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Lifestyle: WWI era watches: timepieces unlike any other

by Frances Carbines
14 May, 2013
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A London based writer with a long-held interest in vintage clothing, antiques and timepieces, Frances' regular editorial content for Click Tempus' Lifestyle section includes everything from city guides to sartorial advice.

WWI watch

Lifestyle

A great part of the eternal appeal of vintage objects is their historical associations and the images which are conjured up by the presence of the item in the absence of their original context. It’s unsurprising that historical possessions can have such a strong hold over the hearts and minds of those who view them decades or even centuries after they were made when said possessions evoke eras of great upheaval: military timepieces, when taken out of their intended space and time, make for problematic objects: on the one hand, they are impressive objects that attest to mankind’s ability to meet the logistical challenges of warfare with budding technological insight and expertise; while on the other hand, they cannot be divorced from the traumatic environment of the time in which they were first used. Read on for a brief introduction to the intriguing and unique world of Officer Watches.

Military horology: a broad category

WWI Soldier

The category of military horology is a broad one, reflecting the vast range of difficulties encountered by soldiers, and can include pocket and deck watches, wristwatches, aviators’ watches, chronographs, timers, and divers’ watches. However, while aviators’ and divers’ watches possess their own points of interest and distinction, officers’ watches as worn by those who marched through ‘no man’s land’ in the First World War (1914 – 1918) hold a particular element of pathos, as timepieces that were intended to stand up to the rigours of trench warfare act either as a memento of their original owner’s plight – or as a testament to their luck and courage if they emerged unscathed from battle.

A matter of convenience: the birth of the wristwatch

WWI watch white porcelain face

Referred to variously as ‘trench watches’, ‘officers’ watches’ and ‘wristlets’, wristwatches were first popularised around the time of the First World War as a result of the inconvenience suffered by soldiers on the battlefield who obviously found the standard issue pocketwatches to be impractical devices to handle when engaging in mortal combat, opting instead for the ease afforded by a timepiece that could be attached to the wrist. Although reportedly dating back to the nineteenth century with Patek Philippe’s creation of the first wristwatch in 1868 and Constant Girard’s development of the concept of wristwatches for German naval officers in the 1880s, these advancements in the field of horology did not gain public acceptance until WWI commercialised the wristwatch for men: before the war, men only wore pocket watches. Wristwatches (or the diminutive-sounding ‘wristlets’) were worn only by women and, given the inequality and overriding prejudices of the time, were hence considered ‘unmanly’ and unworthy of serious horological or commercial attention.

WWI watch ad Harrods

During WWI, military tactics such as the coordinated attack along a long front, synchronised with artillery barrages, demanded precision timing, and unlike any previous conflict, this time around there were millions of men involved. The survivors of WWI, heralded by civilians as heroes, brought their watches back with them, and so the timepieces enjoyed a new found public acceptance. Wristwatches were slowly growing in popularity as the 20th century progressed, but WWI legitimised them in the eyes of everyday consumers forever. By the 1930s, sales of wristwatches had overtaken sales of pocket watches.

It is estimated that over 9 million soldiers lost their lives to WWI – and many took their watches with them to their graves. The few that remain which were made between 1914-1918 can fetch very high prices today for their rarity – but a buyer must be discerning when choosing their ideal WWI era watch.

Buying your first WWI era watch

Onion crown

An important factor to consider when searching for your first WWI era watch is, at a risk of stating the obvious, the condition the piece is in. Don’t rush into buying a watch from this era purely because of its age if it is in a neglible condition: if the piece genuinely appeals to you for solid reasons it will most likely appeal to others, too, and therefore stands more chance of appreciating in value over time, should you wish to sell it at a later date. Firstly, make sure that the watch’s general condition is good, and that it is keeping reasonable time. Secondly, ensure that the case is in good condition, with no broken lugs or hinges, as failure to do so may result in a timepiece that will never be in working condition, as spare parts for watches around 100 years old are seldom – if ever – available, so repairs to the movement can be at best, difficult, and at worst, impossible. Case hinges of timepieces such as these are also very difficult and therefore expensive to repair. Minor cosmetic damage is permissable, as long as these are reflected in the price.

Sizes

WWI watch sizes

The size should be reasonably large – we’re talking 34-35mm or bigger across the case diameter – as any watches smaller than 32mm are likely to be ladies’ watches of the period. If the purveyor does not specify the dimensions of the watch, by all means ask.

The maker’s name: don’t get your hopes up

engraved wwi watch

As for the name… you’ll be lucky. While watches with the maker named on the movement go for more money, be aware that watches of this era seldom had the maker’s name on the dial, as this did not really start until Rolex began to inscribe their brand name on their dials in the 1920s. However, that’s not to say that you won’t come across occasional WWI era watches with engraved dials from high end brands such as Omega, Longines, Patek Phillipe or Vacheron Constantin, but if you do, the price will most often make your eyes water. If not, you may be lucky enough to find a timepiece with a more personal inscription on the back, such as the name of the owner (invariably a soldier in ‘the war to end all wars’, if engraved at the time of making).

Crystal guards

Crystal Guard, porcelain dial

A feature of watches of this era, often mistakenly assumed to attest to the dangers encountered by those who wore them, is the crystal guard – which is largely known retrospectively to us as the ‘shrapnel guard.’ At the time, these metal grills, which were often made of silver, were designed with the intention of protecting the glass (the crystal) from cracking and other light damage when in the field – it can be assumed that these small pieces of equipment were never seriously intended at the time to stop flying pieces of shrapnel (enough to kill someone, let alone break glass). Although originally created purely for functionality (as an evolution of the protective case of the pocketwatch), crystal guards were created in increasingly decorative ways, and a wide variety of design patents came into existence after their initial conception in 1917. As many of them could snap on and snap off as the wearer desired, it is rare to find a military timepiece of this era with its original crystal guard intact.

Luminous dials: beware!

Military luminous watch

The luminous dials found on some WWI era watches can be a perilous feature of the timepiece; these dials were painted with luminous paint made up of a mixture of radium and zinc sulphide, as a precursor to the less dangerous luminous compounds used today, and would brightly glow both in the dark and in daylight in the days before the dangers of radioactivity were fully understood.

While timepieces with dials such as these will no longer glow, these luminous dials still pose a hazard to the wearer’s health: although after twenty or so years the zinc sulphide would either wear out or be destroyed by the radiation from the radium (causing the luminosity to cease), the dials still contain the radium, which continues to emit radium for innumerable decades onwards. However, there is no need to be deterred from owning such a watch if you employ prudence: they are reasonably safe to wear once in a while, as long as you don’t sleep in them or keep them near your bed!

Whatever your personal interest in owning an WWI Officer watch stems from, they are priceless and intriguing items that will serve to remind generations to come of the plight of millions of soldiers during the First World War.

We at Click Tempus would love to hear from any readers who own a WWI era watch – please email editor@clicktempus.com for more details.

Frances Carbines | Website

A London based writer with a long-held interest in vintage clothing, antiques and timepieces, Frances' regular editorial content for Click Tempus' Lifestyle section includes everything from city guides to sartorial advice.

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