by railways and the military to avoid mistakes with am/pm, so it is surprising that Great War trench watches do not generally have 24 hour markings. These are sometimes seen, usually with the number 13 to 24 in a circle inside the hour track, but I have never seen a British officer's trench watch with British import hallmarks and a 24 hour dial.
The reason for this is that the British army only adopted 24 hour time in the very late stages of the Great War. The British Royal Navy began using 24 hour time in 1915, but the British Army only officially adopted 24 hour time on 1 October 1918, when the war was almost over, although it had been used informally before then. With the war in its last months there was no time to make a change to the production of dials. During the war Swiss watch manufacturers had increased production of wristwatches, but once the war was over the demand for these slowed down and it took a number of years to clear the stocks that had been built up during the war. With the British army being demobilised after the war, there was little demand for officer's watches with or without 24 hour dials.
The watch in the image has 24 hour markings inside the 12 hour track. It is in a nickel case so it cannot be identified whether it was a British import or not, but the likelihood is that this was a French officer's watch. The French Army had used 24 hour time from 1909.
Back to the top of the page.
Shrapnel Guards 644549 and 656724 / 105694
An alternative to the unbreakable or UB crystal, for a watch with a glass crystal that had been purchased before the war or before UB crystals became available in 1916, was a metal grill or mesh that covered the crystal but still allowed the time to be read. These slipped onto the wrist strap, and had criss cross bars or metal domes pierced with round or shaped holes that allowed the wearer to read the time through the holes.
These are often today called "shrapnel guards" but would not really have been much use if the watch and its wearer were actually hit by shrapnel, a hail of bullets discharged close to a target by the timed explosion of a shell fired from a field gun. However, they would certainly protect the vulnerable crystal against the everyday bumps and knocks that it might experience in the cramped conditions of the trenches and when going "over the top".
I don't think they were called shrapnel guards during the Great War; "mesh guard" or "watch protector" appear to have been the terms in use then. But you have to admit that Shrapnel Guard sounds good.
The photograph here shows two of these shrapnel guards. The one to the left, a "telephone dial" style, has a Registered Design number stamped inside the dome, RD 644549 and the legend "IN·12". The one to the right in a style called a "mesh guard" has a Registered Design number RD 656724 stamped on one of the strap loops and PAT (for patent) 105694 on the other.
The one on the left, the telephone dial style, is the earlier of the two. The Registered Design number 644549 was registered on 12 December 1914 by Alfred Davison of St. John Street, London, a jeweller and metal worker. The guard on the right was made by Hirst Bros. and is discussed further below.
Levi sterling silver guard
Thanks to Andy Strange for the photograph
Shrapnel guards like the ones in the photograph were usually made by stamping them out from sheet metal, and once the punches and dies had been made the guards could easily be produced in large numbers. In an article in the Horological Journal in 1998 Dennis Harris says that judging by the number for sale at collector's fairs at the time they must have been produced by the thousands, which they would have been; making the stamps and dies was expensive, and this cost would be spread across as many items as possible. However, this doesn't of course mean that they were all used at the front, and with the introduction of unbreakable crystals the market for these guards must have been severely curtailed. It seems likely that the large numbers that Harris saw for sale might have been unsold stock, certainly the ones that I have seen show little signs of use.
The vast majority of shrapnel guards that I have seen have been either nickel or silver plated. Silver plate tests as silver with simple testing kits, which only test the surface of the metal so be aware if someone tries to sell you one as being silver. Solid silver should be hallmarked. I have only seen one guard made in sterling silver and hallmarked, the one seen in the photograph here by Andy Strange. This carries the sponsor's mark "S.J.L&Co." entered by Samuel Joseph Levi of Birmingham, a silversmith and electroplate manufacturer, and Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 1916/1917. It also carries the legend "P.PAT. 11638/16, which is a reference to a patent application submitted by Levi in 1916. This is discussed in more detail further down the page.
It is probably impossible to know who exactly was the first person to come up with the idea of a protector for wristwatch crystals because, like the wristwatch itself, the idea is fairly obvious. However, unlike the wristwatch which was never patented because it was so obvious, patents were granted for devices intended to protect the crystals or glasses of wristwatches. But to become widely used they needed a market and a demand, which for wristwatches, and even more so for wristwatch protectors, didn't really exist before the Great War.
The earliest patent for a protector specifically for wristwatches that I have seen was granted to Sydney Smith in June 1913, No. 22,414 with a priority date of 2 October 1912, "A protector for wrist watch glasses". This was different to the later shrapnel guards in that it was a metal ring that clipped directly onto the watch case, not with loops for the wrist strap. The ring surrounded the crystal and covered its edges but left the centre part clear, although the patent says that the central hole could be filled with transparent celluloid, or made smaller and surrounded with numerals, turning the watch into a half hunter.
