Artillery, Infantry and Bayonets: A wristwatch’s role in World War One
An officer from the 29th Division stands in a frontline trench, focused on the sweeping hand of his watch. He is poised to signal the start of his unit’s infantry attack at the precise moment his watch reads Zero Hour.
The infantrymen on the fire step have already begun to surge “over the top” of the lip of the trench, keen to move in concert with the friendly artillery schedule as a barrage of shells begins to rain down to earth. Their objective is the enemy trench on the other side of a “No Man’s Land” of shell holes and barbed wire obstacles. The opposing German soldiers are hunkered down in their own protective dugouts and waiting for the bombardment to cease, so they can re-occupy their firing steps and sweep the ground with billets from the latest implement of war, the machine gun.
His watch was previously synchronized to a common time briefed at an orders group, where the lieutenant’s officer commanding issued tasks and timings to him and his fellow platoon commanders before they ambled off to relay instructions to their subordinates. This same sort of synchronization has played out repeatedly over the past century of warfare where infantry and armored attacks were coordinated with artillery and machine gun supporting fire.
The pattern of mobile warfare seen during the early phase of the war was quickly replaced by a static war of attrition measured in yards, as the devastating effects of modern artillery and machine gun fire caused the fighting to bog down and created a defensive mindset. Wide swaths of terrain became laced with elaborate trench systems, adorned with bunkers and strongpoints that served as protection for the soldiers living in them. You and your mates spent the majority of your time suffering in the rat and lice-infested muck of your trenches, dodging sniper fire and the occasional enemy bombardment or night raid, while your opponents endured the same miserable existence in their trenches.
So if the war had stalled to a mostly defensive affair with little movement, why was a wristwatch such a key piece of personal equipment and preferred over the pocket watch? We know that wristwatches came into use as a soldier’s—more specifically an officer’s—primary method of telling time because one could do so more effectively while also carrying a rifle or pistol, but a small part of the answer also lies in a change in tactics and the advent of the “creeping” barrage.
On the occasion when an offensive was planned, hundreds of artillery pieces were often assembled to fire long-duration bombardments of high-explosive (HE) and shrapnel shells at the enemy. The HE shattered surface-level fortifications if a direct hit could be scored and shrapnel rained jagged shards of metal and steel balls down on men caught in the open. Following this long period of artillery fire (often several hours or even days), the infantry were sent in to seize enemy fortifications and trenches. In the early phases of the war this typically resulted in a high number of casualties because the enemy simply hid in his dugouts and waited until the shelling lifted.
By the time the infantry reached their objectives, the enemy was usually waiting for them to slog within range of carefully positioned machine guns, mortars, and riflemen. Many attackers struggled to negotiate the barbed wire obstacles in the contested space of “No Man’s Land” and never even saw their opponents.
The failure of these prolonged bombardments prompted a shift in artillery tactics, resulting in highly technical artillery schedules of fire designed to strike specific targets as the infantry moved forward. The word barrage is borrowed from the French term for a dam, and a common objective of a barrage was to isolate trenches from possible reinforcement by enemy troops positioned further back from the frontline. If attacking commanders could suppress the enemy with initial volleys of HE and shrapnel, then move forces forward while blocking reinforcements, their troops might make it to the trenches and finish the fight with bayonets and hand grenades.
This proved very difficult to accomplish because friendly troops were frequently left exposed to enemy fire when the artillery ceased or shifted to a new target. By 1916 the Commonwealth forces began to implement a barrage that creeped forward at a preplanned rate once the infantry left their trenches and surged forward. As an example, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge the troops were expected to remain as close as 50-100 yards from the line of bursting shells while it shifted forward at a rate of 100 yards every three minutes.
They did not need a wristwatch to tell them that the shells were falling dangerously close, but they did need to know when the barrage was expected to commence and when they were required to be out of their trenches and moving forward on schedule. If they could start the attack at the requisite time and maintain a steady pace as they trudged across the pockmarked ground, they stood a slim chance of closing with an enemy who was still shocked from an onslaught of explosives as it crept over the trenchlines.
The equally grim task of close combat would ensue and attacking troops shot, stabbed and grenaded their way into a breach point before fanning out along the trench to deal with any remaining resistance. If they were lucky, artillery bombardments broke up counterattacks from enemy reinforcements and allowed them time to consolidate into a prepared defense. There were even moments when the enemy simply surrendered and chose to live another day.
Despite the death and destruction of the war, troops eventually demobilized and returned to their previous occupations in the United Kingdom and United States. They returned home with a newfound appreciation for a wristwatch’s utility and it became the fashion and functional accessory we wear today.
Author’s note: David Boettcher has written the most comprehensive treatise on the British Army’s use of wristwatches during The Great War and if the reader is looking for a more detailed discussion on the brands of watches used in that era, they should go to his website vintagewatchstraps.com.