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Four Historic Military Firsts, in Photos & Letters - 1880s - 1920s

1 2 3 4 5 6
flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure Many people have seen this photo without knowing that it actually pictures a historic first.

It is, of course, the young Canadian volunteers of Canada's First Contingent aboard SS Sardinian bound for South Africa, In October, 1899.

We had published it to show the wide variety in how wedge caps were worn.

A UK expert saw something else...

We had previously announced the significance of another published photo as the world's first combat photograph, and supplied Its supporting provenance.

Go to World's First Combat Photo

This time we announce the earliest known photograph of something else.

Carefully look over the picture, and see if you are sharp enough to spot it.

In fact the photographer had unwittingly captured something conventional wisdom has long held was only introduced in World War I.

Not so; here we have photographic proof - in fact the earliest photographic proof known - that it was already used in the Boer War, and by Canadians.

Look again...

Got it now?

RCR Members of Canada's First Contingent for South Africa, Aboard Sardinian - Oct. 1899

Orig. photo copy - Image Size - 20 x 26 cm
Found - Personal Collection

Go to Pvt. McKerihen's Cap

The original posting of the photograph is here

A sharp-eyed UK expert, surfing the Museum, saw something unique in the photo.

#1 - He maintains this is the earliest known photo showing a man wearing a wristwatch. And he ought to know. He's an expert on historic watches. (We publish two exposures so researchers can get the most detailed photo evidence possible.)

In fact we know wristwatches were the item that young soldiers coveted above all before embarking for South Africa.

Only a few could afford them. Only one soldier appears to be wearing one, among all the bare armed men in the picture.

Recently a UK historian, in a documentary, which focused on a wristwatch excavated at Passchendaele, a bloody battle in World War I, made the case for why wristwatches were so important at the time.

How everything depended on timing, to the second, coordinating charges, changing sentries, etc.

Balderdash, only officers needed watches - pocket watches would do fine, and in fact were standard military issue to officers, not wristwatches.

Pocket watches were considered superior, in fact. The movements were more rugged and reliable, and the controls were bigger, and in the cold and mud, much easier to adjust than the tiny winders on wristwatches. And when mud covered everything, were easier to read than the small face of a dirty small wristwatch.

Ordinary soldiers didn't need wristwatches. Hours, minutes, and seconds meant nothing to them. They were there for keeps - literally.

They didn't need to know what time it was. "What for bud?" Hell, they knew they were there - forever...

In fact as the newly discovered Otto Moody letter below makes clear, during the Boer War, of a generation earlier, in an entirely different kind of war, where timing was of no importance whatsoever, the young men were still mad for wristwatches.

Hell, it was the latest fashion statement for young soldiers, just like the infernal ipod is for young women, the Blackberry for men, and the cell phone for teens.

It had nothing whatsoever, to do with improving their job performance; it's all about "looking good," "with it," and important.

(One study of cell phone use showed that a significant proportion of users who were brandishing them on downtown city streets, for maximum exposure, were talking to "dead air...")

Likewise in World War I, when it is said that one in four men in the trenches wore a wristwatch. Purely fashion, in the trenches.

There were, of course, exceptions, like celebrated Canadian Boer War officer Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, who used his wristwatch religiously, to record highlights during the bloodiest battle of the Boer War, including the exact time he was shot down, on Bloody Sunday, Feb. 18, 1900 below.

In fact James left was aboard this very ship - those are his men - on the way to South Africa where he would take the first genuine combat photo in history, making him the indisputable "Father of Combat Photography" in world history.

So until something earlier crops up this is the first photo, in history, of a wristwatch being worn.

We continue to update this file at the bottom of the page. Though we're confident that this will remain the earliest Boer War wristwatch photo in existence - and the earliest Canadian image of a wristwatch being worn - as it dates from November, 1900, only a month into the war.

"the earliest photograph of a wristwatch I know to exist"

To the Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum:

Hello.

I have found rare information on your website.

I am researching the early history of the wristwatch, for a presentation to the British Horological Institute.

