The First Men's WristwatchesCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
A wristwatch became an essential part of a British army officers outfit in the 1880s. By the end of the nineteenth century, watch manufacturers were aware of the demand for men's wristwatches, principally from military men, and started producing purpose made wristwatches.
The delay of 15 or 20 years in the manufacture of men's wristwatches was not due to any technical difficulty in manufacturing them; ladies' wristwatches had already been manufactured for centuries. The cause of the delay was that although men had become accustomed wearing small pocket watches in leather wristlets, which looked chunky and manly, they were resistant to wearing smaller, purpose made, wristwatches. But over time, attitudes changed and the benefit of a smaller and lighter wristwatch that would fit under a uniform or shirt cuff became appreciated.
The first purpose made wristwatches for men used existing movements that had originally been designed for small savonnette (hunter) pocket watches. These were placed into Lépine or open face cases that had loops of wire called “wire lugs” soldered onto their sides take a leather strap. The often told story that the first men's wristwatches were converted ladies' fob watches is incorrect, as explained at Converted Wristwatches.
It is also wrong to say that men began to wear wristwatches during World War One. Before the war, civilian men did not usually wear wristwatches although a number of manufacturers were making them, principally for the military but also for horse riders, balloonists and automobilists. I have men's wristwatches made by Omega in 1905, IWC in 1906 and Longines in 1909. Because these were, in the main, purchased by military officers, they were not seen by the wider population before World War One, which brought wristwatches to wider attention.
1915 Wristwatch with Fixed Wire Lugs
The photo here shows one of these early wire lug wristwatches, and you can see how simple the fixed wire lugs that take the strap are. No wonder Jaquet and Chapuis poked fun at the watch manufacturers who claim to have “invented” the wristwatch; it didn't require the mind of a genius to come up with this design.
However, a wristwatch like this was not made by simply soldering wire lugs onto an existing pocket watch. The basic reason for the creation of the wristwatch was to make it easy and quick to read using only one hand. That meant that it should be open faced, but an open face Lépine pocket watch normally has the seconds sub-dial at 6 o'clock and the crown at 12 o'clock, which is where the strap needs to be attached. A Lépine movement can't simply be rotated to place the crown at 3 o'clock because that would put the seconds indication at 9 o'clock.
To create a true wristwatch like the one shown here, a savonnette movement, which would normally be used in a savonnette (hunter) case with a lid over the glass, has been put into a Lépine (open faced) case. This correctly places the winding crown at 3 o'clock and seconds sub-dial at 6 o'clock.
The case has also been manufactured with differences from that of a pocket watch; there is no long pendant for the bow. These were not complicated modifications for a manufacturer to bring together, but certainly not as simple as just soldering wire lugs onto an existing pocket watch.
Wristwatches like this had been made with metal bracelets for ladies since the 1880s. The first well-documented evidence for wristwatches with leather wrist straps for men is from H. Williamson of Coventry in 1901 and the Anglo-Swiss company Dimier Brothers in 1903.
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H. Williamson Wristwatch
Although wristwatches had been used by British military officers since the 1880s, these were usually in the form of small pocket watches in leather holders called wristlets. H. Williamson Ltd. was one of the first manufacturers to make a wristwatch with a leather strap that attached directly to the watch by the means of lugs attached to the case.
Mr Tucker, managing director of the firm of H. Williamson Ltd., made an interesting statement about the origin of the wristwatch. In an interview in 1954 he said:
During the Boer War we received a 12 size watch belonging to an officer in South Africa. He said he wanted to wear it on his wrist. I suggested putting loops on the case and sewing straps on to them. This was done, and we were struck with the idea and had it registered. It was some time before the idea took on, but eventually it became extremely popular.
The design was registered with the British Board of Trade in 1901, making it the earliest known example of a wristwatch with a leather wrist strap attached directly to the case for which there is indisputable evidence. The registered number of the design is 383942.
The exact date of registration is not recorded, but the volume in which it was recorded is dated runs from 21 September to 12 December 1901. If the 4,157 designs that were registered over the 83 days covered by the volume came in at a steady rate, that would put the date of registration at 1 December 1901.
