In wars throughout history, for better or for worse, the clock has always been ticking.
At this very moment you might be wearing one of the most consequential weapons in military history: a wristwatch. Today, we take precision timekeeping for granted. Modern professional armies synchronize forces, time attacks, and schedule global maneuvers—all with atomic levels of accuracy and extraordinary sophistication. But that, of course, hasn’t always been the case.
The driving force behind the widespread adoption of wristwatches in the 19th century was the military, although portable mechanical timepieces had been invented long before. Noblewomen began wearing expensive (and inaccurate) forms of wristwatches in the 16th century. Men discreetly tucked pocket watches in their waistcoats to protect them from the elements and theft. Other than these relatively rare and expensive items, time was kept on large, static timepieces—clanging, clicking affairs that adorned mantelpieces, walls, and, like Big Ben in London, majestic civic towers.
Soldiers began to realize the military potential of wristwatches in the second half of the 19th century. Unlike the pocket watch, a wristwatch could be consulted easily while a person did other things—ride a horse, handle an artillery piece, march in full gear, navigate a ship. Accurate battlefield timekeeping also offered several tactical advantages. Even widely dispersed units could launch offensives simultaneously or at agreed-upon intervals, without worrying that their signals could be easily intercepted. And they could time combat maneuvers to the second with supporting artillery fire.
By the 1880s, wristwatches made by the venerable Swiss firm Girard-Perregaux were in wide use in the German Kriegsmarine, and British Army troops wore them in the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 and the Second Boer War (1899–1902). British-made models such as Mappin & Webb’s “Campaign Watch” and Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company’s “Company Watch” became popular, with a British officer heartily endorsing the latter in an advertisement: “I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me.” Other watchmakers tapped into the growing military market as watches increasingly became standard issue, at least for officers. In 1903 the Swiss firm Dimier Frères & Cie produced a watch with wire lugs for strap fitting, a design quickly adopted for military use.
In the early 20th century, both Cartier (France) and Zenith (Switzerland) produced watches specifically for military aviators, while the rough conditions of trench warfare in World War I led to features such as hardened glass and luminous dials and hands. Military watches became ubiquitous; the Hamilton Watch Company, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, issued one million watches to air crews and infantry officers alone in 1917–1918. In the interwar period, additional models and innovations were introduced by the likes of Omega and Breitling, two other Swiss watchmakers; the latter introduced the push-button chronograph stopwatch into its wristwatches in 1923, a feature much appreciated by bomber crews and artillery battery commanders during the next world war.
The emergence of wristwatches underscored the central role of time itself in warfare. Military thinkers have long recognized the importance of time in determining the outcome of war. Three elements of time are considered essential: speed, tempo, and duration.
One of the best encapsulations of the first two properties comes from Warfighting, the U.S. Marine Corps manual first published in 1989: “Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly. Speed over distance, or space, is the ability to move rapidly. Both forms are genuine sources of combat power. In other words, speed is a weapon.” Ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu was more succinct. “Speed is the essence of war,” he said. “Divine swiftness is to be esteemed.”
The third element of military time—duration—anticipates how long a war will last. The longer a conflict continues, the higher its logistical, moral, economic, and human costs and the greater the likelihood of unforeseen outcomes, which is why thoughtful combatants seek victory in the shortest possible time. The concept of duration was well understood in the ancient and medieval periods, with their grinding and endurance-testing sieges. (The average siege lasted for about a month.) As soon as a siege was locked in place, the clock began ticking. A swift ending was something of a mercy, for sieges could play out over prodigious lengths of time—indeed, some became almost generational affairs. The longest siege in history was that of Venetian-ruled Candia, Crete, in the 17th century, when the Ottomans besieged the town for 21 years (from 1648 to 1669). Even sieges of single-digit years were object lessons in human fortitude and misery.
It is difficult to think of a single tactical, operational, or strategic factor in warfare that is not, at its core, about time. In one sense, time is free; it is a weapon in everyone’s arsenal. It is what one does with time in warfare that makes the difference between victory and defeat.
From the ancient period to the middle of the 19th century, the chief time factors governing the conduct of war were seasonal and diurnal. Military campaigns in the Western world were generally undertaken between March and mid-August. These were the optimal months for war making. Longer daylight hours provided the opportunity to march greater distances. Warmer nights not only meant that outdoor living, eating, and sleeping were more comfortable, but also that personal loads could be reduced. Less rainfall, albeit far from guaranteed in much of the Northern Hemisphere, usually meant firmer roads for wagons, horses, and foot traffic. Pack animals could find more opportunities to graze.