645715 faux tortoiseshell guard
Thanks to Phil for the photograph
A patent for "An Improved Watch Face Protector" was granted to Gilbert Dennison, of the Birmingham watch case makers, in 1915, No. 23,796 with a priority date of 9 December 1914. It used a number of metal strips that were pivoted on a fixed ring at one end and a moving ring at the other. When the movable ring was rotated the strips slid to cover or reveal the dial, in much the same way that the aperture of a camera lens operates. It was a clever idea, but needed both hands to operate it. This design was also patented in the USA. It would have been expensive and also quite fragile, and I have never seen one.
The rather attractive faux tortoiseshell guard in the photograph has the Registered Design number 645715, which was registered on 3 February 1915 by Robert Blacklock of Sunderland, County Durham, a jeweller. It is made from celluloid, which was the only transparent artificial plastic material available at the time and was used as a substitute for expensive natural materials like amber and tortoiseshell. This is an unusual guard, the only one I have seen that is not made of metal.
In 1916 Harry Daw was granted a patent for "An Improved Protector for Wrist Watches", No. 11,577 with priority date 11 August 1915. This was perhaps the first protector that looked like a typical shrapnel guard. It comprised a domed metal disk with loops through which the wrist strap passed. The top of the disk had a series of slits forming bars which were turned at an angle so that the dial could be seen through the perforations between the bars when the watch is tilted at an angle, rather like looking through a Venetian blind.
Hirst Bros. and Samuel Levi
It appears that one of the earliest of these guards to be actually put on the market and sold in significant numbers was introduced by Hirst Brothers. & Co. Ltd. of Oldham, Lancashire, described in the Horological Journal in June 1916. The HJ article begins with the statement "A new idea in wrist watch protection patents has just been placed on the market. It is registered by Messrs. Hirst Bros. & Co. Ltd., of Oldham (No. 652595) under the name of "Mesh-Guard" ..." This is the earliest reference I have yet found to the marketing, and hence widespread sale and use, of wristwatch guards or protectors.
Guards carrying the legend RD 652595, the Hirst design discussed in the HJ article, are very similar to the guard shown on the right in the first photograph above; the front grill looks the same but the loops for the strap to pass through are plainer, having straight sides rather than the curved "lyre shaped" sides of the guard in the picture.
GB patent 105694, licensed by Levi to Hirst
Although Hirst Brothers and Co. Ltd. had taken the precaution of registering their design, it seems that they had not protected the idea by securing a patent. A patent for "Improvements relating to Protectors or Guards for Wristlet Watches" was granted to Samuel Joseph Levi of Birmingham, a silversmith and electroplate manufacturer, in 1917, with a priority date of 17 August 1916. The priority date is when the application was received at the patent office, so Levi submitted his application for the patent several months after the announcement of the Hirst design in the Horological Journal.
A figure from the Levi patent is shown here and you can see that the design looks the same as the guard on the right in the first photograph above, lyre shaped loops and all. The patent number is 105694, the same as the PAT number stamped on one of the loops of the guard in the photograph, confirming that it is the same design. This design was also registered with the Board of Trade as Registered Design number RD 656724. Whether it was Levi or Hirst that registered it is not known.
The Registered Design number 656724 was used in advertising by Hirst Bros. so at least some of the guards carrying that number were made by them. The number is different from, and later than, the number 652595 quoted in the Horological Journal.
Was there a connection between Hirst Brothers and Co. Ltd. and Levi? The list of exhibitors at the 1922 British Industries Fair included "Hirst Brothers and Co., Oldham, London, Birmingham and Manchester" so Hirst Bros. did have a Birmingham operation, but the same list includes "S. J. Levi and Co. of Squirrel Works, Regent Place, Birmingham", manufacturers of "Leviathan" Electro-plate. showing that Levi was a separate manufacturer. Items made by Levi's Company are stamped “S.J.L & Co.”
It seems likely that after Levi lodged the patent it was recognised that the two designs were so similar that Hirst Bros. had no choice but to either contest the patent, an expensive and drawn out legal procedure that they might not have won, or buy the rights from Levi. A period advert which shows the design with the curved sided loops of the patent calls it ‘The improved "Mesh Guard" Reg. No. 656724 P.PAT 11638/16’, the "improved" no doubt signifying the use of the later design.
