Marion’s journal refers to a gift [Omega Watch] he received from Gertrude Bell in December of 1916.
I received the most wonderful Christmas gift from G.B. [Bell], an Omega officers watch. Signal Corps was printed on the face. She made an amusing comment, I was her Signal Corps.
The watch was a gift from Ms. Bell to Francis Marion “Mare” Jäger. It seems it was initially issued to the US Military Signal Corps. How Ms. Bell obtain the watch is unknown.
According to Marion’s diary’s he received the watch in Katarna in December 1916. He mentions the meeting with her and passing on intelligence, she gifts him the watch for Christmas and makes an amusing comment, “You are my Signal Corps.” referring to the print on the face of the watch.
Marion references the watch several times in his diary. It became a ritual to wind the watch before he slept.
World War I influenced the concept of watches worn on the wrist. Prior to the war, gentlemen would often carry pocket watches, it was rare to see a wristwatch.
War is a violent and dirty business often officers would lose their pocket watches on the battlefield. Pocket watch chains did help, but it soon became apparent it was another thing to carry and the pocket watch was valuable.
A few watch dealers solder lugs on the either side of the pocket watch (at the 9’clock and 3’clock position). A leather strap would then be woven through the lugs and the pocket watch could be warn on the wrist. It was a novel idea. The smaller pocket watches and in some cases lady’s pocket watches were small enough for this conversion. The early WWI trench watches were converted small pocket watches. These are easy to spot, as the “12” is situated at the crown and the “9” position sits towards the top of the wrist watch.
Need is the mother of invention, soon Omega saw a need and quickly began producing wristwatches. A better seal to keep dirt and sand from delicate watch mechanisms, larger numbers for clear viewing. Some special versions and modifications included special watch face protection from damage to the face.
Advertising military trench watches became common during the height of the war. It was the first time we see governments procuring, labeling, and issuing wristwatches for their officers. The wristwatch became a vital tool for the military; coordinating attacks, timing artillery, calculations for measuring time and distance.
One deadly and regrettable mistake watch manufactures engaged in was the first versions of the glowing numerals for viewing in the dark. The initial glowing paint was radium. While highly luminescence, it was also radioactive.
The women (Radium Girls) who painted the watch dials with radium paint during the war, sometimes wetting the brush with their lips before dipping into the paint, suffered radium poisoning.
It is rare to find a World War I trench watch that still has the radium painted dial. If you send a wristwatch with radium painted numerals for repair and refurbishing to a watch manufacturer like Omega, the company is obligated to remove the radium before sending it back. Many of these trench watches that have been refurbished are radium free.
Note: Marion’s watch has a radium painted dial.
Marion’s watch is certainly special piece of history and part of the Destiny’s War story. While it usually sits in its protective display case, on the rare occasion I will wear the watch and occasionally glance at the time, thinking of the adventures of Marion in the desert a 100 years ago.
I also wear Marion’s watch when researching and writing the series as a piece of inspiration and connection to the legend. Destiny’s War has been an amazing experience of research, studying maps, historical military campaigns, and even learning of lost histories. There is far more research to complete as I continue to work on the project. I look forward to sharing more of Destiny’s War with you.
Marion’s watch, whether on my wrist or in the protective display case, will continue keep the time for me as it did for Marion in the desert. If this watch could tell stories, the stories it would tell – well that’s my job with Destiny’s War.
Excerpt from Destiny’s War Part 1: Saladin’s Secret
“You’re acquainted with a friend of mine, Ms. Bell. Am I correct?” he replies.
I quickly glance at my watch, comforted by its presence. The small print, SIGNAL CORPS, underneath OMEGA on the face of the watch is a reminder of whom I serve. The watch was a gift from Ms. Bell the year before. “You’re my personal signal corps,” she said amusingly, referencing the print on the watch’s face. After the war had broken out, I had been a reporter for the London paper for a few months, riding with the British troops and reporting from the front. In the officers’ mess, she had requested my presence. Ms. Bell is the only commissioned woman in the theater, well respected and with very close ties to the Crown. She operates an intelligence network. She summoned me because she desired someone not in the military to be her eyes and ears on the front. My working for the London paper provided a perfect cover. I am a civilian, an American, a reporter, and I speak Arabic and German. I was to remain at my job and report directly to her. I meet with her a few times a year. She once called me the Kim to her Kipling. I guess I am her spy.
Author, Pyram King, studying Marion’s sketches and wearing Marion’s watch.
Destiny’s War is a series of epistolary novellas telling the story of Francis Marion Jäger adventures in the Middle East during World War I. The first in the series is Saladin’s Secret, available in January 2020. In eBook, paperback, and audio book.