For armies relying heavily on feudal levies or citizen reserves, the typical Western campaign season meant that men and animals could be taken away from the land during the growing months but returned to work the harvest. Thus a state could begin a war in the spring, wrap it up by the end of the summer, and have everyone back in the fields in plenty of time to fill the stores for the long autumn and winter months ahead. Get the seasonal timing wrong, however, and the consequences could be catastrophic—as illustrated by Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous foray into Russia in 1812: “General Winter” succeeded in defeating the seemingly invincible French emperor when ordinary enemy troops could not. For once, Napoleon forgot his own injunction: “You can ask me for anything you like, except time.” His two-hour delay in attacking at Borodino on September 7, 1812, contributed to his cataclysmic retreat from the gates of Moscow a month later and the weather-racked debacle that followed. In a very real sense, time ran out on the Grande Armée.
For centuries, the temporal rhythms of sunrise, sunset, and seasons shaped the parameters of war. From the mid-19th century on, however, the pace of war increased exponentially with each passing decade. The rise of steam energy revolutionized transportation, both civilian and military.
In 1815, the first steam-powered warship (technically a floating gun battery), the Demologos, was launched in New York Harbor and went into service with the U.S. Navy. With its wooden catamaran hull and paddlewheel propulsion, the vessel was anything but swift—its best time was 5.5 knots, or 6.3 miles per hour—but it began the process of freeing the world’s navies from their dependence on unpredictable winds.
Sails gradually disappeared from warships, even as a form of auxiliary power, and the second half of the century saw the rise of ironclads: steam-powered, propeller-driven armored leviathans. The first ironclad with transoceanic capability was the French warship Gloire, launched in 1859, but as the century progressed the British, German, and American navies all bought in to the ironclad concept, building ever-greater fleets with increasing firepower, range, and speed.
The rise of the ironclad brought about a profound time compression in both maritime and land warfare: Troops and supplies could now be ferried to far-off locations with greater speed. During the age of sail, a good Atlantic crossing with favorable winds took about six weeks; if the weather was poor, a crossing could take as long as 14 weeks. By the end of the 1830s, civilian steamships were crossing the Atlantic in just two weeks; in 1840 the SS Great Britain made the voyage in just 11 days. By the beginning of the 20th century, the record had shrunk to five days.
The nautical revolution brought about by the transition from sail to steam transformed the world. At the end of the century, warships were crossing oceans in about a tenth of the time it had taken ships at the beginning of the century. The Royal Navy benefited most from the time compression; it was now able to maintain and police the vast British Empire with unchallenged speed and authority, aided by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The navies of many other countries were also increasingly able to sustain and extend their global presence.
The 19th century also saw the emergence and explosive growth of railways. In 1840 the total world railway network measured 4,700 miles; by 1913, on the eve of World War I, that network had risen to 685,000 miles. The relationship between the growth of the railway system and the rise of industrialized warfare was a fundamental one. This mode of transportation was not especially fast, particularly if trains were long and heavy laden, but the rails offered a tremendous advantage in terms of volume: A single train could haul several thousand troops or thousands of tons of matériel in a single trip and on a predictable schedule. Wars could now be fought, quite literally, on a timetable.
