Crucial Timing: The Rise of Military Watches

The personal timepiece has been an important and essential aspect of military life ever since its invention, and military watches continue to be popular.

Success or failure in war has often been a matter of timing; to quote Miyamoto Musashi, (1584-1645), ‘You win battles by knowing the enemy’s timing, and using a timing which the enemy does not expect’. It is no surprise then, that personal timepieces have been an important aspect of military life ever since their invention, allowing the coordination of movements and the measure of range and speed.

The earliest watches used by the military were, of course, pocket watches. The first recorded wristwatch was created in 1812, but for the next 70 years, these were strictly for the ladies. Legend has it that at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon created the first ‘Half Hunter’ watch when in his frustration to see the time, he carved a hole in the outer cover of his watch.

While this is almost certainly incorrect, it does indicate how important rapid access to the correct time was during a battle! Indeed, at Waterloo, Napoleon, Wellington, Marshal Ney and many other senior commanders would have carried watches by Breguet, the leading manufacturer in Europe at the time, whose watches were famed not only for their accuracy but also for their shock resistance.

The adoption of the military wristwatch had a stuttering start in 1880, when Constance Girard from watchmakers Girard Perregaux proposed a wristwatch to Kaiser Wilhelm I for the German Navy. An order for 2000 watches was discussed but the project never got off the ground. Despite the production of wristwatches for men by brands such as Cartier in the early 1900s, it would be almost a quarter of a century before they became popular.

Convenience was the driving factor behind the large-scale move from the pocket watch to the wristwatch. It was the same difficulty in fumbling for a watch amongst layers of clothing that inspired the aviator Albert Santos Dumont to request a wristwatch from Cartier (creating the eponymous model that exists today), that drove soldiers heading for the western front to buy wristwatches. Usually, these were ladies-size fob watches turned through 90 degrees, with thin wire lugs soldered on.

In WWI it was a regulatory requirement that all officers should wear a wristwatch, although soldiers were rarely issued these watches; they were mostly private purchases or gifts from supporters back at home. Accessories such as leather covers or metal shrapnel guards were often bought to protect these relatively delicate pieces from the traumas of military wear.

Today, we take the availability of the correct time for granted, but back in 1914 things were very different. A 1,000 man battalion of the British Expeditionary Force would have been issued only eight watches in addition to the wristwatches worn by the officers. Coordinating operations in these circumstances would have been difficult at best. The scramble for suitable watches for military operations in the first years of the war means there are a wide variety of makers and styles from this era – and the MoD numbering on them can be somewhat haphazard.

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World War Two

The onset of WWII saw the UK in a similarly poor state of readiness, made worse by the fact that in 1939 there was little left of the British watchmaking industry, forcing the MoD to buy Swiss watches wherever they could. Eventually, these were issued as ‘army trade pattern’ or ATP watches and had a black dial, with subsidiary seconds. Toward the end of the war, the ‘waterproof wristwatch’ or WWW was introduced.

This was the first watch specifically designed for military use rather than being adapted from a civilian design and had a black dial, subsidiary seconds and luminous paint for the numerals and hands. These watches were sourced from twelve Swiss manufactures, leading collectors to dub them the ‘dirty dozen’, however, shipment only began in the spring of 1945, by which time the war in Europe was over.

The RAF was much quicker to issue wristwatches having models from Omega, Longines and Movado ready by 1941, possibly indicating the vital nature that reliable watches play in navigation.

The lack of British-made watches was of great concern to the Government and before 1939 plans had been outlined to develop the watchmaking facilities of Smiths (their factory in Cheltenham was built at the start of the Second World War), to a sufficient standard. However, the outbreak of the war prevented the shipping of tooling from Switzerland and so the development of pocket, and then wristwatches had to be done from scratch. A military pocket watch was produced before the end of the war, but a wristwatch was only achieved long after hostilities had ceased.

Not all watches were simple time-only pieces; the demands of war saw the use and development of several timekeeping technologies with principle innovations being in the areas of chronographs and dive watches. Watches for divers had been first used by the Italian navy in the 1930s, and were created by Panerai using Rolex movements – and were often worn by the riders of the slow-running torpedoes (manned submersibles). Once Winston Churchill became aware of these mini-submarines he insisted that the British navy replicated them. Of course, the British divers needed a watch too and the MoD commissioned a custom made watch, built round a Longines calibre.

Stopwatches and chronographs were initially used by the Royal Artillery, the replacement of the more familiar tachometric scale for measuring speed with the telemetry scale, allowed the measurement of distance. If an event, such as the firing of a gun, could be seen as well as heard then the elapsed time between the sight and sound could be read off against a scale to allow the distance to be measured. This would allow the accurate ranging of an artillery piece in order to direct fire. Sadly this process was made much more difficult by the outbreak of WWII when all the combatants had begun to use flashless explosives.

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Chronographs found more widespread use in the RAF and by 1941 models from Longines and Pierce were in use, both for navigation in the air and medical purposes on the ground.

The development work on the WWW watches served the British military well for the post-war years and they continued to be issued, being joined by the British-built Smiths W10 military wristwatch in the mid-1960s and W10s from Cabot Watch Company (CWC), and American firm, Hamilton, in the early 1970s. With the arrival of quartz in the 1980s, these old soldiers finally went into storage, only to be dusted off again for the first Gulf War where soldiers were issued with watches that were up to 45 years old!

Innovations in Watchmaking

Both dive watches and chronographs benefitted from the watchmaking advances of the mid-1950s. From its launch in 1954, the navy made use of the Rolex Submariner, utilising its robust qualities for an ever-increasing range of operations. A brief flirtation with the Omega Seamaster 300 was followed by the return in the 1970s of one of the most collectable military watches ever, the Rolex 5517 Milsub.

Eventually, the improvements in case technology reached the cheaper brands, and the eternal drive to cut costs saw the replacement of such big prestige names. Indeed, it is only the increasingly amphibious role the military fulfils that really keeps the traditional style dive watches in use.

Chronograph movements developed enormously in the 1950s, allowing the RAF to move away from the simple centre seconds watches of WWII and to specify chronographs for all aircrew. These were initially single-pusher watches from Lemania followed by classic double-pusher pieces from CWC and others. In what is now a familiar pattern, the accuracy and reliability of quartz saw the introduction of Seiko chronographs in the 1980s, followed by the even cheaper Pulsars.

This brief overview shows the standards of accuracy and reliability that the military demand, and it was this demand that acted as a driver for quality and innovation before the inevitable cost implications of modern warfare intersected with the rising capabilities and low price of quartz.

Cost is not everything, however; when the Japanese quartz G10s fell apart, a front-line revolt saw the reissue of the more substantial CWC models. That said, the modern soldier often chooses his or her own watch, and the virtual indestructibility, coupled with the functionality of the modern digital, is hard to beat.