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derekjgregory

"Synchronising watches" and war time

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derekjgregory

I've read the threads about the "times" in operation along the Western Front (Summer Time/German time, etc) but my question is different: When watches were synchronised what, exactly, were they synchronised to, and how was it done?

I ask partly because of the elaborate timetables that were drawn up for various offensives, and the coordination between artillery and infantry that they required, but also because of the timetables that apparently governed re-supply and re-deployment.

I don't imagine that this was quite the 'clockwork war' that many contemporaries described, but I started to wonder about the problem of synchronisation when I read these passages from Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel:

‘To keep everyone synchronised, on the dot of noon every day a black ball was lowered from the observation balloons, which disappeared at ten past twelve....

'‘The roads were choked with columns of marching men, innumerable guns and an endless supply column. Even so, it was all orderly, following a carefully worked-out plan by the general staff. Woe to the outfit that failed to keep to its allotted time and route; it would find itself elbowed into the gutter and having to wait for hours till another slot fell vacant’ (pp. 222-3)

So: what procedures did the British use to synchronise and co-ordinate their activities effectively? My apologies if the question (or answer) is obvious or I've missed a reply somewhere else!

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Phil Evans

Derek,

I don't know if you can make any sense of this, from 112 Infantry Brigade Operation Order No.233, 10th October 1918:

Synchronisation.

O.C. No.2 Section, 41st Divisional Signal Company, will arrange for EIFFEL TOWER Time to be taken at 11.49 on "J" minus one day and afterwards will synchronise watches throughout the Brigade Group by a "rated" watch.

The final synchronisation will be at 4.01 on "J" day.

"J" is the as yet undecided day of attack.

And from another order, later in the month:

"Watches will be synchronised at 0630, 20th inst. Brigade Signal Officer will send watch round Units."

Phil

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derekjgregory

That's very helpful, Phil - I think! I'd wondered about the use of radio to transmit time signals: lowering a ball from an observation balloon as late in the war as Jünger implies seems haphazard, but in "Marking Modern Times" Alexis McCrossen shows that "time balls" were in use across United States cities by the 1880s, originally under the auspices of the US Navy, though most of them were dismantled during the First World War. But it turns out that a time signal was transmitted from the Eiffel Tower (if that is what EIFFEL TOWER time means) throughout the war. The broadcasts began on 23 May 1910 at around 150 kHz and the signal spanned the Atlantic so that ships could correct their marine chronometers; a regular service was in place by June 1913 and continued through the war and into the 1920s. More from Michael Lombardi, 'Time Signal Stations' at http://tf.boulder.nist.gov/general/pdf/2131.pdf.

"Sending a watch round" seems only marginally less haphazard, no?

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NigelS

It doesn't give any indication as to what the "official time" was, or how synchronization to it was achieved, but the 169th Infantry Brigade Instruction No. 2 of 14th August 1914 (relating to Battle of Langemarck, 3rd Ypres a few days later) gives, although achieving the same result, a different method to that employed by the 112th Infantry Brigade as given by Phil above :

22. Units will synchronise watches by sending orderlies to be at Brigade Headquarters with watches to receive the official time on “Y” day at the following hours:-

9 a.m

5 p.m.

8 p.m

("Y" day being the day before the attack on "Z" day)

To me it makes more sense for units' watches to visit the 'rated' timepiece, rather than for that to move around, but doubtless each brigade's commanders would have their own idea as to how this was achieved, possibly being dependant on the exact nature of the operation, the number of units that were being deployed, and how widely dispersed they were.

NigelS

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David  B

The object of the exercise was to make sure that all participants in an attack were using the same time source, therefore it doesn't matter of the time is out by seconds or even minutes

as long as all the watches being used are likewise out. Obviously it is nice to have them all reading the correct time.

In my experience a ships chronometer was never adjusted. A daily time check at the same time was taken (using WWV - American time standard transmissions) and the deviation in

time noted (either plus or minus) and recorded in the clocks log book. From this variation the navigator would get an accurate time.

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derekjgregory

That's all really helpful, thanks so much. It certainly seems more sensible to send orderlies to the rated watch rather than send it on its hazardous rounds.

