soldier

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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Letters from the Front

With centenary commemorations of the First World War underway and continuing for the next five years, more and more stories are emerging; stories of love, stories of loss, and they all help us to remember the effect of the war on everyone at the front and at home.  The Museum was lucky to have recently been donated a collection of archives and images from the Wilson and MacKinnon families in Whanganui that tell yet another wartime story.

2014.61.2 a Arthur Wilson served as a Private in the 24th Reinforcements F Company of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He was trained at Featherston Military Camp before relocating to Trentham and finally embarking for England on 16th April 1917.  Like many soldiers he wrote regular letters home, including to his sister Mag (Margaret) Wilson who lived at Alton Villa on St John’s Hill in Wanganui, and several of these letters are included in the collection.

2014.61.30Mag was a suit maker during the war, and Arthur made comment in his letters that she would be running out of clients based on the number of troops he witnessed coming into camp.  Once overseas, Arthur tells Mag about his continued weapons training and the conditions both in camp and at the front.  He comments on the ton of mud that stuck to his boots while serving in the trenches in France, and that his feet were never warm.  A highlight for him, despite the circumstances, was being in isolation with measles which took him away from the action during November 1917.

In March 1918 Arthur wrote about another break from the front: “We are away behind the line just now, & it is just alright to be there. Four of us are doing guard work in a small village just now. I can hear those guns roaring away, I simply hate the sound, & I don’t want to be any closer to them but I suppose we will soon be up near them again.”

2014.61.41Another common theme in Arthur’s letters is his love of his hometown Wanganui, and he often expresses the desire to return to the quiet town and live out his life in peace.  However, Arthur did not come home again; he was killed in action on 24th August 1918 at Bapaume, France, aged 35 years.  He is buried at the Grevillers British Cemetery at Pas-de-Calais.

2014.61.22Throughout the letters, Arthur refers to his friend who was also Mag’s sweetheart.  Duncan “Mack” MacKinnon was from Edinburgh, Scotland, but enlisted in the 10th Reinforcements New Zealand Engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  Mack embarked to Suez, Egypt, on 4th March 1916, but this collection includes only one of his letters, which he wrote to Mag on 28th May 1918.  He thanks her for the portrait she sent but writes that he is awaiting “the other one”, stating he wished he could be there to take it himself but it would require them having the house to themselves to do so rather than risking it by ‘their tree’ or round by the lake.  There is no mention if this photograph was created or received.

Mack survived the war.  He sent a telegram to Mag in February 1920 saying he had been demobilised and would return home, but he didn’t make it back to New Zealand until May.  They wasted no time and were married before the year had finished.