Timekeeping in the Trenches: The History and Impact of Military Watches

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The History and Impact of Military Watches

Military watches have become a critical tool for those in active duty. They allow military personnel to work with accuracy, precision, and timeliness, and have been a valuable asset through countless high-stakes operations. However, they’re a relatively newer tool of the trade. Military watches have come a long way since their humble origins in the early twentieth century, and continue to evolve, equipping the members of the armed forces to serve with the highest level of excellence.

The History of Military Watches

Before there was the wristwatch, there was the pocket watch. As one of the earliest forms of personal timekeeping devices, pocket watches were a game-changer in so many ways. They were the perfect accessory for life in the office, on the farm, or while operating a steam engine.

However, when military personnel tried to make use of them in the trenches, they quickly found that taking the time to pull a chained watch from their pocket, snap it open, and return it was no easy feat when juggling an array of other tools. Uniforms often included several layers of clothing, along with gloves that would make such an intricate task cumbersome. Not only that, but the steps required to operate a pocket watch took up valuable time in situations where every second was critical.

In 1879, soldiers in the German army began fastening pocket watches to their wrists, until the trend caught on and pocket watches with wrist bands were created. Then the First World War hit. It was clear that pocket watches weren’t going to cut it. So, in 1914, the British military began outfitting generals with wrist watches. By 1918, the trend began to spread throughout the rest of the ranks.

Fast-forward to the Second World War, and we see military watches continue to improve. They became water-resistant, featured luminous hands, numerals, and dials, and were made with anti-magnetic technology. Soldiers could finally get a quick read of the time in the trenches, in the dark, and in a variety of weather conditions and environments.

One of the most commonly issued watches in the United States Military during World War II was the A-11. Models of this variety were typically produced by Elgin, Waltham, or Bulova. This innovative timepiece was so effective that it became affectionately known as the “watch that won the war.” The A-11 set rigorous standards for military watches that are still used to this day, such as its heightened resistance to water, dust, and extreme temperatures. It also set the standard for increased accuracy and longer-lasting power reserves.

Following WWII, the watchmaking industry saw a flurry of advances in timekeeping technology. The automatic watch was becoming more prevalent and eliminated the need for manual winding, which greatly improved accuracy. Materials like stainless steel also became more common, which increased durability.

By the time the Cold War rolled around, military watches were issued to every service member and boasted more technologically advanced features than their predecessors. It was also during this time that divers’ watches, such as the infamous Rolex Submariner, were first introduced.

The digital revolution in the 1970s is where things really took a turn. Watches like those in the Casio G-Shock series were equipped with digital interfaces that allowed a variety of functions, features, added durability, and greater affordability. Designed to withstand some of the harshest conditions and boasting timers, chronographs, and multiple time zones, they were the logical next step for military watches.

Not only did these improvements impact the scope of military operations, they also ushered in the technology needed to make wrist watches of all varieties the trusty tools they are today.

Modern-Day Military Watches

Since their rudimentary beginnings in the trenches of Europe, military watches have continued to see impressive and innovative advancements. While soldiers in the First World War were happy just to have a timepiece, they didn’t need to fenagle from their pockets, military members today are equipped with some of the most advanced horological technology available.

Military watches have continued to evolve with the introduction of quartz oscillation, atomic synchronization, and more recently, with the development of smartwatches. Service members now have a wide variety of time-telling tools to choose from, but no soldier’s uniform is complete without a military watch.

One question we often receive is, “what defines a military watch?” Are they automatic? Digital? Sports watches? Well, yes and no. Military watches aren’t specific to a given form or function. Rather, the term describes any timepiece worn by military members that aids in a service member’s duties from the desk to the front lines.

Although military watches arose out of an unfortunate necessity, they have shaped the history and future of all kinds of watches, just as their wearers have shaped the history and future of our great nation.

If you or a loved one have served or are currently serving in the armed forces, the folks here at Rockwell Time want to say “thank you” in the best way we know how: with a watch that you can count on. Our military watches feature the emblems of each military branch and are built to last. So, don’t forget to check out our “Hero Mission” and use the code THANKAHERO for a gift to show our immense gratitude.

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