Prior to the turn of the 20th century, wristwatches – known as wristlets at the time – were really only worn by women. Wristwatches were looked at as too delicate and not capable as reliable timekeepers, likely by ancestors of those who thought the cell phone was a gimmick. The German Navy was the early forerunner, using pocket watches outfitted with a leather strap that encompassed the case and affixed it to the sailor’s wrist. The road to wristwatch adoption had begun, and it was by way of military use.

It’s probably a safe bet our American readers never learned of The Second Boer War, so, for the others, stick with me for a minute. The Second Boer War, or Second Anglo-Boer War, took place in South Africa and involved mainly the UK, Orange Free State and the South African Republic with many other players in smaller capacities. It was a complex matter, but the long and short of it was the Boers (farmers, and descendants of Dutch settlers) were trying to escape British rule, and a tipping point was reached. The war lasted nearly three years, from late-1899 through mid-1902 – and putting aside the unpleasant details of war, it marked a major victory for the wristwatch.
Pocket watches have their advantages: a large crown to operate while wearing gloves, a big, legible dial, and in the late 1800s, they were quite robust. However, there was one major drawback, you needed a free hand to operate one! It’s incredibly inconvenient to have to fumble around with a pocket watch when precision movements and timing are literally going to save your life. In general, the Brits were better trained and had more advanced technology and weaponry, but the Boers were fierce, and relied on unconventional tactics to make up for any shortcomings. What they could not overcome was the use of accurate wristwatches to coordinate attacks.
The UK would go on to defeat the South African Republic and Orange Free State, and at least some of the credit can go to the mighty wristwatch. How does that saying go? The watch is mightier than the—no, that’s not it. There were even some watchmakers receiving unsolicited marketing fodder after the war. Soldiers had relayed messages that their timekeepers were reliable companions throughout their tours of duty. In fact, Omega decided to capitalize on the testimonies by using them in print ads. Although wristwatches would still take time to grab hold of the wrists of men in peacetime, the inevitable was now in motion.
The Boer War also saw the advancement – hell, introduction – to battlefield photography. Lt Col James Cooper Mason, a Canadian from a prominent Toronto family, thankfully brought along his new camera when he deployed to South Africa. He took what is quite possibly the very first combat photograph. And as badass as that is, he also used his wristwatch to record the times of specific events – like that time he got shot in the chest while charging the Boer front.
Without detailed record keeping, it’s hard to say for sure the true level of use and subsequent impact of the wristwatch during the Boer War. However, there’s little doubt of its usefulness in such a setting. By the time WWI rolled around, wristlets were slowly evolving into more recognizable wristwatches – and the rest, as they say, is history.
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