Historians agree that wristwatches were the invention of soldiers but I do not know of any datable military examples that survive prior to WW1.

I believe Canadian volunteers serving in the Boer War may hold the key.

Lt. JC Mason's remarkable letter detailing his charge of artillery positions says that as he fell wounded in both shoulders he glanced at his watch, seeming to indicate that he was wearing a wristwatch.

Go to Lt. James Mason's letter

However I have found in Pvt. James McKerihen's Boer War archive online an important photograph: the earliest photograph of a wristwatch I know to exist.

All this is very interesting as I know of no wristwatches surviving from the Boer War.

None of the important collections in Switzerland or the UK seem to possess one.

If you know of any such wristwatch I would surely like to know about it!
 
May I say how excellent your website is, scholarly and fascinating.

Go to Pvt. James McKerihen
flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous presentation watch, of the kind given to honour soldiers, who were lucky enough to survive to come back and receive them, from a grateful community.

This gold fill Waltham pocket watch was presented to A Burrows by the Township of Markham, north of Toronto and is inscribed:

July 1st, 1919
to A Burrows
From Markham Tp.
For
Services to Canada
in the war of 1914-19

Of course none of these presentation watches were worn on the battlefield, but only back home on civvy street when it was all over.

Many returning soldiers did not get even a watch for their service. Far more simply got a debilitating injury that shortened their life considerably, and mental damage that made life back on civvy street unbearable, not only for them, but the people close to them.

The big pocket watch, like this was the portable watch of the 19th century, worn by grandpa, men on the railway, and gentlemen. Vests and pants had special pockets built to hold them. But they were bulky, and always had to be yanked out to see what time it was. So they had long chains to pull them out with, fastened on one end to a button hole.

In a word, cumbersomely inconvenient, as society started to move faster.

Enter the wristwatch, with a vengeance, for soldiers in Canada...

Presentation Watch to A Burrows from Markham Township - 1919
Orig. Waltham Gold - Image Size - 7 cm oa
Found - Dundas, ON
flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure Two adjoining pages from the battlefield diary of James Mason shows the concern over the timing of events that a frontline officer like James had. Within only a few short sentences the man who would take the first combat photo in history, noted the time it happened, as well as two other incidents.

It is inconceivable that he pulled out a pocket watch each time. Clearly he was wearing a wristwatch, which is the only way he could have kept looking at a watch at crucial times. Hell he was watching history in the making and felt he had to record the exact time for things. In his right hand he waved his Paardeberg sword, so had no hand free to yank out a watch and chain...

Boer War Diaries, Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, 1899-1900
Orig. note books - Size -
Found - Cambridge, ON
flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure The Bacon print shows how it looked as James Mason led his men in the charge on Bloody Sunday, Feb. 18, 1900, that won him the DSO.

Note how the Canadian officers are all waving their swords and pistols in their right hand. Which is why those, like James, who had watches would have worn them on the left forearm, for quick time checks.

Pulling out pocket watches would have been a nightmare under battlefield conditions.

You would have to flip your sword to your "off" hand, grope for the watch or chain, pause to flip it over, see the time, then look down to find the small vest pocket, slip it in, then flip your sword back to your business hand, and resume the charge... if you weren't shot while you were muddling about with your damn pocket watch.

Much better to just glance at a wristwatch for a fraction of a second without missing a step in your charge.

Clearly this is exactly what James was doing.

Bacon Print, Dashing Advance of the Canadians at Paardeberg, Feb. 27, 1900
Orig. chromolithograph - Image Size - 56 x 76 cm
Found - Montreal, QC



flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure We believe James Mason's diary entries, and later letter references, are the first records of the clear use of a wristwatch to time events on a battlefield.

He is so precise as to the time he could only have been glancing at a wristwatch when he fell.

"... I fell; this was exactly at 5:10 for I immediately looked at my watch." "Immediately looked" could only refer to a wristwatch. With pocket watches the common parlance was "I took out my watch to check the time" which he did not say.