I have seen mesh guards impressed with "RD 656.724" on one lug and "P.PAT. 11638/16" on the other, the numbers referred to in the Hirst Brothers' advertisement. The number 656.724 refers to Registered Design number 656724, so the design is the same one, but the patent number is different. The 11638/16 is a reference number for Levi's patent application deposited in 1916. The "P.PAT" stated in the advertisement means "pending patent" or patent pending, which has no legal status but warns that a patent has been applied for and optimism on the part of the applicant that it will be granted.
The provisional specification for the Levi patent was lodged on 17 August 1916 and given the application number 11,638 – the "/16" refers to the year. Levi made some guards stamped with this number, the sterling silver guard shown in the picture above by Andy Strange is one of them, which is perhaps how Hirst Bros. got to know about Levi's design. The complete specification was lodged 25 September 1916 and the patent was granted on 26 April 1917, British patent number 105694.
Summary of Hirst Bros. and Levi numbers
RD 652595 – first Hirst Brothers design, June 1916 to circa August 1916.
RD 656724 and P.PAT. 11638/16 – Levi design during patent examination August 1916 to April 1917.
RD 656724 and PAT. 105694 – Levi design after patent granted 26/04/1917.
Guards with the "patent pending" number 11638/16 must have been made during the period the patent was being examined after 17 August 1916, and those with the patent number 105694 must have been manufactured after 17 August 1917. Which is interesting given the announcement in of this guard the Horological Journal of June 1916. This announcement in June 1916 was two months before the application for the patent was lodged by Levi.
From the date of the first article in the Horological Journal, the date that the patent application was lodged, and the date that the patent was granted, we can put some dates to guards stamped with the various Registered Design and patent numbers, which I have done in the side box. This also helps to understand the rather confusing jumble of numbers surrounding the Hirst Bros. and Levi guards.
Boneham and Hart v. Hirst Bros.
At about the same time as Hirst Brothers put their Mesh Guard onto the market, other firms were doing the same. A company called Boneham and Hart, trading as F. Boneham & Co., started to advertise their "Vizard" protectors, which differed from the Mesh-Guard only in the shape of the ears. Hirst Brothers issued an advertisement in which they warned that "The extraordinary success of the Mesh Guard, Regd. No. 656724 P. Pat 11,638/16, Patented in France, Switzerland and U.S.A. has evoked some rubbishy imitations ... and the adoption of similar sounding names", and threatened legal proceedings against manufacturers or dealers "infringing our patent or registered design".
The advertisement by Hirst Bros. in which they threatened legal proceedings against other manufacturers of similar guards caused Boneham and Hart, manufacturers of the "Vizard" protectors, to start a legal action for threats against Hirst Brothers, and a messy and lengthy court case ensued. There was also another guard on the market at the same time called the “Vanguard” that was not so near in appearance to the “Mesh Guard” as was the “Vizard”.
GB patent 103815, Frank Farr of Montreal
Another design of shrapnel guard that I have seen fairly often is the one shown in the figure from GB patent 103815 "Improvements in Watch Face Protectors" shown here. This guard was designed (I hesitate to say "invented") by Frank Farr of Montreal, Canada, and was first patented in the United States with a priority date of 3 February 1916.
Farr's patent might have clashed with the Levi patent and taken priority because in concept it is very similar. The application for a British patent was received in November 1916, still within the period when the Levi patent was under examination. However, the Farr patent was approved and given British patent number 103815. Although I have seen guards like this I have never noticed this or any other number on them.
I think the Farr guard is quite aesthetically attractive with its "non-radially disposed" bar pattern. Farr makes the point that these bars will not be confused with the hands of the watch, and offers two patterns with the bars straight or curved. Twelve bars are shown so that the hour numerals are will be visible between pairs of bars, but Farr does not restrict the number to twelve. The slot at 15 allows the guard to be put on to a watch with a sewn on strap, where the buckle would not be able to pass through the gap that the strap passes through.
Back to the top of the page.
The usual sort of open faced wristwatches were made by putting savonnette (hunter) movements into Lépine (open face) cases. But sometimes trench wristwatches are seen with hunter lids; a metal lid that completely or partially covers the front of the watch. These are not common, and for a very good reason.
It would appear to be a good idea to have a lid to protect the glass and the watch generally, especially at the front in a war, but this defeats the purpose of a wristwatch. The original reason for the creation of the wristwatch was so that that the time can be easily read just by glancing at the wrist, whereas both hands are needed to read a hunter watch, the right hand being needed to press the button to release the lid, and to close the lid after reading the time. This is a nuisance, and quickly becomes irritating.
Half-hunter or demi-savonnette wristwatches, with a small opening in the centre of the lid, are slightly better, but still a nuisance because the small amount of visible dial means that they are more difficult to read than open face watches, to read a half-hunter watch accurately you still need to open the lid.