The strap is a two-piece open ended design with the open ends sewn together, exactly as described by Mr Tucker. There is one feature of the registered design that is immediately notable; the strap is not attached directly to the wire lugs of the case but to an oval loop of wire that is itself coupled to the wire lugs on the case by a flattened metal tube. Unlike patents, registered designs have no accompanying text description; the only only thing that is recorded is a representation, one or more illustrations of the design, so there is no explanation given of the reason for this feature.
The registered design shows that the lugs project horizontally from the case rather than drooping down as is the case for lugs designed to take a one-piece pull thorough strap. It might be speculated that the strange design of the lugs, with the attached flattened metal tube and oval loop of wire, was to form a hinge to relieve bending strain from the strap when tightened around the wrist. But a strap stitched directly to directly projecting metal lugs would put little bending strain onto the lugs and this explanation seems implausible. It might be that a simpler design with the strap directly attached to the lugs would be so obvious that it could not be registered, so this more complicated design was conceived purely to allow a registration of a design to be secured. The fact of registration, evidenced by the registered design number, could be used to warn other manufacturers off, and the lack of any textual description would make it difficult for them to mount a challenge.
It appears that Williamson did not immediately begin in 1901 to manufacture large numbers of wristwatches with leather straps. The first known advertisement by Williamson for wristwatches with leather straps was published in December 1905, as shown here.
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Déposé No. 9846
Curved lugs or "handles"
In 1903, the Anglo-Swiss company Dimier Brothers registered a design of a wristwatch with fixed wire lugs and a leather strap. This is the earliest documentary evidence seen of watches with wire lugs and one piece leather straps.
Dimier Frères & Cie had offices in la Chaux-de-Fonds and London. The London company, Dimier Brothers & Co., from 1868 were important watch importers, You can read more about the London company of Dimier Brothers on my Sponsors Marks page at Dimier Brothers & Co. .
Evidence for this involvement of the Dimier Brothers company in the early development of the wristwatch is the legend “Déposé No. 9846” (sometimes “DEPOSE 9846”, or even “DÉPOSÉ 9846”) seen in the case backs of early wristwatches as shown here, sometimes with the Swiss Federal Cross symbol.
Déposé is short for Modèle Déposé, which is Swiss/French for ‘Registered Design’, a design that was registered with a government office in order to provide copyright protection.
An author's or designer's legal copyright exists for designs whether they are registered or not, but it can be difficult to prove without evidence of the date the design was created; hence, an entry in a register is a useful official record. A modèle déposé is a register of a design, a pattern or appearance of an item. It is not a patent, a patent is granted for a novel concept which does not have a specific embodiment.
The picture to the right here shows the official Swiss record for Modèle Déposé No. 9846. It is dated 29 July 1903. The description is very short compared to that of a patent, because it is the representation of the design that is being recorded. The description simply says “Montre à bracelet-courroie” or “Wristwatch with bracelet-belt” and shows a picture of the design.
The exact translation of Montre à bracelet-courroie is important. A montre is a watch, à means with, and bracelet is something that goes around a wrist. The important word is courroie, a belt. The addition of courroie or belt is clearly intended to distinguish this design from a “montre bracelet”, a watch on a metal bracelet which ladies had been wearing for hundreds of years.
So it can be said that the specific design features being registered were the use of a leather wrist strap, somewhat like a belt, and by implication the “anses”, the handles or wire lugs, that attach the watch case to the leather wrist strap.
An interesting feature of the strap design is the flared centre section. This approximately covers the same area as the watch case. Since there is no description its purpose can only be guessed at. It might have been to prevent any part of the watch case from touching the wrist for some reason, perhaps concerns about allergies, or about perspiration tarnishing silver watch cases. Or, which seems more likely, it would not have been possible to register a design that was just a straight leather strap, because that would be too simple and obvious, so this more elaborate design was conceived just so that it could be registered. Once a registered design number had been secured, that fact could be used in advertising and to gain a hold over wristwatch manufacturers.
Registered Design 405488
British Registered Design 405488, February 1903
There is a second number in the picture of the Swiss Modèle Déposé 9846, the number 405488, underneath the main block of text containing the registration number 9846.