What amazing coolness of mind, as you fall from being shot, to take time away from a critical wound, to check your watch, while men all around you were dying. (In fact both officers between whom he had sat just before the charge, were killed.) It was if his dad was watching, critically...

#2 - So James, as well as being the first man to take the first certifiable combat photograph in history, can also be credited with the first diary and letter references to the use of a wristwatch on a battlefield.

Go to James Mason the Cool Cat DSO
Boer War Letter Home, Capt. James Cooper Mason, DSO - Feb. 23, 1900
Orig. letter - Size - 21 x 34 cm, 5 pages
Found - Cambridge, ON






Canadian historian John Goldi walks on the very spot James Mason was shot as he advanced away from Paardeberg Hill in the background, towards the trench right where the Boers were shooting from.



The Boers would have looked like this as they lay in wait along the edge of the gully at Paardeberg above.

James was one cool guy. It was on this spot he made history, by shooting the world's first combat photograph ever taken in the front line of an active battlefield, at about 4:50 pm on Feb. 18. It was also the first photo ever taken of a dead man on an active battlefield.

Go to The Photo James Took Here

At 5:10 precisely, he was shot, and fell here. We know this because he noted his wristwatch readings in his diary and letters.

He would win his DSO for the courage he displayed here.

And a plate was struck to honour the bloodiest battle of the entire Boer War.


And lest you get your British Empire chest pumped up, let's make one thing very clear. This was the Boer homeland, where they had a history going back hundreds of years. They were protecting their homes and families against foreign British and Canadian invaders.

Alas, our James was not on the side of the good guys on this page of history, any more than the Canadians are, in Afghanistan in the 21st century.

Go to Reconsidering Paardeberg


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go to What the World Thinks of Canada in Afghanistan
flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure Another letter James wrote to his father a Brigadier in the Canadian militia.

James' preoccupation with reporting the timing of events is compulsive and interesting. This is a personal letter, not a regimental diary, that he loads up with details of exact timings.

James was a fairly well-to-do banker, and banker's son, who had the finest and latest camera, campaign knife, etc. He clearly also had the latest wristwatch and was showing the family he was putting it to good use... Despite the doubters...

Rather his father, a Canadian military officer of some importance in the Toronto militia who hosted the Duke of Connaught (Queen Victoria's son and Governor-General of Canada) when he visited the city to dedicate the Boer War Memorial in 1910.

He was also crusty old school and decidedly a "gold pocket watch" type, and had himself been wounded in battle against Louis Riel in 1885.

Quite possibly they had words when James had announced - like Otto Moody to his mother, below - that he was going to get the latest thing, a newfangled wristwatch to go to fight in South Africa.

Are his compulsive listings of the timings, so dear to the heart of military men, James simply trying to get the final word in the argument...?

"See, in the midst of wild shooting and charges, and even while being shot, I can tell the time. Now try doing that with your pocket watch and chain..."

Go to James' Father the Brigadier
Boer War Letter Home, Capt. James Cooper Mason, DSO - Feb. 21, 1900
Orig. letter - Size - 21 x 34 cm, 1 page
Found - Cambridge, ON




Was James trying to prove something, to his Brigadier father, far right, escorting the Duke of Connaught at the dedication of Canada's biggest Boer War Memorial in Toronto, in 1910?

Clearly the Brigadier seems to be saying,

"I don't want to hear another word about your damned wristwatches..."

flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure Young Canadian Otto Moody, who signed up two years after James Mason, in his first letter back home to Montreal from his embarkation point in Halifax, has a special request from, who else, his mother.

For "I wished you could manage to get me one of those small watches with a wach belt to go around your wrist like this."

Then he draws a picture of a "strap around wrist" and "wach," because the folks back home have never seen or heard of this.

"Most every fellow here has one, they are very handy."

Now how's that for pressure on Mom? As the letter makes clear, they are not cheap...

Otto's later letters make no more mention of it.