Great war hunter watches are often seen with the lids missing. I expect that mostly this will be because the joint (hinge) of the lid has worn through due to the lid being opened regularly to check the time, but I wonder how many were simply wrenched off by their owners in frustration? There is a story that Napoleon invented the demi-savonnette for the same reason, out of frustration with having to keep opening the lid of his full hunter watch he simply took a knife and cut a hole in it.
Wristwatches with hunter lids sometimes have the mark "Brevet 71363. Brevet means patent in French and the Swiss federal cross shows that this refers to a Swiss patent. The number refers to a patent granted to Charles Zurbrüegg on 23 June 1915 for a "Boîte-savonnette pour montres-bracelet" or hunter case for wristwatches. Why a patent was granted for a case style that had already been in production for hundreds of years is a bit of a mystery.
Zurbrüegg was also a bit unfortunate in patenting a wristwatch with a hunter lid at a almost exactly the same time that unbreakable crystals were being introduced, making the lid unnecessary. Zurbrüegg was listed as “fabricants de secrets” (perhaps a “secret springer”, a term used for the makers of the hidden springs of hunter cases), 17 Rue de la Gurzelen, Bienne.
The composite image here shows a Zurbrüegg half-hunter wristwatch case with the steel secret spring superimposed to show its location in the case. The spring both latches the lid and forces it open when the latch is released. The red arrow indicates where a shaft attached to a small release button passes through the hole in the case between the arms of the lug and operates the end of the spring with the lid latch.
Once unbreakable crystals became available in 1915 the extra protection offered by a hunter lid was unnecessary. For this reason only a few were made, which makes them rare. Does this make them desirable and expensive? No – like many things, they are rare because they was not a great demand for them at the time which meant that they didn't sell well then, and the same considerations apply today.
Charles Zurbrüegg was granted a Swiss patent No. 71602 for an unusual screw back and bezel case. The movement is held in a carrier ring which the screw bezel holds into the middle part of the case, the back screws on as usual. The objective of the invention was not explained.
Back to the top of the page.
The “Army” Wristwatch Protector
The "Army" Wristwatch Protector
The "Army wristwatch protector" was a sprung clamshell type of device that completely enclosed the watch and gave it, in effect, a hunter lid, as shown in the advert here.
An application for a patent for this invention for "Improvements in Detachable Protectors or Caps for the Glasses of Wristlet Watches" was lodged by Charles Adolf Schierwater, 29 Church St, Liverpool, jeweller, on 8 October 1914, and British patent number 20696 was granted on 10 June 1915. The design was also registered with the Board of Trade as Registered Design RD 647078. Patents for the same design were granted in Switzerland, France and Canada.
Schierwater & Lloyd at Waltham Buildings, 29 Church St, Liverpool, were at one time the largest British retail agents for Waltham watches.
This design of course meant that, as with a hunter wristwatch, both hands were needed in order to read the time, which rather defeated the purpose of wearing a wristwatch. It obviously didn't take long for this drawback to be realised because I have also seen the same item with a pierced lid so that the time can be read without opening it. The inside back carries the same Registered Design number RD 647078 and a British patent number 20698.
Back to the top of the page.
Other Military Wristwatches
American forces seem to have been issued with wristwatches as soon as they entered the war in 1917. Some of these were from American factories, other were imported from Switzerland.
I have also come across a suggestion that Ingersoll "Radiolite" wristwatches were issued to British tank crews when tanks were first used at the battle of the Somme in September 1916 because they were cheap and expendable, but so far as I have been able to ascertain, the Ingersoll watches that were issued to these tank crews were pocket watches with luminous radium dials. I have never seen a cheap expendable watch with the official British army broad arrow mark and I suspect that the story that cheap luminous wristwatches were issued to personnel with a short life expectancy such as fighter pilots or tank crew seems is just that; a story or popular myth.
Back to the top of the page.
Wristwatches Become Fashionable
The public in Britain soon became used to seeing battle hardened military veterans coming home on leave from active service still wearing their wristwatches. After the war was over, thousands of veterans were demobilised and went back to civilian life. Of course they continued to wear the wristwatch that had served them faithfully and survived the terrible conflict with them. Seeing these battle hardened veterans wearing their wristwatches changed the public perception that wearing a wristwatch was not manly, and sales of wristwatches to the man-in-the-street started to take off.
In December 1917 the Horological Journal, the journal of the British Horological Institute, noted that The wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire.
By 1930 sales of wristwatches had overtaken those of pocket watches. In 1937, at the Paris International Exhibition, one commentator wrote Who would have thought only a few years ago, that the wristwatch would one day be presented in so many forms, and in such variety?
The age of the pocket watch was over.