No 405488 is the number of a British Registered Design, a design that was registered in Britain for the purposes of copyright protection in the same way as the Swiss/French Modèle Déposé discussed above.
The picture here shows the entry in the British Board of Trade register. With the exception of a flared section of the strap behind the buckle, it is identical to the Swiss Modèle Déposé 9846. The watch shown mounted on the strap in the picture is crossed out to show that it is not part of the Registered Design.
This is the full entry from the ledger, there is no text description. Unfortunately, the identity of the registrant has not yet been found. It was either Dimier Brothers or E. J. Pearson and Sons, who registered two refinements of the design in 1908, one of which was the origin of the NATO G10 strap.
Design No 405488 was registered in February 1903, six months before the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846 in July 1903.
The period of copyright protection afforded by the British registration was initially five years. This was twice extended, as allowed under the provisions of the Patents and Designs Act 1907, for two further periods of five years each, taking the period of protection up to February 1918.
No watch marked with this British registered design number has been seen.
Dimier Frères notice 1907
By 1907, the market for men's wristwatches with wire lugs and leather wrist straps was starting to accelerate and Dimier Frères felt they needed to reassert their rights. The announcement shown in the next figure was published in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse Suisse in October 1907. It translates as:
To avoid trouble and misunderstandings, we inform Gentlemen makers of watch cases of gold, silver and metal, and Gentlemen watch manufacturers of Switzerland, the curved handles for wristwatches are our registered design No. 9846 dated July 29, 1903.
We will pursue anyone who manufacture watches with these handles, without having previously made arrangements for a royalty to be paid to us, and that does not send his watch cases to our factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds to have our registered mark stamped in the case back.
Dimier Frères & Cie.
This notice gives more details of Dimier Frères claim than the registered design. The wire lugs (“anses” or handles) are designed to be curved (recourbées) or bent downwards. This makes the path of the strap around the back of the watch case follow a natural curve.
Judging from the very large number of early wristwatches that are stamped in their case backs with the legend "Déposé No. 9846", the claim that Dimier Brothers originated the design and the threat of action against anyone who didn't pay them royalties for making wristwatches with fixed wire must have been taken seriously by Swiss watch manufacturers at the time.
RD 499803 buckle design
Watch straps with the same flared centre shape as the British and Swiss Registered Designs are sometimes seen with the British Registered Design number "No. 405488" stamped onto the leather strap, and with another British Registered Design number, "No. 499803", stamped on the buckle. Buckles stamped with this number are an unusual design with two centre bars instead of the more usual single bar.
British Registered Design 499803, April 1907
Underside showing how the strap fits
The British Board of Trade records show that this unusual design of buckle was first registered in April 1907, but they don't show who the registrant was. However, the juxtaposition of the numbers 405488 on the leather strap and 499803 on the buckle, and then the number 405488 on the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846, indicates that they were all the products of E. J. Pearson and Sons and Dimier Brothers.
The Registered Design No. 499803 buckle is an unusual design with two centre bars and it fits onto the strap without being stitched into it. The Registered Design No. 405488 / No. 9846 shows a strap with a circular section the same size as the watch case in the centre, and there are only two ways such a strap could be fitted to a watch with fixed wire lugs, either the buckle would have to stitched to the strap after the strap had been fitted to the watch, or the buckle would have to be designed to fit to the strap without stitching, which is exactly what the Registered Design No. 499803 buckle does. The photograph here shows how it fits to the strap.
Why there was a four year gap between registering the design of the lugs and strap to registering the design of the buckle is a bit of a mystery. These straps and buckles do turn up occasionally, but I suspect that it was linked with the announcement made by Dimier Brothers in 1907. When Dimier Brothers first registered Modèle Déposé 9846 in 1903 there were very few men's wristwatches being produced, but by 1907 more men's wristwatches were being produced and the difficulty of attaching straps where the buckles had to be stitched in made it worthwhile producing this buckle design.
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E. J. Pearson and Sons
The company of E. J. Pearson and Sons, harness makers and saddlers at 275 and 277 St. John Street, London, had a long history, tracing their roots back to 1804. The company was taken over by Edward John Pearson in the 1880s. His sons Edward John junior and Alfred Edward also worked for the business.
