Wristwatches have a storied history as James Ross explains
Wristlets, as they were called, were reserved for women and considered more of a passing fad than a serious timepiece. In fact, they were held in such disdain that many a gentlemen were actually quoted to say they “would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch”.
This all started to change in the nineteenth century, when soldiers discovered their usefulness during wartime situations. Pocket watches were clumsy to carry and thus difficult to operate while in combat.
Therefore, soldiers fitted them into primitive “cupped” leather straps so they could be worn on the wrist, thereby freeing up their hands during battle. It is believed that Girard-Perregaux equipped the German Imperial Naval with similar pieces as early as the 1880s, which they wore on their wrists while synchronizing naval attacks, and firing artillery.
Decades later, several technological advents were credited with the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War (South Africa 1899-1902), including smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle and even the automatic or machine gun. However, some would argue that it was a not-so-lethal device that helped turn the tide into Britain’s favour: the wristwatch.
While the British troops were superiorly trained and equipped, they were slightly outnumbered, and at a disadvantage while attacking the Boer’s heavily entrenched positions. Thanks to these recently designed weapons, a new age of war had emerged, which, now more than ever, required tactical precision. British officers achieved success by using these makeshift wristwatches to coordinate simultaneous troop movements, and synchronize flanking attacks against the Boer’s formations.
In fact, an “Unsolicited Testimonial” dated June 7, 1900, appeared in the 1901, Goldsmith’s Company Watch and Clock Catalogue as follows:
“… I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3 ½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me.—Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.”
This testimonial appeared below an advertisement for a military pocket watch listed as The Company’s “Service” Watch, and was further described as: “The most reliable timekeeper in the World for Gentlemen going on Active Service or for rough wear.”
Even with their success in combat, the popularity of the wristwatch was still limited to ladies’ models. They didn’t reach the mainstream market until some two decades later, when soldiers from around the world converged on Europe to help defeat the German Empire in WWI (1914-1919). Due to the strategic lessons learned in the Boer War, the demand for reliable, accurate wristwatches was now at its peak.
While German troops at this time were largely issued the more primitive “pocket watch” designs, Allied troops had a wide range of new models to choose from. Many examples featured small silver pocket watch cases fitted with leather straps and displayed radium-illuminated porcelain dials protected by the aforementioned shrapnel guards.
Wristwatches were no longer considered a novelty but were now a wartime necessity, and companies were scrambling to keep up with the demand. One company that enjoyed success during this time was Wilsdorf & Davis, Ltd., founded in 1905, and later renamed The Rolex Watch Company, Ltd., in 1915.
After the Great War, many soldiers returned home with souvenir trench watches—so named for the trench warfare in which they were used. When these war heroes were seen wearing them, the public’s perception quickly changed, and wristwatches were no longer deemed as feminine. After all, no one would dare consider these brave men as being anything but.
At Newhaven fort they have in their collection a wristwatch from the Great War belonging to a chap called Henry King, after his death his wristwatch was returned to his family. The time had stopped at the moment of his death and inside the casing was soil from the explosion that had killed him!