The fact that railways could inject scale and speed into military campaigns first became apparent during the Crimean War between tsarist Russia and Great Britain and her allies. In 1855 the British built the seven-mile Grand Crimean Central Railway to help support the Allied siege of Sevastopol. During the American Civil War a decade later, the nation’s ever-burgeoning rail network lay the foundation for the Union victory. Helmuth von Moltke, the commander of the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), carefully studied the transportation lessons of the American Civil War and applied them rigorously to the rail network and mobilization plan of the Prussian army. Moltke maximized the efficiency of militarized rail transport to unprecedented levels. His staff created detailed timetables for troop movements and put in place the administrative structures that enabled military troop and transport trains to cross German state and rail company borders with little organizational intrusion. When war finally broke out, the Prussians deployed 15 corps of troops to the front line with elegant precision, each unit arriving on time at the intended position. The Prussians’ skillful use of the rail network set the stage for a shockingly quick victory.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century brought many other advances to society, in both war and peace. In the world of communications, the perfection of the electric telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse and others in the 1830s and 1840s transformed the speed of long-distance communications. The tactical and temporal advantages of this system became particularly obvious during the Crimean War. In the early stages of the conflict, it took about 20 days for a message to be transported physically overland and by sea from Balaklava, the Black Sea supply port in southern Crimea, to London, imposing a major time lag on the British command-and-control system. This problem was resolved by the laying of 345 miles of underwater telegraphic cable beneath the Black Sea from the two British outposts at Varna and Balaklava, a feat of engineering unprecedented at the time. The cable was laid by April 13, 1855, and when communications began to crackle through the line, it took just a few hours for a message to travel between the field headquarters and the General Staff in London. Vice Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons, the commander in chief of the Mediterranean Fleet during the Crimean War, maintained that “the telegraph cable lessened the duration of the war by two or three months by affording the means of rapid communications with the Crimea.”
The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought many other innovations that altered the time equation of warfare. Telegraph communications were bolstered by the introduction of telephones, which Alexander Graham Bell had patented in 1876. Field telephones were notoriously unreliable for communication at first, but steady improvements both in cable-laying techniques and in the quality of the telephones themselves led to their more extensive use by the British during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). Field telephones not only accelerated the tactical communications between frontline units and headquarters but enabled much closer coordination between infantry and artillery. During World War I, field telephones were used to coordinate artillery barrages of real-time complexity, synchronized with infantry advances. Every company commander wore a wristwatch. The early 20th century also saw the emergence of radio (wireless) telegraphy, which rapidly became the central means of military communications, creating a “telenet” that united air, ground (armor, artillery, and mechanized infantry), and naval forces in holistic, synchronized combat capability.
But few technologies had a more seminal impact on the speed of warfare than the invention and astonishingly rapid development of aircraft. The age of fixed-wing heavier-than-air combat aircraft essentially began in 1909, with the U.S. Army Signal Corps’s adoption of the Wright Model A, redesignated as the “Military Flyer.” With a maximum speed of 42 miles per hour, its time-shrinking potential was initially limited, but both the speed and combat radius of operational aircraft seemed to increase dramatically with each passing year. By the end of World War I, combat aircraft were pushing top speeds of 150 miles per hour; by the end of the next world war, the new generations of jet aircraft were exceeding 600. Then, on October 14, 1947, the sound barrier was broken, and the jet age truly arrived.
The increasing orientation toward speed in warfare made time perhaps the defining weapon of the future. In World War II, the ability to maintain tempo was a huge asset on and off the battlefield. By mid-1940, it had become evident that the war would be a matter of endurance, though seminal advances in military technology brought greater speed of maneuver, broader networks of communications, and more efficient tools of attrition. An enemy subjected to unrelenting pressure, of course, could not sustain an equivalent tempo of counteroperations. Thus, Germany was virtually destined for defeat once it found itself at war with Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, whose combined military and industrial forces could exert a three-front tempo that the Wehrmacht simply could not match. The U.S. military’s island-hopping campaign against Japan from 1943 to 1945 was a perfect example of tempo-based operations: a rhythm of territorial reconquest that steadily shrank the Japanese imperial perimeter to nothing, one island at a time.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab adversaries in 1967. On June 5, 1967, at 7:45 a.m., dozens of combat aircraft of the Israeli Defense Forces roared into the clear morning sky. The wings of their planes heavy with ground-attack and air-to-air ordnance, they immediately banked west, turning their noses toward their targets: Egypt’s airfields.
Operation Focus, as the action was known, was the opening move in Israel’s extraordinary gamble—a preemptive strike against the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. (Subsequent fighting also drew in the forces of Iraq.) By every metric, Israel was profoundly outnumbered. It had a total of about 260,000 troops (80 percent of them reservists), 300 combat aircraft, and 800 tanks against nearly 550,000 Arab troops, 950 combat aircraft, and more than 2,500 tanks. In Israel’s favor, however, were the elements of surprise, professionalism, decentralized decision-making (frontline troops and commanders could take tactical initiative in real time), and sheer boldness.