English Made Wristwatches
The attitude of the English watch trade to men's wristwatches remained the same as their attitude to imported Swiss pocket watches. The best watches in the world were English, and they were pocket watches. People could buy cheap watches, and even wristwatches, if they wanted, but the English watch industry sailed on, producing small quantities of very expensive pocket watches at great labour with very little use of machinery.
The Americans, followed by the Swiss, had mechanised production and could produce more watches more cheaply than the English makers, and of uniform high quality. The English watch industry, under financial pressure from this foreign competition, had failed to keep up with the changing times, not innovating or consolidating, and unable or unwilling to adopt mechanical methods of production. The English watchmakers became trapped in a world of many small companies, each with little ability to invest the capital required to develop new designs or install machinery. Whilst there was still a demand for pocket watches they could continue to make them, cutting costs by driving down wages and relying on the tag "made in England" to justify a higher price than imported watches.
The English methods of craft manufacture were suitable for the larger movements of men's pocket watches, for which skills had been developed and handed down over decades, but almost all the smaller movements for ladies watches were imported from Switzerland. It was possible to make small movements by craft methods - in 1764 John Arnold had made a half quarter repeating watch small enough to mount in a finger ring - but it was not easy. To make significant numbers of small watches, machinery that could work to close tolerances was required. Rotherham and Sons of Coventry were the most mechanised of English watch manufacturers, and they did make small numbers of wristwatches, but they found that work for the motor car industry which was then booming in Coventry was more profitable, so they moved out of watch manufacturing. When the wristwatch became fashionable, most English manufacturers could not adapt their manufacturing methods to the make newer smaller movements required and so, like the dinosaurs, unable to adapt to changing circumstances and changing fashions, the English watch manufacturers, one by one, died out.
Back to the top of the page.
Wristwatches in the USA
Wristwatches for men were adopted much later in America than in Europe. In America wristwatches continued to be ridiculed as effeminate after they had been accepted as men's wear in Europe.
Mary Roberts Rinehart was an American writer who spent two months at the Front as a correspondent in early 1915 and later wrote a novel which, though not autobiographical, draws heavily on her time in France/Belgium. A passage talks about life with her husband and three boys after return from Europe in around April 1915:
Only two of the boys were at home now. Stanley was away preparing for Harvard, and hiding in a bureau drawer the wrist watch I had brought back to him from London; for America still believed that a wrist watch was effeminate ...
American soldiers in Europe during the Great War saw officers and men wearing and using wristwatches and came to appreciate their usefulness. Seeing large numbers of battle hardened British, French, and even German, troops wearing wristwatches soon silenced any tendency of the American soldiers, who were unused to seeing men wearing wristwatches at home, to make fun of them. In the cramped conditions of the trenches they soon realised that it was much easier to push a sleeve back to check the time on a wristwatch than to pull out a pocket watch.
It is said that American soldiers came back from war in Europe with wrist watches and safety razors, but even when they got back it was still only acceptable to wear a wristwatch for activities that seemed to justify it, such as sports or flying aeroplanes. For others who could not claim to be veterans, the prejudice against wearing wristwatches was even firmer. In his biography of Judge Landis, David Pietrusza relates how shortly after the armistice Landis observed that most of the lawyers appearing before him wearing wristwatches had not seen service in the Great War. The judge told his clerk to Have all these wrist-watch lawyers file a statement what branch of service they were in.
Although their experience in Europe meant that America soldiers returned home with a new perspective on wearing wristwatches, the relatively small proportion of the American population that was involved in the war meant that the impact of the returning doughboys on American society and fashion was much less than the British experience, where almost every young man had been called up and served during the war. Many returned home on leave during the war proudly wearing their new wristwatches. Hence it remained the case that in polite company in America a man was still required to wear a pocket watch until the fashion began gradually to change in the 1920s, which is why American men were later in taking up the habit of wearing wristwatches than Europeans.
Ladies' "Trench" Watches?
A correspondent posed the question: "There are many so called "Trench Watches" listed on auction sites (not just eBay), that are in reality ladies wristlets. Given that the introduction of the first wristwatches (or Wristlets) were for ladies, which men of that period, considering them something "that real men would not wear", continuing to prefer a pocket watch, how can one tell whether a so called "trench watch" is a man's or a ladies watch?"
From eBay: WWI Officer's Silver Trench Watch. Really?
Anyone who is knowledgeable about trench watches will be familiar with this phenomenon. Small wristwatches with fancy dials and cases, which no man of the early twentieth century would be seen dead wearing, are described as "trench watches" to catch the attention, and money, of the less experienced collector – like the one in the picture here, unbelievably advertised on eBay as a "WWI Officer's Silver Trench Watch". The listing accurately describes the watch as having a 30mm diameter silver case with Art Nouveau decoration, the dial having black Roman numerals and red 12 with gold dot markers between the numbers.
