Rose Antiques Fairs

Vertex watches history

This post was prompted by a brief discussion with viktoria about British issued 'trench watches' from WWI and the surprising lack of information about them that is currently available. I said I would post the information I have accumulated over time in case anyone else is interested in these historically-significant but little-known watches.

According to Ziggy Wesolowski’s Concise Guide to Military Timepieces (p 60), watches for the wrist were first issued officially to British armed forces towards the end of the First World War. Genuine examples of these watches (referred to variously as ‘trench watches’, ‘officer’s watches’ or ‘wristlets’) are rare, and reliable information about them scarce, so I thought it might be worth recording what I have found out about these precursors to the ATPs, WWWs and W10s, all of which are much better documented. As ever, if anyone has any information to add or correct then please get in touch or post a response. (I've based this information on a necessarily-small sample).

50 years of British Army watches: wristlet from WWI (snap back case); ATP from WWII; WWW from the 'Cold War' era

British military issued wristlets from WWI (snap back cases)

Ziggy Wesolowski’s Concise Guide to Military Timepieces (p 60) states that the British War Department started to procure wristlets for evaluation and issue from c. 1917 onwards and that two types of watch have been seen:
  • The more common type (seen on p 60 of the Concise Guide and also in Konrad Knirim’s British Military Timepieces book pp 498-500) employed a variety of 15 jewel movements and various designs of screw back (‘dust proof’) case. At least three distinct variants of this type can be discerned.

  • The less common type (seen only on p 60 of the Concise Guide) employed a snap back case design. No variants have been observed of this type, which therefore constitutes a coherent group that is easy to describe. The Concise Guide implies that watches of this design were discarded on to the civilian market prematurely because the snap back cases were adjudged to be unsuitable for conditions in the field. They should not be judged by the standards of contemporary civilian snap back ‘trench watches’, however. The issued watches are very solidly built and are larger in size than any ATP. Here's how the size compares with a Vertex WWW:

The following specifics relate mainly to watches with the snap back case design only.

The dial:

The dials on these watches employed a background of black enamel with large distinct numerals. The hands were in the cathedral style. The picture below shows a typical dial on a watch with the bezel removed:

The typical dial has luminous numerals and hands (presumably having been overpainted with radium). It is difficult to know at this remove whether this luminosity was required by the military specification or whether this was a later addition (or even if it was something that was added only when the watches reached the civilian market).

One example has been seen with non-luminous numbers and hands:

This variant may in fact conform to the true first spec for these watches. Collectors of Mark V aviation pocket watches will recognise this combination of black enamel and 'silvered' paint that was used for the first issue of those watches (dated to c. 1917, interestingly enough). The later Mark V watches (introduced probably from c. 1918 onwards) used dials that employed bold white numerals against a black background. It is interesting to note that issued wristlets with screw back cases also invariably used dials with bold white numerals against a black background. Perhaps, just as the first-issue Mark V aviation watches with their reflective dials were superseded by watches with non-reflective white numerals on their dials, the Army wristlets with snap back cases were an early, completely separate, issue that preceded the screw back case design (issued in conformity with a later modified spec)?

The movement:

The movements seen in issued watches of the snap back case type are unique to this issue and are of the same unmarked (and unidentified) gilded design. No variants have been observed to date.

The case:

The case is of a standard 3-piece design with hinged case back and no inner cuvette. The width (minus crown) is c. 38 mm and the height (minus crystal) is c. 11 mm. The lugs accommodate a 12 mm wide strap.

This picture shows the winder and stem pulled out to display the case stem. The stem is short but not flush and the 'onion' type winder may be original.
(Winders with thin profile crowns are commonly seen on these watches now - see the picture above. None of the watches observed to date has had a long case stem, although it is possible that all surviving examples have been reduced in length to accommodate replacement winding stems).
The case back markings:

These timepieces carry 6-long alphanumeric sequences to the case back which recall those seen on British Army-issue pocket watches of the era (especially those supplied by H. Williamson and Elgin). These sequences are commonly referred to as ‘contract numbers’, suggesting a link with the original manufacturers and/or suppliers. On the snap back case type, the alphabetic component is limited strictly to ‘M’. This character is very deeply stamped. The issue numbers are also stamped (but not so deeply) and are often imperfectly aligned, both in relation to each other and in relation to the ‘M’. (Issue numbers seen on the screw back case type, on the other hand, are invariably neatly engraved).

The issue numbers are limited in all observed examples of the snap back case type to the range 94xxx to 95xxx. The serial numbers seen stamped on the inner case back appear to form a sequence which may parallel roughly the sequence of applied issue numbers.

• 94405M [case#: 3050xx]
• 94455M [case#: n/k]
• 94686M [case#: n/k]
• [95xxx]M [case#: 33]
• 95767M [case#: n/k]
• 95770M [case#: 13]

Note: most of these details have been taken from the web rather than observed personally by me so apologies if you own one of them.

The broad arrow (‘cancellation’) mark:

Ziggy Wesolowski’s book refers to the broad arrow marking on these watches as being a 'cancellation mark' (ie applied when they were decommissioned and sold off). All the examples seen to date are consistent with this idea as the mark is invariably stamped in a very crude approximation of the customary broad arrow (eg by using 3 straight strikes). It may therefore represent a ‘decommissioning’ or ‘cancellation’ mark rather than an ordnance mark. If this is so, these watches would have been issued originally with no other War Department markings apart from the contract number. Indeed, one of the screw back case types is usually seen just with a contract number and without any broad arrow mark at all. This exception apart, the broad arrow mark appears on all other issued wristlets and it is always stamped in this way and not engraved (even where the issue numbers themselves have been engraved).

Interestingly, some H. Williamson pocket watches with early issue numbers share the characteristic of having a crude broad arrow stamped over the engraved contract number, suggesting a separate operation. Here's what I mean:
(Later serials of the H. Williamson pocket watch carry a very distinctive large broad arrow design engraved to the case back).

The ‘double arrow’ ‘cancellation’ mark – two arrows pointing to each other - is seen on about half of the '1917 issue' wristlets. All examples of the snap back cased watches seen to date in the 94xxx range exclusively have this additional double arrow cancellation mark applied below the serial number, whereas those in the 95xxx range do not. I don't know if this is significant or just a coincidence.

Other marked wristlets with snap-back cases

Most timepieces described as ‘trench watches’ or ‘officer’s watches’ are of course not marked with issue numbers because they were purchased privately. (British officers had long been expected to provide themselves with much of their own equipment, even in times of war, and a timepiece was just the latest addition to the list of requirements). Other watches of approximately the WWI period, however, also appear with apparently genuine issue numbers and broad arrow marks. Some appear to have been commercially-available 3-piece snap back cased wristlets (sometimes referred to as ‘conscripted’ watches) but, unlike the ‘1917 issue’, it would seem to be impossible to establish the exact provenance and authenticity of these. (Konrad Knirim's book at p 502 shows a white-dialled watch with an Elgin grade 298 7 jewels movement whose case is marked S 78004, which looks plausible).

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