It has been more than five years (Dec. 2009) since I first posted a story about the US Army Corps of Engineers Vacheron & Constantin watches, and I've been patiently collecting new snippets of information ever since. Today seems like an auspicious occasion to update the saga of these tool watches, for it was exactly one hundred years ago today that a tragedy occurred which had direct influence on the subject at hand. It was shortly after 2pm on the 7th of May, 1915, that the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, enroute from New York, was torpedoed and sunk as it appraoched Ireland, with the loss of almost 1,200 passengeres and crew, including 128 American citizens.
With the outbreak of the Great War on the European continent in August of 1914, the United States was determined to stay neutral, however, Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles, followed by the discovery of secret negotiations between the German and Mexican governments (see intercepted telegram below) led Congress to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
By July of that year, American soldiers were marching in the streets of Paris and by October were fighting at the front. These troops were organized as the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General “Black Jack” Pershing. By 1918 the Americans had mustered 420,000 troops and by the time armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the United States of America had almost 1.2 million soldiers in Europe and had suffered 117,000 casualties. Final peace came with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919, at least for another twenty years.
The standard timepiece of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the start of the Great War were American-made Hamilton pocket watches with their evergreen caliber 992 movement. Having adopted the General Railroad Timepiece Standards of 1893, the Corps required that each watch incorporate several technical features to ensure easy winding, legibility and accuracy to within 30 seconds a week.
Upon arriving in Europe, in an effort to reduce their reliance on trans-Atlantic shipping of supplies, the American Expeditionary Force Quartermaster Corps decided to procure as much material as possible from Europe. In fact, the growing deficit in the balance of trade between Europe and America exerted a significant influence on this policy.
Both the American Signal Corps and Army Corps of Engineers required an ongoing supply of high-quality timepieces and their allotment of 1,000 Hamilton three-hand time-only watches was quickly exhausted. Key Swiss manufacturers were contracted by the AEF; Zenith and Ulysse Nardin for time-only watches and Vacheron & Constantin for both chronograph and non-chronograph watches. These manufacturers, in turn, sub-contracted with others to meet their large orders. In total, contracts for over 10,000 pocket watches were tendered to Swiss factories. Similar activities occurred on the British side, with Rolex and Cortebert filling production contracts for pocket watches and wristlets. The Germans too had orders for Swiss watches of very similar specifications, the most significant difference being the German requirement for screw-down case backs.
Vacheron & Constantin Maison on Quai de l'Ile, Geneva, 1914
The AEF order for Vacheron & Constantin was signed in May of 1918 for 5,000 pocket chronographs to be delivered at a rate of 200 per month. The specifics were as follows:
High grade movements, 20-jewels, stop sweep second hand without minute counter, adjusted to positions and temperatures...
The cases to be of oxydized silver, open face, with the following engraving on the back: "Corps of Engineers, U.S.A. No.___ (Numbers to begin with 1).
The dials and hands shall be luminous, except the small second and the sweeping hand. The dials are to be marked "Corps of Engineers, U.S.A. No.___" and "Vacheron & Constantin".
Price, SWISS francs, 280 each, f.o.b. Berne, Switzerland.
At the exchange rate in effect in May of 1918, the value of each watch was about US $70, or $1,200 in today's dollars. Two weeks following this agreement, an urgent telegram was sent from Paris to Geneva, confirming the order and requesting "rush work". Surely this signifies the importance of these timepieces to the Corps tasks at hand.
Although the order contained a cancellation clause in the event of peace, it was not activated. Deliveries continued until 1920, when a total of 3,289 Vacheron & Constantin single-button chronographs had been received by the Corps. Another deviation involved the dials for, unlike their Hamilton predecessors, they were not numbered as specified in the purchase order.
The oxydization process was handled by V&C's assigned case maker Huguenin Freres and left the cases a dull grey color which, being non-reflective, was useful in combat situations. An example can be seen in the 1917 Vacheron & Constantin archival photograph above. While it seems that virtually all remaining examples have been polished, remnants of the original finish are often present inside the back cover.