The listing said "I think because of the quality the watch was an Officers dress watch." I do not agree with this statement; it is clearly a lady's wristwatch. No male officer of the Great War would be seen wearing a wristwatch like this. At the time of the Great War there was still a lot of resistance to a man wearing a wristwatch at all because it was thought effeminate, and no man would want to add to that impression by wearing a wristwatch that was clearly feminine in appearance. A man's wristwatch, whether he was an officer, other ranks or a civilian, would be plain, functional, and generally manly in appearance.
From eBay: Medana military trench officer's watch c1930. Really?
I don't want to pepper this page with examples of misdescribed ladies' wristwatches but here is another one that caught my eye. The listing calls it a "Medana military trench office [sic] watch c1930" and describes it as a "... solid silver medana military trench watch" with case diameter 27mm (approx ). It is certainly a Medana watch, the dial says so, and the snap back case is solid silver, it carries Birmingham hallmarks for 1923/1924. It also has a pretty low grade cylinder movement with just one jewel.
Can anyone really envisage an officer or military man strapping this dainty little watch to his wrist as he heads off to the trenches? It has none of the features that military watches and trench watches developed during the Great War; the dial is not luminous, the case has no dust or waterproof features, and the movement is not capable of the timekeeping an officer would require. But apart from that, at time when wearing a wristwatch was still considered by some to be not manly, what man would strap a small and pretty little watch like this to his wrist and risk ridicule? (Or today, for that matter.)
I wrote to another eBay vendor who was advertising a "Solid 9ct Gold Ladies Trench (1912) Watch" (emphasis added). I said "Why do you call this a "ladies" trench watch? There were no ladies in the trenches. This is a lady's wristwatch or cocktail watch, and you are more likely to get a good price if you title and describe it as such because people like me searching for trench watches aren't looking for ladies watches, and ladies looking for wristwatches or cocktail watches won't be looking for trench watches."
The vendor replied "Good point David and strictly correct, however, WW1 has become such a well documented period that the 'trench' metaphor has sunk into the public's mind. Sadly, most people don't understand the meaning of a 'cocktail watch' and I therefore use the 'trench' word loosely to denote a watch from that period."
Needless to say I don't agree with the reasoning here. I think that most people know about the Great War and do understand the difference between a man's trench watch and a ladies' wristwatch or cocktail watch.
There is also a tendency on eBay for vendors to list watches as "Gent's trench watch ..." or "Man's ..." or "Officer's ..." when they are clearly nothing of the sort. I think they most likely know perfectly well that the watch is nothing of the sort and is in fact a lady's watch, but it could be simple ignorance and they don't know any better.
How To Tell?
Trench watches have wire lugs, and unfortunately today any wristwatch with wire lugs tends to get called a trench watch. This is probably because the vendor knows that early man's wristwatches from the Great War era are very collectable, whereas there is virtually no market at all for early ladies wristwatches. However, wristwatches with wire lugs were made for ladies long before they became popular with men, but there were no ladies in the trenches and ladies' wire lug wristwatches should not be called "trench watches", a term I would prefer to keep for wristwatches that were, or at least might have been, worn by men in the front line trenches.
But how can such wristwatches of essentially the same style be distinguished? My reply to my initial correspondent was: I think it is a like men's and ladies' shorts – I mean clothes not drinks – the difference is in both the size and the style.
My grandfather's and grandmother's Rolex wristwatches. My grandfather's watch is on one of my Type B straps. If you click on the picture you should get an enlarged view.
Men's shorts and wristwatches were larger and more manly looking, ladies' shorts and wristwatches smaller and more feminine. In the early twentieth century dress codes and fashion were much more restricted than they are today, and men would avoid at all cost wearing anything that might look in any way feminine. This was the main reason that men resisted wearing wristwatches at all until the Great War made a wristwatch a necessary item of an officer's kit and thereby legitimised the wearing of them by men in general.
Take for instance the picture of my grandparents wristwatches shown here, both made during the time of the Great War. I am sure I don't need to tell you which is which. My grandfather's wristwatch is larger than my grandmother's at 34mm diameter versus 28mm, but it is also clearly plainer in style and therefore more acceptable to a man.
Loop Ends on a ladies' wristwatch.
Also note that whereas my grandfather's watch has "wire lugs" – loops of wire soldered to the case to hold it onto the strap – my grandmother's watch has a different way of attaching the strap. This watch was originally fitted with an expanding metal bracelet. The attachment to the case takes the form of lugs soldered close together on the case, with a pin or bar spanning the small gap between them. This is how the bracelet was attached. This becomes a problem when the bracelet wears out and a replacement is not available. It is impossible to fit a leather strap directly to the small pin between the lugs. If you want to attach a leather strap to a watch like this, see Loop Ends.