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centurion

That's very helpful, Phil - I think! I'd wondered about the use of radio to transmit time signals: lowering a ball from an observation balloon as late in the war as Jünger implies seems haphazard, but in "Marking Modern Times" Alexis McCrossen shows that "time balls" were in use across United States cities by the 1880s, originally under the auspices of the US Navy, though most of them were dismantled during the First World War. But it turns out that a time signal was transmitted from the Eiffel Tower (if that is what EIFFEL TOWER time means) throughout the war. The broadcasts began on 23 May 1910 at around 150 kHz and the signal spanned the Atlantic so that ships could correct their marine chronometers; a regular service was in place by June 1913 and continued through the war and into the 1920s. More from Michael Lombardi, 'Time Signal Stations' at http://tf.boulder.ni...l/pdf/2131.pdf.

"Sending a watch round" seems only marginally less haphazard, no?

Time balls were in use as early as the 18th century and used by naval ships to set watches chronometers etc. A suitable tower at a fleet anchorage would drop a black ball at noon. Such towers were in use in the Napoleonic period at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Gibraltar, Minorca and Malta

The Eiffel tower used to broadcast regular time signals.These were used by the German Zeppelins navigators to identify this transmitter and take bearings. The French secretly switched the transmission of such signals to another station some 60 miles away during one raid on Britain causing major navigational miscalculations and contributing to the loss of five airships. This 'spoof' was kept secret at the time and many accounts attribute the disaster purely to bad weather.

Sending round a very accurate watch or chronometer was a normal military and commercial approach. One London family made a living until quite recently providing various commercial operations with such a service.

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bill24chev

Some time balls are still in use or have been brought back into use. There is one in Bolton at a well known jewelers that is activated by an electronic signal from Greenwich every day.

If I am in sight of it around one o'clock I check my watch by it.

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IRC Kevin

1/4th King's Own 'Operation Order 44/a' dated 27/7/17 for the attack on Pilckem Ridge.

"18. Brigade Signalling Officer will communicate 'time' to all units between 5 & 7 pm daily.

On Y/Z night, 2 Lt. Middleton will report to Bde HQ in Wieltje Dugout at 2 am. to synchronise watches."

2 Lt Thomas Harvey Middleton was the Battalion Signals Officer. Zero Hour was 3.50 am. on the 31st July.

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alougheed

There is a similar example in the war diary of the 1er Bataillon de Marche d’Infanterie Légère d’Afrique in the orders for a trench raid on 21 November 1914:

VI – Time – A runner from each element of execution will come to obtain brigade time at 14 hours.

There is an interesting pattern of using the Brigade HQ to synchronize time isn't there?

But I should hasten to add that this is not "standard" French proceedure. In the French units I've studied there was a good deal of experimentation in different ways to coordinate the timing of an attack, and this unit doesn't seem to use the same method twice in November 1914. On 26 November the timing of an attack is based on a certain number of shots fired from the supporting artillery. On 20 January 1915, the signal is the explosion of a mine. There is an understanding that the infantry have to go over the top at the precise moment when the effect of their supporting fire is optimal, and they are using whatever method seems the most appropriate. It does no good to launch the raid before the mine goes off just because of the time on a watch.

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derekjgregory

Thanks so much everyone. There are also these two passages in Blunden's Undertones of War: 'Watches were synchronized and reconsigned to the officers'; and again: 'A runner came round distributing our watches, which had been synchronized at Bilge Street [described by Blunden as 'battle headquarters']'.

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jhill

To add a bit more detail to this very interesting discussion I append the following snip from the Diary of the Canadian Corps General Staff at the time they were posted to the Salient in October 1917.

Corps Headquarters would telegraph the time at intervals during the day to the Divisions and other large formations. Lower formations would, as we have seen, get the time by sending a watch to Brigade Headquarters. I find it interesting that the exact error of the watch was to be recorded, but the watch was not to be set to the time.

Most operational requirements could, I suppose, be met by having one exact time within the Corps area, but for larger operations similar arrangements would of course be made for the Corps on either side.

post-75-0-74167500-1362887893_thumb.jpg

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David  B

In other words exactly how a chronometer is used, the variation is noted at a set time during a day. This way the exact time can always be found. A true definition of a chronometer

is not that it keep time exactly but that any variation in time is the same during a set period.

