First Watch: How Military Field Watches Created the Modern Timepiece

Hamilton field watch on an arm
Image credit: Oscar Nord on Unsplash

Militaria rightly enjoys a great deal of attention among menswear enthusiasts (as it does on this site). The history, functionality, durability, and unassuming aesthetics of these garments make their enduring civilian appeal a fairly unmysterious business. Occasionally, however, an item with military origins will go on to shape an entire paradigm of dressing. It will transition from martial to civilian, from niche to ubiquitous, and in the process come to define an entire facet of our wardrobes. In this respect, consider the case of the suit or the necktie. Or, if you have more of a horological bent, think of the field watch.

I bring up field watches here not only for coming to define a category of watch (as compared to, say, a diver or dress watch) but rather for defining watches, full stop. The watch as we think of it today — which is to say, a timepiece that you wear on your arm — simply was not a thing, at least not in any robust sense, until the advent of the field watch. If soldiers on the front lines hadn’t migrated their timers from their waistcoats to their wrists, we might all still be carrying our watches in our pockets (those encoded in the software of our smartphones notwithstanding).

This is not to say that military watches were the first wristwatches, however. Those had already been around for several hundred years, albeit in a very different form. Dating back as early as the sixteenth century, lavish timepieces resembling contemporary wristwatches were sometimes presented as royal gifts. The first example was likely a ‘clocke’ mounted on an armlet that was given to Queen Elizabeth I by Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester as a New Year’s gift in 1571. Probably the earliest surviving specimen dates from 1806 and was made as a wedding gift for the Empress Josephine by Nitot of Paris. Its dial was mounted in an oval case which attached to an eighteen-carat gold bracelet set with pearls and emeralds (It also had a twin timepiece with a matching bracelet and a face whose ‘hour’ hand pointed to the month, while the ‘minute’ hand indicated the date).

These proto wristwatches were typically treated as decoration or novelty items and, moreover, were the sole purview of female wearers. Men, by contrast, were largely contented with their fobs and pocket watches even after the turn of the twentieth century. Although wristwatches had become commercially available by the late 1800s, as Eric Bruton puts it in The History of Clocks and Watches, ‘the general public was not at all enthusiastic.’ He goes on to say, ‘It was not until artillery officers in the First World War found them much more practical than pocket watches that interest grew.’

Credit for creating the first bona fide wristwatch likely goes to Constant Girard, who started Girard-Perregaux in 1856 alongside his wife, Marie Perregaux. In 1880, Kaiser Wilhelm I approached the Swiss company to create watches for German naval officers. Girard-Perregaux obliged by making a watch that was about 2.5cm (1 inch) in diameter, which included fourteen-carat gold parts to prevent it from rusting and a steel mesh grill across the watch face to protect its fragile glass. The grill tended to obstruct a sailor’s view and the chain strap (rather than the leather or fabric of later years) couldn’t have been very comfortable, but the watch did allow its wearer the novel experience of checking the time while keeping their hands entirely free to do other work.

While at first this novel kind of watch wasn’t exactly a hit in the military or among the general public, it would become indispensable for the next generation of military men. At the start of WWI, pocket watches — then still seen as the conventional, manly option — were standard issue. But, as with so many things during the Great War (uniforms included), traditional watches would prove ill-suited to the conditions of modern warfare. In the muddy and chaotic peril of the trenches, where at any minute you might be bombarded by a gas attack or a spray of enemy fire, the last thing anyone needed was to go about fumbling in search of their pocket watch. Moreover, once enlisted men started buying wristwatches while they were on leave or prior to deployment, these new watches facilitated much more effective combat strategies. They allowed troops to synchronise manoeuvres down to the second and avoid the danger of friendly fire simply by getting out of the way of an attack in time.

Within a year or two of the war starting, so-called trench-, campaign-, or service watches were already being advertised for their functionality and reliability. Moreover, in a canny about-face turn that saw wristwatches go from being considered feminine to representing the height of manly prestige, they were also being peddled as status symbols. Early twentieth-century warfare, therefore, not only changed the nature of watches and vice versa, it also set the tone of how wristwatches would be marketed for generations to come. 

Vintage soldier wearing a watch
Image credit: simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0

For all of their utility during WWI, trench watches never became standard issue equipment. By the start of WWII, however, that had changed for both Allied and Axis powers. In the case of the British, there was the ‘Wrist.Watch.Waterproof’ or, simply, the W.W.W. With British watchmakers tied up building naval and aviation instruments, the British Ministry of Defense turned to their Swiss counterparts to fulfil their pressing need to outfit the nation’s armies with wristwatches. These timepieces needed to have luminous hands, chronometer grade movements, and waterproof cases. Twelve companies heeded the call to make these British field watches, including (in alphabetical order) Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. To present-day collectors, these watches have become known as the Dirty Dozen and a complete set is highly prised and extremely rare to come by. 

On the other side of the pond, the US watchmaker Hamilton had already begun making timepieces for the country’s army and naval officers in 1919. A few decades later, they were also making the American answer to the WWII field watch, along with three other companies, namely Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham. It became known as the A-11 and consisted of a nickel or silver case, a black dial with easy-to-read white indices, and a one- or two-piece olive drab strap. Known as ‘the watch that won the war’ and prised for its flawless precision and battle-tested durability, the A-11 is the best-known field watch to come out of the Second World War. By the time the Vietnam War came around, this same model got a few tweaks here and there (including a disposable plastic casing), but there wasn’t all that much room for improvement, making the A-11 a very popular choice of field watch to this day both in its original and modern incarnations.

I have a version of one myself, although I feel it necessary at this point as a quick aside to utter an inevitable disclaimer: I am not a watch guy. I’ve heard this exact phrase repeated by neophytes like myself countless times over the years, and, whenever you do encounter a serious watch collector, you understand why. I like watches plenty and I have spent probably more than my fair share of hours pouring over the Hodinkee annals, but I can’t tell you much of anything about specific movements, complications, or reference numbers without opening a browser window or a book by John Goldberger. I’m no true fanatic, in other words.

Field watch with olive NATO strap on an arm
My own field watch in action
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Which is why my own field watch is a decidedly unprestigious quartz version of a Vietnam-era A-11. And while I also like fancy watches, the thing I enjoy most about my field watch is how utterly without airs it is. It’s plastic, it’s battery-powered, and I got it a few years ago for a song. Whenever I put it on I get a kick out of how unencumbered it is by value, how fun and freeing it is to wear without any care whatsoever about damaging or losing it. As a timepiece, it’s simple, comfortable, honest, and dependable, which is no doubt why field watches in general continue to be so popular even more than a century after they first took off.

And thank goodness they did too, otherwise, we might all still be rifling through our pockets constantly just to tell the time. Or, worse yet, be faced with a prospect as unholy as a smartwatch suspended on a fob…

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