Mr. Tucker, managing director of the firm of H. Williamson Ltd., had an interesting claim about the origin of the wristwatch. He told an interviewer: “During the Boer War we received a 12 size watch belonging to an officer in South Africa. He said he wanted to wear it on his wrist. I suggested putting loops on the case and sewing straps on to them. This was done, and we were struck with the idea and had it registered. It was some time before the idea took on, but eventually it became extremely popular.” Pearsons made the wrist strap to Mr. Tucker's order.
In August 1908 E. J. Pearson and Sons registered two designs of watch straps with the British Board of Trade. The purpose of registering a design was to provide protection for the "intellectual property" of the originator of the decorative or artistic elements of a design, preventing these from being copied or manufactured without permission. A registered design was given a unique number and this was usually marked on the articles and in adverts, often abbreviated as "Reg. Des." or just "RD".
Pearson Sponsor's Marks
In the early years of the wristwatch, E. J. Pearson and Sons became well known for making leather wrist straps. By the 1920s, Pearson were known as the largest maker of wristwatch straps in England . Some of their trade mark names for watch straps were “Victor”, “Simplex”, “Climax” and “Premier”, with the brand name “Pearmak” also being widely used.
The sponsor's mark P&Ss for Pearson & Sons was first entered at the London Assay Office by Alfred Edward Pearson on 3 November 1908 with two registered punches. The coincidence of this registration at the assay office and the two designs mentioned above being registered at the Board of Trade is interesting. It seems likely that watch straps were the first items that Pearsons had produced that needed gold or silver buckles and that this was the reason for creating the Pearson sponsor's mark. Two more punches were registered on 8 February 1909, a further two punches on 18 June 1910, and a final pair of punches on 26 February 1914.
Pearson and Dimier Brothers
Registered Design 529337 “Simplex” 1908
Pearson “Victor” Strap - the ancestor of the G10
On 27 August 1908 Pearsons registered two designs with the British Board of Trade a design for leather wristwatch straps. The Registered Design numbers were 529336 and 529337. Pearson marketed these straps under the names “Victor” and “Simplex”.
The Pearson “Victor” stap design is the origin of the NATO G10 strap still in use today.
Simplex RD 529337
The design of the Pearson 529337 Simplex strap was identical in front (plan) view to the design registered in Switzerland in 1903 by Dimier Brothers as Modèle Déposé 9846. It has the same centre section beneath the watch case flaring out into a circle about the same size as the watch case.
However, the Pearson design was significantly different in the way that it was attached to the watch (or vice-versa if you prefer).
In the Pearson design there were two layers of leather, one with the flared section and the other straight which formed the wrist strap. The flared section was stitched to the wrist strap at the buckle end. The opposite end of the flared section had a loop attached to it that the strap was passed through to hold the two pieces together. This is quite clearly seen in the image reproduced here from the Board of Trade archives, the flared section is labelled "a". The parallel sided strap "b" passes through the loop stitched to the lower end of part "a".
This meant that, unlike the Dimier Brothers design, the Pearson strap did not need to have the buckle attached to or stitched in after the strap was fitted to the watch. The Pearson strap could be easily put on to and taken off a watch by anyone without needing any special tools or a sewing kit. Even a modern strap attached to the watch by spring bars is nothing like as easy to put on or take off.
Straps are sometimes seen with “Reg No” stamped in the middle of the back of the flared section, with “SIMPLEX” in a curve above and the number 529337 below.
Pearson Victor: the Military G10 Strap
Pearson “Victor” straps usually carry a Registered Design number 529336. This shows that the design was registered with the British Board of Trade on 27 August 1908, the same date as the RD 529337 design with the flared centre section. I have obtained a copy of the Victor strap Registered Design specification, but it is not reproduced here for copyright reasons.
The Victor strap is identical to the RD 529337 and Dimier designs, except that the under strap is not flared, it is straight sided and the same width as the main top strap.
The image here shows a very old and battered leather watch strap that is stamped on the back “VICTOR 529336” and “Made in England”. It is immediately apparent that the design, with its under part and loop, is exactly the same as the British military G10 strap. Coincidence? I doubt it.