#3 - Otto's letter may very well be the first written record of the direct mention of a wristwatch by a soldier.

Letter Excerpt - Otto Moody, 2 CMR, Halifax, Nova Scotia - Dec. 15, 1901
Go to Otto Moody
Orig. letter - Image Size - 22 x 28 cm
Found - Wibaux, MT

flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure A fabulous find is this cabinet photo of two Boer War chums, convalescing near a hospital somewhere in South Africa.

#4 - It is an ultra rare photo of a Briton wearing a wristwatch in the Boer War.

This picture is almost certainly a later photo than that of the Canadian, which was taken only a month after war was declared.

We have seen thousands of photos from the Boer War, many showing bare armed men. None are ever wearing wristlets. The reason is simple. British Tommies were poor folks and couldn't afford them.

And officers kept their tunics on. Luckily this chap is wounded so his crutches hike up his sleeve, revealing his watch and giving him an honoured place in history he wouldn't otherwise have.

Notice how, as a right-hander - he's grasping his left with his right hand, as right-handers do - he wears his watch on the left arm.

Boer War Wristwatch, c 1900
Orig. cab - Size - 10 x 12.5 cm
Found - Brecon, Wales

flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure A common stereoscope photo of Tommies drawing water from pails filled by the water wagon, shows several with bare wrists. Like in the hundreds of other similar photos we've seen, none ever seem to wear a wristwatch.

Here one has a strap over his wrist, though no watch is visible.

We don't believe it's a wristwatch band, for several reasons.

Wristwatches were made for left arms, so that men could wind the mechanism with their favourite - right - hand. Or do a task, like holding a horse's reins, or wiping their brow, holding their pipe, whatever, while checking their watch on the less dominant arm.

The early watches had to be wound; the winding mechanisms were on the right side of the new wristwatches so the wearer could reach them with his dominant right hand.

A rare lefty might wear it on his right wrist and then have to do a major contortion to try and wind it on the opposite side of the watch.

This man is clearly not a lefty; he's reaching in with his dominant right hand, meaning if he had a wristwatch he would obviously have worn it on his left wrist, where there is none.

The strap on his right wrist must therefore be a muscle support, from having sprained it from over exertion, or even a closure for an arm bandage. His right forearm is awfully white, compared to his hand, and his left arm. And the white "bandage" seems to extend down, past the band, to his hand.

Anyway, a wristwatch band it is not.

To show we know what we're talking about, see the German soldier from World War I, below.

It is a classic picture that captures wonderfully why wristwatches became popular.

Stereoscope, Men Drawing Water, South Africa (detail) - 1900
Orig. photo - Image Size - 23 cm
Found - Kitchener, ON
Right a German soldier from World War I in a fine photo that explains how wristwatches developed because they allowed your dominant hand to do simultaneous other activity without having to stop to yank a watch fob out of a pocket.

He is actually wearing a massive pocket watch, featuring a large winder, in a leather holder. Because the winder was at the top it could as easily be wound by a left or a right hander, regardless of which wrist he wore it on.

The watches were massive, kept excellent time because they had reliable movements, and with their big winders, easy to manipulate in cold weather with frozen fingers.

He is clearly a "lefty," using his dominant hand to support his pipe, and so straps his watch on his right wrist.

The earliest designed wristwatches, all had their small winders on the right side. So they had to be worn on the left wrist so the right hand had easy access to the winder.

Since the late 1700s, fancy ladies had worn wristwatches as decorative baubles, which is why men, who didn't want to appear effeminate, avoided them al late as the end of the 19th century.

The watch movements were poor because the women didn't really want to know the time. So men of means and substance wore the large and highly dependable timepiece, the pocket watch on a chain and fob.

An early important event in the development of wristwatches occurred when Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany ordered 2,000 from Girard-Perregaux for use by his naval officers. This event is credited with boosting the commercialization of wristwatches in the 1880s.

By the time of the Boer War in 1899, the wristwatch started to appear in the British Army, with the photo of the Canadians above being the first photo of a wristwatch being worn.

