The History of the Trench Watch

January 07, 2019

In the mud and chaos of the trenches of the First World War the wrist-watch was born. The War was won by the Allies when they learnt to synchronise tank, infantry and artillery assaults and to do that you need reliable, accurate timepieces. The pocket watch, the traditional men’s watch of the day, was useless as a timepiece for the infantry. It was cumbersome, broke easily and impossible to use at night. The first wrist-watches were private commissions ordered by wealthy officers serving at the front. They were designed to be practical instruments of war, but they were also meant to be objects of beauty that wouldn’t look out of place in the fashionable bars and clubs of Paris.

By 1915 wrist watches were being manufactured by every luxury jeweller in London, Paris and Geneva. Although they were marketed at military officers and called ‘trench watches’ they became increasingly popular with well to do civilians. A trench watch from Harrods, the famous London department store, would set you back £4, around 14 weeks pay for an ordinary British infantry man. By 1916 wrist watches were common amongst the officers, but few infantry men could dream of affording one. The Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916 changed that.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette was part of the larger Battle of the Somme which had began on July 1st 1916 with a disastrous British offensive which left 58000 British soldiers killed or wounded. Two new innovations were unveiled at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which required precision time keeping in order to be effective. The first was the creeping artillery barrage, which was a moving barrage that was fired 100 yards in front of advancing infantrymen. The second was the introduction of the tank. Although only one tank was operational during the Battle, the military commanders rapidly realised its how efficacious it was if the complimented the infantry assault.

The creeping barrage and the introduction of the tank required all soldiers to have an accurate, military timepiece. By 1918 the British Army was issuing watches to those that most needed it, like signalmen and engineers. After the War ended the wristwatch remained popular and by the 1920s few men wore pocket watches anymore.