In 1908 when the Victor design was registered, the British War Office did not issue wristwatches so there was no government demand for wristwatches, although the utility of wristwatches when on military manoeuvres had long been recognised. British officers were expected to purchase their own wristwatches.
During World War One, Wristwatches were issued to signallers and other ranks who needed them and who were not expected to buy their own. For many years Pearsons had been the largest manufacturer of watch straps in Britain and would have been the supplier of choice for the British military when wristwatches were officially issued. Pearson would have supplied their own special design of strap, the Victor, and been delighted to see it adopted as a military standard.
I have no doubt that this is how the G10 design came about, a development of the earlier Dimier Brother's design. Until I realised this I always wondered why the "under" part of the G10 was there.
Ladies' size versions of the Victor strap were stamped “Dainty” with the same Registered Design number.
English Straps for Swiss Wristwatches
Dimier Brothers Swiss advert for English leather watch straps
These two Pearson designs look so much like refined and improved versions of the Dimier Brothers Modèle Déposé 9846 that there must have been collaboration between the two companies.
Beginning in 1912, adverts like the one here started appearing in the Swiss watch trade paper La Fédération Horlogère suisse. The advert was placed by the Dimier Brothers company and is for leather bracelets (bracelets cuir) of English manufacture (fabrication anglaise) for wristwatches (montre-bracelet).
Although the manufacturer of the straps is not mentioned, Dimier Brothers did not have any sort of manufacturing operation in Brtain. It seems most likely that they approached Pearson to make watch straps for them.
After a period of manufacturing the original Modèle Déposé 9846 design, which required the buckle to be stitched in after the strap was fitted to the watch, Pearson came up with the alternative Victor and Simplex designs that could be fitted with the buckle already attached to the strap.
It also seems most likely that it was straps made by Pearson in England that Dimier Brothers were selling through their office in Switzerland.
The Times, May 1966
The company of E. J. Pearson was named after Edward John Pearson, who was followed into the trade by his son Alfred Edward. When Alfred died in 1966 at the age of 92, the notice shown here was published in the "Latest Wills" section of The Times. It says that Alfred "invented the watch strap as it is known and used now".
When I first heard of this I thought that the claim was that Alfred invented the watch strap per se, but the qualification as it is known and used now must be significant. Watch straps as worn in 1966 were very different from the first watch straps used on wire lug wristwatches, so Pearson, who became a large manufacturer of wristwatch straps under the Pearmak brand amongst others, must have introduced some feature that was regarded as significant.
The only strap design that was still in use in 1960 and could trace its unique design and history right back to the beginnings of the man's wristwatch is the Pearson Registered Design 529336, the strap that became the G10. The G10 was still being worn in 1966, as it is today, and it seems likely that this is what "the watch strap known and used now" refers to, the strap we now call the G10 or NATO.
Pearson Patent Number 368861
I have a watch strap stamped Pearmak with a silver coloured buckle that has the P&Ss sponsor's mark stamped on it, although it is not hallmarked so is not actually silver. It is also stamped Patent number 368861, which was granted to Alfred Edward Pearson of E J Pearson and Sons Ltd on 17 March 1932 with a priority date of 21 August 1931 for an "Improved means for attaching straps to wristlet watches". The address on the patent was Richbell Works, Emerald Street, Theobald's Road, London. The design described in the patent was an open ended watch strap that incorporated a thin metal plate in the open ends of the strap. The metal plate was curved to fit around the watch lugs or bars and thus made the fastening stronger.
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Acceptance by Men
At the start of the twentieth century, a number of companies were producing men's as well ladies' wristwatches, or at least had them available in their range. However, the vast majority of the wristwatches that were actually sold, as opposed to just being available in the manufacturer's catalogue, were ladies' wristwatches. The idea of a man wearing a watch on his wrist was gradually gaining acceptance with military men, sportsmen and automobilists, but not with the wider public.
Since British military officers started in the 1880s to wear watches on their wrists in leather wristlets, watch manufacturers had realised that there was a certain demand for men's wristwatches and begun small scale production. These were sold almost exclusively to army officers, who wore them on overseas campaigns, but not when they were home and on leave.
Some of the earliest purpose made men's wristwatches known are an Omega from circa 1905 and an IWC made in 1906.
