The history of military field watches

by Marc-Andre Schmid

The classic field watch is undeniably difficult to surpass. Its versatility allows it to complement almost any attire, being able to withstand any the rigors one may be confronted in daily civilian life , and continues a longstanding tradition of military-inspired civilian fashion. Furthermore, the field watch is possibly the ultimate wristwatch, with dials designed to be as easy-to-read as possible, straps that maintain their shape even after days of continious wear and movements that are uncomplicated and easily repairable while being highly durable. And while the interest in military watches for more casual watch enjoyers has often been reduced to the study of pilot pieces introduced by some renowned brands mainly from the 1950’s onwards, being outfitted with at first glance more exciting complications as well as bigger and more aesthetically pleasing cases, it is undeniable that those small and simple timepieces that proved themselves in decades of conflict have their own charms, acting as a finer alternative in many ways similar to a dresswatch.

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But a watch fit for military use is much more than just a decorative accessory, it is primarely concepted as a functional tool, representing the victory of utility over the mere aesthetical component present in many other types of timepieces. And with with having always been intrinsically linked to the European history of the last centuries, they act as a silent testimony for the historical events that occurred on the European continent and beyond as well as the personal stories linked to those events, truely elevating those little companions on your wrist stepped in history to another level as every military field watch is characterized by their own personal past full of blood-soaked conflict and heartbreaking fates.

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The first documented mentioning of wristwatches in military use occured in 1880, when Kaiser Wilhelm I commissioned Girard-Perregaux to create watches for German naval officers. The brand responded by creating a specialised wristwatch, allowing naval officers to keep track of time while keeping their hands free for other duties. To protect the delicate glass from the rough and rocky sea, the company added a steel mesh grill, but unfortunately, this obstructed the sailor's view of the watch face. While some parts of the wristwatch were made of 14K gold to prevent rust, the use of chain straps made for a less comfortable wear. Although the concept was groundbreaking, the execution fell short of expectations, with military personnel criticising the inconvenient wearing experience and the design of the watch with its rather expensive materials simply put being to costly for widespread use among soldiers.

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It was not until the trench warfare of the first world war that the use of wristwatches among combatents began to arise. Initially, mainly officers received pocket watches in order to precisely coordinate attacks in an era where infantry assaults and artillery fire had to be coordinated with each other. In the heat of battle, looking for a pocket watch in your shirt pocket was a luxury that one could not afford, which lead to soldiers searching for a more practical solution. This lead to the attaching of leather straps to those pocket watches, allowing the convenient wear of ones timepiece on the wrist. This lead to the manufacturing of watches with already integrated straps from 1915 forward, with advertisments either emphasising the functionality or touting it as a status symbol. However, this was mostly done through private initiative, with designated military watches specifically ordered by the military itself to create a standardised product not entering the scene until the end of the war and beyond, with Hamilton producing their first wristwatch specifically designed for naval and army officers in 1919.

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Soldiers were especially in need for a specialised and durable product again during the second world war, with the American A-11 considered to be the most commonly found field watch as it was produced by four different companies, being Elgin, Bulova, Waltham, and Hamilton. The A-11 set the standard for the production of American military watches and is where the distinct style gained popularity, with its robustness, precision, dust and water resistance making it a perfect example of function over form. Air and ground forces synchronized their watches much like the artillerymen and trench forces of WW1, leading to some calling the A-11 the “watch that won the war,” though it has to be mentioned that nearly everything America fielded during that period has been credited with being crucial in winning, leading to the phrase losing a bit of its punch.

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The British opted for the W.W.W., an acronym for Wrist Watch Waterproof, which was produced by 12 companies and also known as the "Dirty Dozen." While less common than the American A-11, the W.W.W. shared similar characteristics and was designed to endure the rigors of the battlefield without compromising accuracy or reliability. One advantage the W.W.W. had over its American counterpart was the inclusion of luminous hands, but this feature proved to be a double-edged sword. As the hands were coated in Radium-226, a radioactive material, many people feared the potential health risks and destroyed their watches. Consequently, the W.W.W. is now considered a rare find among WW2 field watches.

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So, how does one distinguish a timepiece made specially made to be worn by soldiers on the battlefield? Roughly summarized, a military watch is manufactured with robustness and utility in mind and which, due to the special requirements of their time and circumstances, often had to live without the refinements and aesthetical concessions one would find in their luxurious civilian counterparts. Whereas in the first half of the 20th century civilian watches were often designed as accessories whose main function were to show of the status of the respective wearer, and where precious metals and complicated dials were common, military watches were all about simpliciy, frugality and above all, legibility. These watches were small by today's standards, ranging from 28mm to 34mm in diameter, though sizes gradually increased over time. Given the limited space, only essential features could be included in the small cases and dials. Additionally, manufacturers of military watches were often constrained by production orders from governments, which specified construction details in advance, limiting the brands' design freedom.

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Some of the most common features of this time, apart from the already mentioned case diameters, where the robust cases usually made from chromed nickel or stainless steel boasting bland black and often unsigned dials, although white, brown or even salmon dials can also be found. The relatively big crowns in comparison to the respective case immediately catches the spectators eye as the watch needed to be able to be wound even while wearing gloves, similarly to the dial needing upgrades to accomedate darker conditions by incorperating big arabic numerals and thick hands. This also lead to the use of a generous amount of radium or other luminous materials on numerals and hands to improve readability. As the timing had to be accurate to the second, a small second was integrated, which was latter oftentimes replaced by a central second in the latter half of the 20th century, with a so-called minute rail track on the outer side of the dial allowing for time measurement being as precise as possible.

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The inner workings of a military watch must be as simple as possible, with realtively straight-forward but robust handwound movements which are easily serviceable, mostly consisting of 15 or 17 jewels and reaching a frequency of 18'000A/h. Official military watches also have a governmental identification or issuing number on their case back to track the timepieces, also acting as a pssible identification for soldiers. Very often the springs were fixed and the watches were equiped with resiliant fabric straps, with nato straps gaining popularity from 1973 onwards. Those accessories support the watches primary goal of providing maximum resistance against the elements, first and foremost against water and dust, and to enable a long a life as possible.


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