First World War

Trench Watches

In 1914, soldiers marching off to war were issued with a kitbag holding essential clothing and equipment such as wire cutters, waterproof map holders, field glasses and a fob watch, amongst many other things.

A watch was an indispensible part of military kit because, before modern radio systems came into play during war, operations across vast battlefields were synchronised by time. “The attack will begin at 0600 hours”. Fob watches issued by the Army proved to be impractical in the trenches; to see the face, a soldier would have to put down his gun and use both hands to retrieve it, leaving him unarmed. Fob watches were not waterproof and had glass faces that shattered easily, sometimes causing injury. They could not be seen in the dark, and soldiers would have to strike a match to see the time, dangerous because of the ever present risk of a sniper’s bullet. (This gave rise to the habit among cigarette smoking infantry of never lighting three cigarettes from one match because it gave time for a sniper to focus on the light and pick off the third man.)

3. Advert

This 1916 advertisement is from Thresher and Glenny, British gentlemen’s outfitters specialising in officers’ uniforms and military accessories. It shows an officer of the 1914-1918 period, showing off a wristwatch.

 

For these reasons, soldiers often purchased their own wrist watches which provided the much needed resilience, legibility, luminosity and accuracy, and came to be known as trench watches.

By 1914 wrist watches specifically made for soldiers had a sub-dial for greater accuracy, a plastic lens and large luminous numbers. The paint used on the dials and numerals of the luminous watches was powered by radium salts so that it glowed strongly all the time and didn’t rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge it up. Watch manufacturers also began producing shrapnel guards, metal grills partially covering the watch face and providing further protection.

2. Shrapnel guards

Shrapnel guards used to protect trench watches. Information/Image from VintageWatchstraps.com ©David Boettcher

The Whanganui Regional Museum has two trench watches in its collection. One was made by Rolex from sterling silver, the hallmarks inside the case dating it to 1915. The strap is a silver expandable triple rail band, which, although impervious to water and wear, was considered effeminate and proved unpopular with soldiers.

1. Trench watches

W M Millar’s trench watch (ref: TH.3044) and a Rolex trench watch (ref: 1978.71.11)

The other is stamped inside the case with three bears, the hallmark for Swiss silver from 1893-1934, but it has no maker’s mark. The back of the case has been inscribed with the following ‘’W. M. MILLAR / FROM HIS MOTHER / SISTERS AND BROTHE R / 6.10.16 / MIZPAH”. Mizpah is Hebrew for “Lord Watch over me” and biblically, it marks an agreement between two people, with God as their witness. The Museum has no record of the donor of this watch. We do not know if W M Millar survived the Great War and returned to his loving family, or if the watch was returned to them among his personal effects after the conflict was over. This man might have been Sergeant William Merrilees Millar of the Wellington Infantry Battalion B Company, whose next of kin, his mother, was Mrs Agnes Millar of 3 William Street, Hataitai, Wellington. This information was gleaned from Cenotaph, the Auckland War Memorial Museum on-line compilation of records of New Zealanders who served in wars. Our W M Millar, however, may also have been any one of a number of William Millars who served in the New Zealand Army during World War I.

 

Kathy Greensides is a collection assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Billy Connell’s War begins

 

Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Last Friday saw the opening of our exhibition for the centenary of the first world war, Billy Connell’s War – Whanganui in World War I.  There was a great turn-out with 100 people in attendance and the show was well received.  A welcome by the Director Eric Dorfman was followed by a speech and formal opening by Mayor Annette Main before the crowd moved into the exhibition space for the karakia by our local kaumātua and a preview of the show.

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Guests were then given a brown paper bag afternoon tea (cheese or corned beef sandwiches, fruit cake and an Anzac biscuit) and Kirtsy Ross, Curator of 20th Century History at Te Papa, regaled the audience with a talk on her research into New Zealand’s first world war experience and the intricacies (and humours!) of passing on such a legacy.

 

 

Guests view some of Billy's photographa

Guests view some of Billy’s photographa

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests collect their afternoon tea

Guests collect their afternoon tea

 

 

The exhibition tells the story of Billy Connell, a local man who enlisted and served in the first world war.  Billy Connell was born in Palmerston North in 1993, the son of William and Naomi Connell. William was a carpenter in Palmerston North and later in Marton. By 1911 Naomi Connell had separated from her husband and was living in Durie Terrace in Wanganui, later moving to May Street.  On 5 August 1914 New Zealand declared war on Germany in support of Great Britain Billy Connell enlisted and went off to war with the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He had a camera in his kitbag and took photographs while on service, often illegally. Servicemen were not permitted to take photographs or write about campaigns or battles in case information fell into the hands of the enemy. His images tell the story of an ordinary serviceman during extraordinary times. The photographs were arranged into seven albums. Billy’s sister Mrs Amelia McCullum donated them to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1966.

BCW box logo

Billy Connell’s War is open until September 2016 so come in and follow Billy’s journey through the war.  The Museum is free entry.