What unfolded over the next six days was nothing short of world-changing. Operation Focus gutted the Egyptian air force within a day—total Egyptian aircraft losses may have been as high as 338 aircraft—thereby establishing the superiority of the Israeli Air Force for the rest of the campaign. Even as the Israeli jets were strafing and bombing their initial targets, armored and mechanized forces launched a powerful thrust into the Sinai Peninsula against the Egyptian army. Over the duration of the war, Israeli forces would fight successfully on three fronts: the Sinai, Jordan, and the Golan Heights.
It was an emphatic and impressive victory for Israel, with all its enemies convincingly defeated and all its
territorial and tactical objectives achieved swiftly and comprehensively. The fact that history has chosen to label the conflict the Six-Day War is illustrative. This was a war in which the duration of the fighting, just six days, was the core indicator of the Israeli success. Contrast this with another great conflict, the Hundred Years’ War, the generational struggle between England and France that dominated much of Western European history from 1337 to 1453 ce. “Six-Day War” evokes speed, energy, decision, focus, and clarity. “Hundred Years’ War,” by contrast, suggests attrition, fatigue (both social and individual), ambiguity, and shifting allegiances. In both cases, time was at the center of the wars’ outcomes.
Since 1945, military time has gone into warp speed, and not just because of the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation. The progressive computerization and digitization of weapons systems and command-and-control from the 1960s on has been the driving force behind the movement, networking the battlefield and reducing the time lag between information gathering and operational combat decisions. Consider, for example, the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Combat System, an integrated command-and-control weapons system that can detect, track, and engage dozens of targets simultaneously. War waged at the speed of computers, which themselves have made astonishing leaps in processor speed, has spread to every sphere of combat, including logistics and transport, infantry tactics and training, weaponry, aviation, armor, and, most visibly, the inexorable spread of unmanned technologies.
In the years since World War II, many disadvantaged combatants have chosen to combat speed with duration. The most successful implementation of this strategy was the Vietnam War, a conflict that brought a superpower United States against a technologically inferior opponent in North Vietnam and its allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. The Communists’ strategy consciously embraced duration, inflicting frequent pinprick losses that in themselves were largely insignificant but when played out thousands of times over many years added up to eventual victory. All the Communists had to do was to hang on and wait for things to change, which they always do.
For the Communists, the war lasted 30 years (1945 to 1975), during which time the United States went through five presidents and many profound cultural changes; Ho Chi Minh’s leadership of North Vietnam, by contrast, transcended the governance of four of those presidents. The North Vietnamese Army’s greatest general, Vo Nguyen Giap, was essentially at the helm of the country’s forces from 1948 until 1980. For the two combatants, time was entirely relative. The North Vietnamese could afford to wait. In the end, they won, and the last U.S. helicopter took off from the rooftops of the American Embassy in Saigon, soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, on April 30, 1975.
The recent experience of American forces in Afghanistan underscores the rationale for duration over speed. In 2001, a joint U.S. and NATO coalition deployed to Afghanistan, taking with it an almost incomparable superiority in every domain of warfare over an enemy of often poorly trained, scattered, and crudely armed Taliban insurgents. Yet by December 2014, when the coalition formally announced the end of its combat mission, the Taliban remained intact and still controlled large swaths of the country. The Afghan guerrillas’ chief weapon, above all others, was duration. Afghanistan’s tribal peoples, particularly in the rural parts of the country, typically have a far broader concept of time than clock-watching Westerners, marking life through generational, seasonal, diurnal, and religious rhythms rather than minutes, hours, and days. Like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban have therefore been able to sit through multiple American and European administrations and through numerous sequences of six-month military deployments, content to wait until their enemy tires. In the long, contentious history of Afghanistan, the waiting game has always been the winning game.
In many ways, speed remains an overarching concern for Western armies, not least because wars that last more than a president’s or prime minister’s term of office often have vague and unpromising outcomes. Warfighting still has room to speed up—the rise of autonomous combat technologies powered by artificial intelligence will ensure that. But future armies, and the politicians who direct them, would do well to keep in mind that speed itself is not always the surest route to victory. It is how speed is used, its duration in time, that ultimately matters. In all wars, the clock is constantly ticking, but the method of timekeeping is subject to various, often conflicting interpretations. Not everyone tells time with a wristwatch—Cartier or not—but time tells on everyone, in war and in peace. MHQ
Chris McNab is a military historian based in the United Kingdom. His latest books are The M4 Carbine and Arab vs. Israeli Armour: Six-Day War, 1967, both published by Osprey in 2021.