To attach a leather strap to a lady's watch like this, a ‘loop end’ or ‘jointed loop’ is attached to the case. The loop end can swing about the pin; in watchcase making terms, a joint is type of hinge like this hence the name jointed loop. If you see a watch with loop end strap attachments like this, then you know straight away that is a lady's watch. However, a small watch with a fancy dial is still a lady's watch even if it has wire lugs like a man's watch.
Note that both my grandfather's and grandmother's wristwatches have a "red 12". Some people think that a red 12 automatically indicates a military watch but this is not correct, both ladies' and men's wristwatches commonly had red or blue 12s in the early days of the wristwatch. See my page about this at Red and blue 12s.
Size: What Looks Right
For trench watches from the time of the Great War, any wire lug wristwatch with a case smaller than 32mm is rather small to be a man's watch, and certainly anything smaller than 30mm diameter (case diameter excluding the strap lugs and winding crown) was regarded by manufacturers and retailers as a de-facto ladies wristwatch. However, then as now, a retailer was unlikely to dissuade a man from buying a small watch, preferring to put money in the till.
Note that this discussion is about trench watches, or more broadly wristwatches from the 1900s into the 1920s. In the 1930s a change in men's fashion meant that small wristwatches became acceptable and more popular, and these had cases down to 28mm. Such watch cases are usually stainless steel, which came into use for watch cases in the mid 1930s.
Today, the size of a small trench style watch is frequently not quoted, because a small size is a dead give away that it is a lady's watch. The size is the diameter of the case excluding the crown (winder) and strap attachment lugs. This is more important than it might seem, because the overall area of the watch face, which is what creates the impression of size (or lack of it) is determined by the diameter squared. An extra millimetre on diameter adds area all around the circumference, which makes a big visual difference.
Although some vendors will describe a 32mm trench watch as big for the time, I have a large collection of genuine trench watches that are mostly 35mm case diameter, which was certainly not unusual or exceptionally big for the time.
Plain small wristwatch 27.4mm diameter. A plain ladies' watch, or a small men's watch?
I had a correspondent swear to me that a 28mm wire lug wristwatch belonged to their grandfather, and that he wore it when he was in the army during the Great War. During the Great War the army found that many men called up were below regulation height and unfit for service due to a poor diet. As the need for recruits became more urgent during the war, the Army reduced its minimum height requirement from 5' 3" to 5' to enable shorter but healthy men to enlist. It is entirely possible that a man of small stature with a correspondingly small wrist would chose a ladies' size wristwatch, although they would have avoided anything that looked feminine. The watch in question was plain without any feminine embellishments, and on on small man would not have attracted any adverse comments.
It is true that plain looking watches were made in this size; one is pictured here that was advertised on eBay as a "Pre-WW1 Trench Watch", which is in itself a bit of nonsense. This particuIar watch is has a case diameter just over 27mm and a cylinder escapement. I am sure that watches like this were intended for ladies who preferred a plain rather than fancy look, but of course there was nothing to stop a man buying one.
Gold watches are on average smaller than silver watches, presumably on account of the cost of the gold used to make the case. I have not done a survey to establish whether this is generally true (which would be difficult because so many gold cases have been scrapped over the years) it is just an off-the-cuff observation based on the examples I have seen. But I still think that even gold watches from the Great War period that are smaller than 30mm are ladies' watches.
A vendor listed on ebay a “Solid 9K gold trench type watch, 29mm case, described at the time as gents medium” - meaning medium size for a man. I asked if he had any evidence for this, and of course he didn't, saying only that “men's wrist watches were generally smaller than now, large were 30+ mm” and citing watches listed on ebay as evidence of this. Needless to say I don't agree with this circular reasoning; things on ebay are described in a way that the vendor thinks will get the best price, not necessarily because that is what they really are.
My collection of Great War wristwatches and analysis of period adverts for “Service” watches indicates that a typical man's trench wristwatch had a 13 ligne movement and a case size of around 35mm. Some trench watches were slightly smaller than this, using 12 ligne movements and 32mm or 33mm cases.
My rule-of-thumb about men's wristwatches having a greater than 32mm case size during the Great War does not apply to watches made later. During the 1930s the size of men's watches unquestionably decreased. Many watches from this period that are undoubtedly men's watches are 30mm diameter, and even sometimes a bit less. This was partly watchmakers showing off, making small watches that were still good timekeepers. But there was little point in making them if they were not going to be purchased, which they obviously were. However, men's watch still looked like men's watches, plain and simple rather than dainty and fancy. I think the fashion for small watches was a reaction to the austerity of the times during the great depression, giving rise to a desire not to be seen to be flash or ostentatious. It was also the time that stainless steel came into fashion for watch cases for the same reasons.