In 1904 Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont (aloft right) asked his friend Louis Cartier to make him a wristwatch, so that he could have both hands on the wheel, and time his flights by simply glancing at his wrist. The Cartier "Santos" wristwatch for men went into production in 1911.

After 1905 Rolex also became a major booster of wristwatches and built a reputation for accuracy of small movements. But it was slow going.

Luckily World War I came along, and the needs of soldiers, who, with their hands full of death dealing machinery found wristwatches a military necessary, when synchronizing huge groups of men charging into machine guns had to be timed to the second.

But the wristwatches, using bulky pocket watch movements, quickly fell out of favour when peace came.

Soldiers continued to wear them on civvy street. No one dared call them "feminine," so the attitude of men changed and they became acceptable, even popular during the late 20s and 30s.

The pocket watch had become popular in Britain in the 1770s.

Typically it was large - the size of the movements to make it run, created the bulk - and was carried in a watch pocket along the belt line in the top of the trousers.

Because it was very hard to pull out from its tight pocket it had a chain attached to a button hole in the vest. The end would have a bar to anchor the chain in the hole. Often a bit of chain was left dangling to hold an ornament that jingled as a person moved about, drawing attention that here was a man of substance who could afford a portable watch.

Coins were popular decorations. During the Boer War coins from the Boer Republics, carrying the portrait of President Kruger were popular.

In the midst of conversations important men would suddenly yank on the chain to underline their importance in the scheme of things, and consult it ostentatiously for all to see.

(Very much like scurrying young urban women these days, theatrically pull out their Blackberrys and cell phones while crossing the street to show that someone of importance is trying to contact them. On the other end is usually dead air, their therapist, or their gynaecologist with bad news about their pregnancy test, or the cure for their latest case of STDs.)

This is a Boer War presentation watch given by the town of Grimsby to a returning volunteer for his public service.

To find out what time it was was a bit of an elaborate undertaking.

If you were carrying something, like barrel staves, or shingles, you would have to put them down.

Then you would have to unbutton your coat, grope around for the chain, and pull out the watch, and hold it in your hand.

You had a 50% chance of it coming out face up; otherwise you would have to flip it over first.

Then you would have to grope around again, looking for the small pocket to put the watch in, rebutton your coat, and pick up your parcels.

Sometime in the 19th century someone - who didn't want the social pomposities and cumbersome mechanics associated with using a pocket watch - came up with the idea to attach a watch, face up, with a strap to the wrist, to make it easier and quicker to check the time. Without having to put down what you were holding first.

These were military applications, were life and death were at stake.

So the first wristwatches were just pocket watches, fitted into leather wrist band pouches. They were easily removed but very bulky.

The classic leather wristlets that were designed to hold pocket watches on the wrist.

So you could take your gentleman's pocket watch on campaign with you.

But were they ever heavy and cumbersome on your forearm...!

Enter: the Genuine Wristwatch

The photos of men wearing "wristwatches" that we feature on this page, all seem show pocket watches, with top winders, in leather pouches on their wrists. This was, of course, a cumbersome adaptation, of a pocket watch for other means.

To overcome the drawbacks of a huge pocket watch on the wrist, a miniaturized movement was invented, specifically for convenient use in a small timepiece on the forearm.

This is very rare Boer War wristwatch of the kind probably worn by James Mason at the Battle of Paardeberg.

But this specific one is not an actual battlefield watch.

Being a presentation watch, and so inscribed, confirms it as genuine Boer War - as opposed to a later WWI wristwatch.

But it also means it was not a battlefield watch, since the war ended in May 1902.

Still it shows in great detail what went into making a wristwatch in 1902.

A unique aspect is that it had a flip up metal cover over the clock face.

Some of what we said about this watch, relying on inscriptions, and sales promotion, is wrong. It is a salutary lesson, for all who spend money on memorabilia, to check out even the obvious and apparently foolproof evidence, like inscriptions, beforehand. Or the hallmarks, etc., as one UK expert did. To us it now seems like a forgery, bearing a presentation date that was added a dozen years later... We can now no longer call it Boer War or an early watch...

