The History of Field Watches

The History of Field Watches

Posted by Taizo Okagaki on

Field watches may be renowned for being straightforward, uncomplicated timepieces, yet their role in horological history is so significant that it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that the watches of the 21st Century would be unrecognizable without the introduction of field watches during the onset of the First World War. Although they were not referred to as such at the time, the first wristwatches used on the battlefield were field watches, and their ruggedness, the legibility of their dials, and their convenience over pocket watches made them indispensable to foot soldiers and officers alike. 

O.G. Field Watches - Trench Watches of World War 1 | WatchCrunch

 

As the original military watch (Mil-Spec / Military-Specification), it is interesting to see how it’s become a fashionable timepiece beyond their original purposes. In order to identify the reason behind its popularity in civilian or urban settings, it is important to track its evolution over the past century, and analyze the reasons behind the changes in the public perception of field watches. 

A START IN WAR

As war broke out across Europe, and advancements in artillery necessitated trench warfare, many soldiers realized that being able to tell the time, and synchronize their timepieces with their comrades could be the difference between life and death. However, pocket watches were still not exactly cheap, nor were they particularly durable or hardy enough for the grueling conditions in the trenches of the Western Front. Thus, many soldiers on the frontlines began purchasing wristwatches - which, in those days, looked like pocket watches with a strap - out of convenience and a desire to survive. These same soldiers would later continue to use these field watches in their civilian lives, and thus, more and more people began to use wristwatches instead of pocket watches. 

 

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While the early examples of the field watches looked ridiculous or awkward - especially by modern standards - no one could deny that their uses on the battlefield were indispensable. Watchmakers - and even clock makers at the time - began receiving government contracts to produce watches for the purpose of supplying soldiers with integral equipment. This famously included the likes of Rolex, Breitling, Omega, Hamilton, and many more. The Rolex Explorer, for example, was particularly popular for soldiers during the Second World War, while the Hamilton Field Watch Mechanical became standard issue for most American soldiers. A direct offshoot of the field watch is, of course, the Pilot watch, which would initially be identical to the standard issue field watch for soldiers, but they would eventually develop their own style and specifications. 


A FASHIONABLE CONTINUATION

 

By the end of the Second World War, watches had become a part of almost everyone’s daily attire. While they may have originated as an accessory for women in the late 19th Century, they had become iconic as field watches. However, as the 40s came to an end, the field watch had become a victim of its own popularity - it was now associated with war, and as a result, many people didn’t feel like the average field watch would fit an urban setting. 

While this was a minor obstacle for a brief period of time, the field watch’s association with war and the rugged outdoors would ironically be the reason behind its sudden outburst in popularity for civilians. As the anti-war sentiment grew with each passing year of the Vietnam War, protestors and artists began wearing military apparel out of irony, and it became so iconic within popular culture that even regular people began to emulate this fashion trend. Naturally, the field watch was one of the accouterments that people adopted, which transformed this tool of the battlefield into a fashion statement. 


MODERN TIMES, SIMPLER WATCHES

 

In the 21st Century, we now have smart watches that can tell us our blood oxygen level (well, not anymore), receive messages, make calls, and more, yet there are many people who yearn for simpler watches. It is almost as if with every advancement in the world of smart watches, there are more and more people who want a watch that simply tells the time. For many of those people, the field watch is the perfect watch. While many modern field watches now also include a date window, they have retained their fundamental simplicity with their clearly legible hour markers, high contrast dials, and easy wearability. 

They may no longer be the de-facto watch for the military, nor are they as essential as they once were, but in many ways, the field watch has managed to move beyond its roots to become a watch that anyone could want, regardless of their actual needs. In this sense, the field watch is truly a timeless piece. 



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