The advert shown here appeared in a 1912 issue of Revue Internationale de l'Horlogerie. The cases illustrated at the bottom of the advert are Borgel one piece screw cases, the same as the ones in the 1901 Goldsmiths catalogue discussed on the previous page. But there is also a new twist: unlike the Boer War watch in the Goldsmiths advert which was strapped to the wrist in a purpose made leather strap, the case at the bottom right of the advert under the heading “Boîtes pour bracelets” has been adapted with wire lugs to take a “bracelet”, that is a leather strap, and be worn as a wristwatch.
The advert goes on to say that these wristwatch cases are:
spécialement demandées par automobilistes et militaires de l'armee anglais et colonies. (specially requested by motorists and soldiers of the English army and colonies.)
This shows that by 1912, several years before World War One, watch manufacturers had woken up to the idea that, for certain activities and occupations, men, and military men in particular, were wearing wristwatches.
The earliest known Borgel wristwatch like the one in the advert has been dated by IWC factory records to manufacture in late 1906 and delivery to Stauffer & Co. in London in January 1907. It was sent as a single watch rather than in a batch of six or twelve as IWC watches were usually sent to Stauffer, perhaps indicating that it was a prototype or sample. Even by 1912 and the time of this advert, men's wristwatches were still a long way from public acceptance and fashionability.
There was still the general view that a watch worn on the wrist, being necessarily smaller than a pocket watch, and subject to being more generally knocked about, exposed to dust, water from hand washing etc. would never be able to keep accurate time, and it was still perceived by some as unmanly. Something then occurred that brought about a rapid change in the perception of the wristwatch by the general public: the first World War.
World War One
In the summer of 1914 a series of political errors and blunders plunged the continent of Europe, and indeed the whole world, into a conflict that became known as World War One. Millions of young men enlisted or were called up for military service, many of them leaving their provincial towns and rural villages for the first time. Amongst many new things and ideas that they encountered was the wristwatch. Although wristwatches had been worn by military men for many years, this was the first time that a large section of the civilian population had seen men wearing watches on their wrists. And not just any men, but professional soldiers and battle hardened veterans from India, Africa, the Boer War, the Western front and other theatres of war.
Williamson in World War One
The first World War resulted in large numbers of new officers being commissioned. Each of these needed to buy a wristwatch when he was buying his outfit, as well as a uniform, sword, revolver, field glasses, etc. This on its own created a huge demand for wristwatches. Then officers were seen wearing wristwatches by the large numbers of new recruits who joined the army during the war, who quickly coined the term ‘a proper wristwatch’ for a smartly dressed officer and many of whom decided that they too would like to wear a wristwatch. This added to the demand for wristwatches.
The 1916 Annual General Meeting of H. Williamson Ltd. was told that:
The public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. In these days the watch is as necessary as a hat - more so, in fact. One can catch trains and keep appointments without a hat, but not without a watch. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can. Wristlet watches are not luxuries; wedding-rings are not luxuries. These are the two items jewellers have been selling in the greatest quantities for many months past.
The advert reproduced here for the Wristlet Astral dates to 1916. The watch is said to have a screw back and bezel case; these cases were made by the Dennison Watch Case Co.. Although Williamson were clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for wristwatches, English made Astral wristwatches are not common.
The movement was stamped “Warranted English”, but without this it could easily be taken for a Swiss made movement. It is essentially a Swiss watch made in England using Swiss machinery, with a Swiss straight-line lever escapement and exposed winding wheels, Swiss mainspring, balance spring, balance and jewels. It had only seven jewels in the escapement, no doubt to keep the cost of the imported components beneath the sixpennyworth limit the train bearings were not jewelled.
It would be interesting to know what these retailed for, they were probably more expensive than a Swiss made wristwatch with a 15 jewel movement. It is no wonder they are rare!
It also helped that most of the watches worn by officers had dials that could be read in the dark thanks to radium based luminous paint applied to the hands and dials. This glowed all the time with a bright unearthly light, much brighter and more constant than modern luminous paints, which in an era before the widespread availability of electric light impressed everyone that saw it. Every man wanted one of these new leading edge gadgets. Read on for the next chapter in the story on my page about trench watches.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.