How the Trench Watch became Entrenched!

My Grandfather, Harold Pinchbeck, was one of the very many who saw action in the trenches in France: he was part of the first wave to enlist, leaving his watchmaking work in Hull in 1914, and returning to it after the war. His service records were, it seems, destroyed in World War Two bombing, but we do know from his own papers that he was a Bombardier in the Royal Field Artillery, and that he fought in many battles including Neuve Chapelle, Loos, Ypres Salient and the Somme.

Harold Pinchbeck 1914

Harold Pinchbeck 1914

Perhaps he was one of the first soldiers to be issued, in 1917, with a wristwatch by the War Department, or maybe he already owned one. Certainly, returning after the war to his civilian trade, he would have noticed a big difference in the world of watches. Although wearable watches had been around since the early 16th Century they were worn almost exclusively by women until the late 1800s: men wore pocket watches and considered wristwatches unmanly - although early versions were developed for military use, on a limited scale, in the late 19th Century. And in 1910 the London firm of Wilsdorf and Davis (which later became Rolex) was awarded the first official chronometer certification for a wristwatch.

The Great War massively changed the perception of wristwatches as purely ladies' accessories. Pocket watches just weren't practical in the trenches, in aerial combat or in naval warfare: the need to tell the time at a glance was vital in synchronising attacks. Wristwatches became smaller and were not just pocket watches on leather straps: wire lugs (called horns) were attached to secure the straps. Needless to say, accuracy was essential, and features such as luminous dials and unbreakable glass also made them more practical.

After the war, returning troops (perhaps including Harold) kept their 'trench watches' as souvenirs. Now that wristwatches were being worn by war heroes they soon became acceptable, even obligatory, timepieces for men, and by 1930 they were already outselling pocket watches by fifty to one! We are sometimes asked if we make pocket watches: perhaps we will one day, and it will be interesting to reflect on this slice of history.