1917 Issued British Military Wristwatch
Style and Appearance
Any wire lug wristwatch with a "fancy" dial - e.g. a silver dial with fancy guilloché engine turned patterns, gold numbers, especially gold dots for the minute track or between the numbers, jewels etc. also identifies a ladies' watch. Today I see men wearing earrings and although I wouldn't do it personally, I can't make a rule that says it doesn't happen. But even today I don't see men wearing small fancy wristwatches, and at the time of the Great War a man choosing a wristwatch to wear in the trenches would have avoided anything that looked at all feminine.
Note that this doesn't apply the other way round. It was certainly fashionable for ladies to wear watches that looked like men's watches with luminous dials. This has often been the case; remember the fashion for ladies to wear camouflage print clothes and shoes during the Gulf War.
Remember also that military men demanded certain features. Commenting on the wristwatches that were officially issued in 1917 Wesolowski says All the wristlets ... have ... Swiss 15 jewel lever movements, ... black enamel dials and radium numerals and hands. The reference to "radium numerals and hands" means that the numbers on the dial and the hands were painted with a radium based luminous paint that glowed brightly in the dark - in fact it glowed brightly all the time, you just couldn't see it in daylight. The strength of the glow from this new fangled and mysterious luminous paint was one of the things that made wristwatches in particular so appealing to young men at the time, they were the smart phone or Apple watch of their day.
Although the officially issued wristwatches may have all had black dials, this was not the case for trench watches that were private purchases and the vast majority of trench watches had white enamel dials. But in the main those purchased during the Great War as "service watches" had luminous dials; skeleton hands and numerals carrying luminous radium paint. The radium luminous paint had a fairly short life, some sources say as little as three to four years. This was because the fluorescent compound was burned out by the radiation from the radium. The radium however remains radioactive for thousands of years and still needs to be treated with caution - see my page about this at Luminous Radium Paint.
In "Knowledge for war: Every officer's handbook for the front" by Captain B. C. Lake of the King's Own Scottish Borderers included a list of Officer's Kit for the Front. The first item on the list, ahead of otherwise indispensable items such as "Revolver" and "Field glasses" is "Luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass". Every advert for watches aimed at men preparing to go to the front, such as the advert pictured earlier on this page by The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company, J C Vickery and Mappin & Webb, emphasised the luminous features of the watch. So an easy way to identify a "true" trench watch is by skeleton numbers and hands intended to take the radium paint, even if that paint has been removed or no longer glows in the dark. There is no question that watches with plain numerals and hands were used at the front and in the trenches, but whether a particular watch with plain numerals and hands was so used is less evident from its appearance and one has to fall back on inference from date and any provenance. Often it is simply impossible to say.
Conclusions on "Ladies'" Trench Watches
From eBay: "Ladies trench watch"
So in answer to the question: there is no definitive rule or way of telling whether a particular wristwatch is or was a man's or ladies watch. My personal rule is that "I know it when I see it" based on size and appearance. For some wristwatches with wire lugs – 35mm diameter with skeleton numerals and hands for luminous paint – there is really no question that it's a man's watch. And this is also true for ladies wire lug watches such as the 30mm diameter fancy Art Nouveau watch with gold dot markers between the numbers pictured above; this is clearly a ladies watch. But for intermediate sizes around 30-32mm with plain dials the answer is not so apparent and a judgement based on common sense is called for.
Many wristwatches that are clearly ladies watches are today described as trench watches. Collectors have to accept this as an annoyance: the term is being used to describe a type of watch, one with fixed wire lugs, and not necessarily one that was actually used, or even likely to be used, in the trenches. This may be due to ignorance, or even deliberately as in the case of the "Solid 9ct Gold Ladies Trench (1912) Watch" I mentioned, which although wrong in my view is at least not attempting to be misleading.
In the many cases the mis-description is deliberate, such as the "Antique gents WW1 trench watch" shown here. This pretty little 18 carat gold wristwatch, "30mm with winder", i.e. case about 28mm diameter, is clearly a ladies wristwatch. No man of the Great War would feel emboldened going "over the top" wearing a watch like this. I am sure that the reason this is described as a gents WW1 trench watch is because the vendor expects that it will lead to a higher price if some poor soul believes it. As with anything, caveat emptor: do your own research, look closely at what you are buying, and certainly don't trust a vendor's patter to be always entirely accurate.
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated September 2020. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.