Counting the hours in the Great War

How long does an hour last?  About sixty minutes last time you looked?  Imagine how long an hour must have lasted if you were stuck in the cold, wet, squalid trenches of the First World War for months on end, with death all around and your own only minutes away for all you knew.  Some of those hours – many hundreds of those hours – must have seemed interminable.  How many times an hour looking at your watch?  Longing for home, where the hours really were still just 60 minutes long.

The wristwatch of choice for private soldiers fighting in the First World War was the Ingersoll Midget.  Developed in the U.S.A. for the cheapest possible mass production and for sale by mail order, millions of Ingersoll watches were sold during the last decades of the 19th century.  Those watches were of course, pocket watches.  Watches made to be worn on the wrist came on the market only at the turn of the 20th century and at first were expensive fripperies aimed exclusively at female buyers.  It was the practical needs of soldiers on active service that created the demand for wristwatches for men. Ingersoll was quick to join the market. Their wristwatches were simply rudimentary adaptations of their fob watches (the smallest kind of pocket watch) but they sold to soldiers on both sides of the Atlantic in their hundreds of thousands.

The movement in the Ingersoll Midget was the most basic possible yet remarkably, large numbers seem to have survived in working order.  They did have the virtue of rugged cases and I guess many were kept as mementos by returning soldiers.  It is hard to believe however, that they were ever reliable timekeepers, especially in the conditions of trench warfare.

The example on the left was in a very poor state when I found it but I liked the fact that the original owner had written his initials on the dial.  When I got the watch home and took off the back, I discovered a photograph of the soldier’s sweetheart still tucked away in the case after a hundred years.  It was extremely moving to see her there; a privilege indeed.  She was photographed in church, as you can see by the hymn board in the background.  How many times must the owner of the watch have gazed at her image, wondering if they would ever see each other again?  We will never know if they did – but I guess the odds are that if his watch survived, then very likely so did he. 


The outer case on this watch (just visible in the photo in the paragraph above) is interesting too.  Ingersoll Midgets are often found with these kind of protective after-market additions designed to prevent the watch glass breaking.  From a logical perspective, it seems extraordinary  to worry about the glass on your watch when there was constant risk to your physical person.  If you recover consciousness in a shell crater to find your left arm buried in the mud some distance away from the rest of you,  it must be scant consolation surely, to dig it out and observe that at least the glass on your watch is still intact.

The explanation lies I think, in the preciousness of time.  Who would want to risk losing the ability to follow time, when time is a measure of living, and life is at its most fragile.

On a related point, I’ve noticed that it is often a feature of these watches that the original printed numbers on the dial have had more decorative numbers stuck over the top of them (see the photo at the top of this blog).  I guess that kits were available to do this.  There’s something very touching and rather childlike about soldiers taking the time to accomplish this fiddly little task.  It’s a tiny claim of individuality staked,  in circumstances where individuality counted for virtually nothing.

The Ingersoll Midget on the left is engraved on the back of the case, Christmas 1914, 12th Lancers, From Lady Wernher.  It is individually numbered “105”, so presumably one was given to every soldier in the regiment.  The  12th Lancers, in which Lord and Wernher’s son, Harold, was an officer, spent Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.  Interestingly, Lady Wernher (1862 – 1945) was of German stock, as was her husband, the baronet, Sir Julius Charles Wernher.  The couple’s country seat was at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire.  Their eldest son Alexander was killed later in the conflict.

The photo below shows two more World War I Ingersoll Midgets.  The front one has a protective grill.  The one at the back is one of the earliest models adapted to be worn on the wrist – it is simply a bog standard fob watch housed in a leather pouch on a wrist strap.  The dial is made visible by an aperture in the leather.


2 thoughts on “Counting the hours in the Great War

  1. Thanks Andrew, that’s interesting to know. I wonder how many were issued and how many survive? Perhaps if anyone else has one they could leave a message with the issue number, so we can compile a bit of a list. There must be a record in the archives somewhere of how many there were. If I can find out I’ll add the information to the blog. David

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s