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River97

If it was done correctly, synchronisation of watches was taken from the commander giving the set of formal orders. Sounds simple, and, as I said, if done correctly, it was simple.

An orders group (O Group) would start at the top (Corps, Div, etc) and at the end of the O Group the person giving the orders would conduct a synchronisation of watches off of his. These orders would then be deciphered and given to the next level of command down the food chain. This would go on right down to Section Commanders giving a set of orders to their nine or ten man section.

Now, if the time check has been done correctly at every level and not paid off, then every person involved in this engagement would be on the same time.

This sort of thing still happens during formal orders in the military today,p and is just as important as it was a hundred years ago.

Cheers Andy.

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bill24chev

There are two problems that could when synchronizing watches.

If watches were synchronized to soon in advance any error in the individual watches could be quite significant. for example a watch that had an error of 2 minutes in 24hrs could be a problem if it was the officer's watch with the task of blowing a mine.

I do not know if this was the cause, but did not a mine detonate early on the 1st July

1916?

Secondly there does not seem to be a mention in orders to ensure that an individuals watch is fully wound up prior to setting time. I know from experience thumbeling to rewind a watch can inadvertantly change the time.

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Andrew Upton
Some time balls are still in use or have been brought back into use. There is one in Bolton at a well known jewelers that is activated by an electronic signal from Greenwich every day. If I am in sight of it around one o'clock I check my watch by it.

Indeed, only got back on Friday from a short holiday staying in Walmer Castle on the south coast, and in nearby Deal they still have a working example:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deal_Timeball

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derekjgregory

Thanks again.... Our discussion wouldn't be complete without a note about the watches themselves. Originally wristwatches were designed for women (the first "wristlet" was made by Philippe Patek in 1868), and although the Kaiser had 2,000 wristwatches made for his naval officers in 1880 – and there is some evidence of their use in the Boer War – men continued to favour pocket-watches until the First World War. Both soldiers and aviators needed a hands-free way of telling the time, and so the "trench watch" was born. In Knowledge for War: Every officer's handbook for the front, published in 1916, a wristwatch headed the kit list, above even a revolver and field glasses, and in the same year one manufacturer claimed that 'one soldier in every four' was already wearing a wristwatch 'and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can.' The first models had hinged covers, and often simply added lugs to existing small pocket-watches; wristwatches were widely advertised and bought commercially, but from 1917 the War Department began to procure and issue trench watches to officers for field trials. Trench watches usually had luminous dials, for obvious reasons, and many models had 'shrapnel guards'.

Finally, there's this from Stars & Stripes, 15 February 1918:

'I am the wrist watch...

From the general down to the newly-arrived buck private, they all wear me, they all swear by me instead of at me.

On the wrist of every line officer in the front line trenches, I point to the hour, minute and second at which the waiting men spring from the trenches to the attack.

I ... am the final arbiter as to when the barrage shall be laid down, when it shall be advanced, when it shall case, when it shall resume. I need but point with my tiny hands and the signal is given that means life or death to thousands upon thousands.

My phosphorous glow soothes and charms the chilled sentry, as he stands, waist deep in water amid the impenetrable blackness, and tells him how long he must watch there before his relief is due.

'I mount guards, I dismiss guards. Everything that is done in the army itself, that is done for the army behind the lines, must be done according to my dictates. True to the Greenwich Observatory, I work over all men in khaki my rigid and imperious sway...

I am in all and of all, at the heart of every move in this man's war. I am the witness of every action, the chronicler of every second that the war ticks on... I am, in this way, the indispensable, the always-to-be-reckoned-with.

I am the wrist watch.'

More at http://www.mwrforum.net/forums/showthread.php?t=39837, at http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/wristwatches.html,'>http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/wristwatches.html, and http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/wristwatches.html

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Chris Henschke

Time signals were transmitted from the Eiffel Tower in accordance with the following procedure. This is an extract from "SS 209 Handbook of Procedure (Wireless Telegraphy), March 1918."

Chris Henschke

Time signals Eiffel.jpg

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