"The watch is not a forgery, retrospective inscriptions are common. Note the dial and hands are skeletonised for the infill of luminous paint. Also the movement is a well known ebauche only seen after 1912 and the dial, movement and case all belong together stylistically.

"English silver hallmarks are a fantastic tool. In UK law only marks punched at Government assay offices can be called “Hallmarks”. Hallmarking of imported silver watch cases was introduced in 1904 but seems not to have been enforced before 1906. If you look in the back of the watch the following four marks can be seen."

AGR = the maker or sponsor’s mark for Arthur George Rendell the watch importer
.925 = the Standard Mark for sterling grade silver
A horseshoe in a cross = the town mark for London
U = the date letter for 1915/16 changed every year on May 19th"

We are much indebted to Richard Edwards for sharing his enormous wealth of knowledge on early wristwatches.

The plastics and glass covers were felt to be too susceptible to breakage on the exposed wrist, instead of inside the safety of a vest pocket.

But for a battlefield watch this metal cover would have been an additional inconvenience for active officers like James Mason, who wanted to check the time constantly during an engagement so his diaries of important events in the action could be accurate.

He would not have liked this model with the flip top metal cover.

Have you tried to flip metal covers on pocket watches at auctions? Nobody ever seems to be able to open them without considerable difficulty. Now think about doing that while running, charging, shooting, or waving your sword around, at the same time...

Now you know why the metal covers are nowhere to be found on modern wristwatches.

That makes this unusual watch an even rarer treasure.

It shows how designers coming up with great ideas, had them debunked by military men field testing them under battle conditions.

The other major change was in moving the winder from the top, 12 o'clock, to the 3 o'clock position, to give easy access for the dominant (right) hand to come over to wind it on the opposing (left) wrist.

A certifiable Boer War era wristwatch made to withstand the rigours of future combat.

Metal covers front and rear, just like on the best pocket watches.

The near side has the dial also protected with a metal cover.

An idea that just didn't pan out...

The Passchendaele Wristwatch

Historians are very loathe to give up pet theories, as a recent British TV documentary makes clear.

Near the beginning of the one-hour doc British archaeologists discover a corroded wristwatch and leather armband, with a vestigial name they can barely make out, but finally agree reads "England."

They then go off on a 45 minute program tear, searching for soldier "England" in the British Archives, narrowing it down to three men who bore that name, and were on the battlefield site.

Then they boil it down to one, by cross-referencing Army records, and go to meet his descendant, who waxes emotional while beholding the watch of his dead ancestor...

He wants to hold it, to get in "touch" with his relative killed in action, but he is not allowed to, for archival reasons.

Violins swelling, and tears...

it's a typical TV moment; all show business.

In fact, anyone who collects antiques and memorabilia, instead of weaving inventive tales - yep, we mean historians - would have instantly said:

"What a lot of hooey! England! Certainly, that's no soldier's name. Ceramics, memorabilia, lots of manufactured items, etc. were all stamped with 'Made in England.' That's what's on the wrist band, not some soldier's name."

But it would have spoiled the story that historians had concocted, on no more evidence whatsoever, than misguided, wishful thinking...

Even at the end, when finally told the cold reality by a watch expert, the historians still retain the wistful, emotional feeling, and hope, that it still might be "soldier England's" watch... "We shall never know," he concludes... fade out....

Yes, as a matter of fact, we do know...

Historians, who - if anyone - should know better, had created another fake TV moment...

Manufacturing a classic, self-fulfilling prophecy, on an ill-researched original false assumption...

They are really no better than the guys selling fake bugles...

Go to Another Fake Bugle

Boer War era watches are now slowly coming out of the woodwork.

Right is the earliest Australian photo we've seen of a Boer War soldier wearing one.

And below reportedly an 1898 British colonial wearing one in India.