There were four different configurations of V&C Corps of Engineers chronograph movements. If one can rely on auction records and other unofficial sources, all appear to have been designated as Calibre R.A.19'''73 Chrono*. From top to bottom, the ebauche was provided by Matthey-Tissot, Reymond Freres, Moser, and P. Nardin (Ulysse Nardin).
While the others were pin-set, the Nardin was wound and set through the crown. Note its "brevet + 54714" inscription, identifying a patented improvement to the chronograph mechanism.
The order for chronograph watches by the U.S. Corps of Engineers was followed in August of 1918 by an additional order for 2,000 "half-chronometer" pocket watches to be delivered at a rate of at least 100 pieces per month. The specifications were:
...oxydized silver, half-chronometer, luminous dials and hands, as per sample No. 232608...
On the back of each watch will be engraved: "Property of Corps of Engineers, U.S.A. 10,351" up to 12,350.
Price: 96.- (Ninety six) Swiss francs each.
The cost was about US $24 for each watch. The English term "half-chronometer" implied a quality lever escapement adjusted for positions and temperatures. Although the order is somewhat sparse in details, apparently the sample with case nr.232608 met the Corps requirements. Unlike the chronographs, these cases do not bear a maker's mark. The movement pictured below was designated as Calibre R.A.19'''194 ART (R.A. for "Remontoir Ancre" and ART for "Argent").
Other suppliers to the Corps of Engineers for time-only watches included Zenith and Ulysse Nardin. Nardin, in turn, subcontracted some production to IWC, Movado and Moser.
Finally, there were a number of second quality chronograph watches (perhaps 350 of the 3,289 total according to Thomas Koenig) supplied to V&C by outside manufactures, notably Moser (pictured, 18 rather than 20 jewels) with cases by Huguenin Freres. They were inspected for quality control purposes and identified with the cuvette engraving; "Examined by Vacheron & Constantin". In an act of scrupulousness, the name "Vacheron & Constantin" was omitted from the dial.
Photo credit Bogoff
Contrary to persistent rumors, V&C did not produce wrist watches for the American Expeditionary Forces, although some of these pocket watches were most certainly modified for wrist use with leather strap/holders. It is equally likely that V&C ebauches may have been fitted, at customer request, with Borgel's "imperméable" screwed cases manufactured in Geneva. Their hermetic wrist watch case was patented in 1912 and advertised as "specifically requested by motorists and members of the English and colonial army."
V&C did manufacture gold-cased wrist watches with military-style dials. Following the custom of the day, officers were responsible for providing their own accouterments and these timepieces were available for purchase by the well-heeled. These images date from 1917.
While on the subject of rumors, there have also appeared from time to time gold-cased V&C pocket chronographs with Corps of Engineer dials. According to legend, these were given as presentation pieces to Allied generals. I can only state that two such watches I have investigated were found to have mismatched case and movement numbers.
*I have submitted queries to VC's Heritage Department regarding gaps and uncertainties in the information available on these timepieces and will update should they be kind enough reply.
With acknowledgements to:
- Antiquorum website
- The Hour Lounge; Vacheron Constantin discussion forum
- The World of Vacheron Constantin Genève by Carole Lambelet & Lorette Coen
- Curator, Office of History, US Army Corps of Engineers (thanks to Adam Harris)
- US Army Corps of Engineers Historical Vignette: WWI Corps of Engineers Special Watch to Keep Accurate Time
- Early Wristwatches and Coming of Age in World War I by Michael Friedberg
- SIHH 2006 Exhibition Booklet: Fine Watches For Land, Air and Sea
- Military Timepieces by Konrad Knirim
- Die Uhren des Amerikanischen Corps of Engineers by Thomas Koenig, Klassik Uhren, May 2010 (republished in English, Mar/Apr 2014 Watch & Clock Bulletin, NAWCC)
- Poster images courtesy Library of Congress, Center of Military History, and MaritimeQuest
- Hamilton images courtesy NAWCC
- Borgel history courtesy of David Boettcher