Joanna Scutts in Lapham's Quarterly:
In The Burning of the World, his recently discovered memoir of the first few weeks of World War I, the Hungarian artist, officer, and man about town Béla Zombory-Moldován writes frequently about his attachment to his watch. When he’s wounded in the confusion of battle in the forests of Galicia, he finds the watch unscathed during an agonizing evacuation of the area, and exalts the survival of “my trusty companion, sharer of my fate, the comrade that connected me to my former life.” Much more than a watch, it’s almost a miracle: “Not just an object, but a true and staunch friend. I held it in my left hand and marveled at it as it measured off the seconds.”
How to tell time was a matter of survival and strategy during the Great War, a war in which communication technologies had to advance rapidly to keep pace with the new instruments of battle. The war was a crucible of innovation in destruction, in which chlorine gas, tanks, and heavy artillery choked, crushed, and obliterated human bodies in new ways. Vast armies dug in opposite each other across unprecedented distances—the Western Front alone stretched well over four hundred miles, from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Because much of the infantry went underground, it was no longer possible simply to holler or sound a hunting horn as a signal to attack, nor for regiments to advance proudly, and visibly, together on horseback. Instead, it became necessary to coordinate time and to tell it accurately; the practice and the phrasesynchronize watches was born from this need during the war. Officers in crowded trenches watched for second hands to tick down before blowing the whistle and rallying their men, who scrambled up ladders into the awaiting gunfire. The term zero hour, the moment of no return, was first recorded in the New York Times in November 1915: “At 5:05 a.m. September 25 a message came to the dugout that the ‘zero’ hour, that is, the time the gas was to be started, would be at 5:50 a.m.” The irony of ascribing a precise time for an attack as uncontrollable and weather-dependent as gas goes unmentioned.
Paul Fussell, in his influential 1975 study The Great War and Modern Memory, notes that sunrise and sunset dominated soldiers’ trench lives and their understanding of the passage of time. These periods of “stand-to” were times of heightened tension and observation, when men would keep watch on the raised fire step and strain their eyes through field glasses for movement. When it wasn’t raining, the skies above the flat, endless fields would burst into color as they waited—an unforgettable combination of beauty and terror. (Fussell writes that “dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it.” Dawn and dusk were unavoidable natural markers of time, both ordinary and mystical. “The darkness crumbles away./It is the same old druid Time as ever,” as Isaac Rosenberg puts it in his 1916 poem “Break of Day in the Trenches.”Dawn is relentless, and soldiers are powerless to hide from it, speed it up or slow it down. A watch then gives the illusion of controlling time, a sustaining fantasy of life at the front. As Zombory-Moldován suggests, the watch is something more than practical; it’s a link back to a world where a man was free to make his own appointments, to run his own life.