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.)
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.
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.
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.