Though not nearly as accurate as the timepiece on your hand today, watches were still used in the military before the First World War. Back then, timepieces took the form of pocket watches, which were highly inconvenient for soldiers who often had both hands busy with equipment.
A soldier strapped his pocket watch to his wrist with the use of a webbed leather cap, making it the first “wristwatch” ever used in the military. The first large-scale use of wristwatches was employed by the German army; in 1879, Girard-Perregaux supplied them with pocket watches that could also be strapped to the wrist.
The trench warfare of World War I made it impractical for soldiers to keep track of time using pocket watches, and wristwatches became a necessity. The British military issued wristwatches to soldiers in 1914 as they entered the First World War.
Military wristwatches evolved to be more legible. Watchmakers started to develop tougher cases and straps, and soon, luminous hands, water-resistance, and more precise movements.
The first creator of luminous watches was Panerai, the inventor of the luminous material used in their Radiomir watches. Interestingly enough, the early Radiomir watches were actually radioactive! They are not so today, so feel free to check our range of stylish Radiomir watches that have an interesting history linked to the Italian Royal Navy.
During World War II, wristwatches became common in the military and evolved to include features such as luminous dials and hands, anti-magnetic properties, and water resistance. These features made watches easier to read in low light conditions, resistant to magnetic fields that could affect their accuracy, and capable of functioning in wet and humid environments.
One of our favorite stories from WW2 is how Willy Breitling used to personally smuggle his popular aviation watch equipment to the Allies in an Axis-occupied area of Switzerland – we have covered the full story here.
Breitling had always been a key player in aviation timekeeping equipment since before WW2. IWC Schaffhausen supplied the Mark IX to the British Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force towards the end of the Second World War. Omega, however, was the largest supplier of watches to the British Armed Forces, delivering 110,000 units.
After World War II, military watches continued to evolve, becoming more sophisticated and specialized. Military personnel required watches that could handle specific tasks such as diving, aviation, and space exploration (the most famous being Omega’s Moonwatch).
As aficionados of luxury watches, we love unraveling the different tales of horology and how watchmaking has grown. The evolution of timepieces owes much to the rugged and functional military watches that have been a constant source of inspiration for watchmakers for centuries. The need for precision, reliability, and durability in military operations has driven watchmakers to innovate and develop timepieces that can withstand extreme conditions and deliver accurate timekeeping in the most challenging environments.