LRF Antique Watches - Specializing in Elgin Trench Watches & Waltham Trench Watches
The pictures in this story may NOT be used or re-broadcast without my express written permission. They are my intellectual property and may be used in my 3rd book so please respect my property rights, thank you! 

Scroll your cursor over the pictures for the descriptions.

This is the story of Lt. Paul Frank Baer and a 1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch that I recently purchased at a NAWCC Regional Mart that was held in Dallas, Texas early in March of 2016. I had no idea who Lt. Baer was or how important he is in American history until I got back home and started doing some research. Honestly, I just thought that the engraving bearing his name and unit that has been inscribed on the case back was cool so I made the purchase. After a few minutes of research it became very clear how truly important Lt. Baer is in our history. Lt. Paul Baer is the very first pilot in American aerial combat history to achieve "ACE" status. In order to get "ACE" status you must get five confirmed "kills". On March 11, 1918 Lt. Baer earned the Distinguished Service Cross from the United States Army. He engaged SEVEN German bi-planes when he was all by himself. Think about that for a moment, engaging with 7 on 1 odds. This guy had nerves of steel! The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest medal that soldier can earn from the US Army, second only to the Medal of Honor. The French government awarded Lt. Baer the Croix de Guerre. They also awarded him with their highest medal possible, the Legion d'Honneur for his service that went above and beyond. Before serving in France Lt. Baer voluntarily enlisted in the US Army and served under General Pershing in the conflict with Poncho Villa in the American Southwest. He did not see combat during this conflict, he was a truck driver. Lt. Baer was eager to serve in the Great War theater in Europe and once again volunteered for service. He received his flight training in France. Now there is some dispute whether he was originally in the Lafayette Escodrille or the Lafayette Flying Corps. Different authors on the subject disagree on this point. When the United States entered WWI Lt. Baer transferred over to the 103d Aero Squadron (Pursuit). During this time Lt. Baer had nine confirmed "kills" and seven unconfirmed "kills". On May 22, 1918 he shot down his last German bi-plane. In this aerial battle he was shot down himself, survived the crash and was taken prisoner by the German forces. He was taken to a German prison came in Prussia until the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. During his time in the prison camp he attempted to escape several times. When the Germans recaptured him it was not pleasant, the Germans beat him without mercy. After the war Lt. Baer was active in the American Flying Club and took part in many of their races and activities. Later he took a job with the United States Department of Commerce as an Aeronautics Inspector in San Antonio, Texas. Several years later he took a job in China flying a float plane. On December 9, 1930 his story came to and end. During take off on the Whangpoo River in China his float plane hit the mast of a junk boat and crashed, Lt. Baer did not survive the crash. His body was taken back to Ft. Wayne Indiana and he was buried in Lindenwood Cemetery. With every line that I read about Lt. Baer I grew to respect even more. A very courageous and brave man who served his country with honor and distinction. Thank you for your service Lt. Baer, a true patriot and American war hero! 


I would like to thank Mr. Walter Font of the Ft. Wayne Historical Museum for these next two pictures. He really went above and beyond to get them for me. Yes, that is Lt. Baer wearing a WWI trench watch with a white dial and that has identical features and dimensions of the watch in question, including a Kitchener Strap that would have made the "train tracks" going across the case back. This picture is a very strong piece of evidence in my opinion, the picture was taken after the Great War when Lt. Baer returned back home from his decorated service.

Lt. Baer wearing a WWI trench watch
Lt. Baer on far left, German POW camp picture
April 1918 Edition of
Now onto the watch. NOBODY is disputing that this Elgin is in FACT a genuine antique WWI trench watch, it is absolutely the real deal. This is a 1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch, 7 jewels, size 3/0s with a size jumping spacer making it into a size 0s. This was a rather common practice of the day on Elgin watches. Enamel shadow box military dial, correct size 0s military hands, original glass crystal that has a bit of a purple hue due to the original radium lum. Original factory crown, Mealy Manufacturing DUO crystal guard, Philadelphia silverode case. The strap is not original to the watch, I put the Kitchener Strap on the watch, it came off of another trench watch that also hand a Philadelphia case so the bends on the leather at the lugs line up perfectly. I only did mechanical repairs to this watch to get it up and running, it's keeping great time once again. Hey it's an ELGIN! Absolutely nothing cosmetic has been done to this watch, it has NOT been polished in any way form or fashion. The case is how it was when I bought the watch. 

1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch
Now onto the very important part that is being hotly debated on the Internet watch forums, the engraving on the case back. This is an incredibly popular subject on the forums with well over 10,000 page views in the past 10 days. The engraving reads "P. Baer 103d Aero". Lt. Baer was undoubtedly part of the 103d Aero Squadron, not a single person is denying this fact. What is being debated is the engraving itself. Is it original to the watch or was it added after the fact to give the watch false provenance? That is the million dollar question. First, let me start out with this. I have personally restored over 1,200 WWI American trench watches over the years. I written two books about WWI American trench watches. The titles are "Elgin Trench Watches of the Great War" and "Waltham Trench Watches of the Great War". I have inspected several thousand more trench watches that I was considering purchasing or inspected for other people. I have NEVER seen a WWI trench watch that had a false engraving on the case back in order to give the watch historical provenance. I have never read any stories or seen any posts of this nature on any of the watch forums or magazines, neither has anybody that I know in the watch community. Now, there is a first time for everything in this world, anything is possible.
 
With that being said I was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see what I could discover about the engraving, is it the real deal or is it bogus? I paced around my watch workshop for several hours thinking long and hard about how I could get a better look at the engraving. The initial pictures of the case back showing several different angles were okay and they could be blown up and made larger but I wanted something better than that. Then it came to me, take a look at the engraving under a microscope! I jumped on ebay and came across something called a "3D digital electronic microscope". Big fancy name but in essence it is simply a piece of equipment with camera/video capability with a pretty powerful lens. It's rather cumbersome to use due to the manual focus, that part is not electronic.
 
Now, I needed something to test it against or I would not even know what I was looking at. So, I went through the bins in my shop and I found an orphan case back that was also made by the Philadelphia Watch Case Company. The metal composition is identical to the Lt. Baer watch, "silverode". Silverode is an alloy consisting of nickel, zinc, copper and manganese. Upon inspection of this orphan case back I was able to ascertain that the Lt. Baer case back and the orphan case back were made only about one year apart. The Lt. Baer case back was made in 1916 while the orphan case back was made in 1917. Long story how I can tell the difference, but that is for another time. I decided to send the orphan case back off to get engraved with the same inscription. I took it over to Shannon Fine Jewelers in Houston Texas on FM 1960. I just picked up the control case back yesterday afternoon, thanks Larry! Now I have something to compare the Lt. Baer case back against under the microscope. Once all of the testing has been completed I absolutely will DESTROY this newly engraved case back. I am a member of the NAWCC and I take the rules for counterfeit items very seriously! The ONLY reason I had a second case back engraved was for educational purposes. It will NEVER be sold or circulated into the public!
 

Under very high magnification I wanted to see what was inside of the groves of the letters and numerals on the Lt. Baer case back. Was it smooth and freshly done or was it pitted and actually had some age to it? I can tell you this, if you hold both case backs in your finger tips and with your thumb rub over the engravings you can definitely tell the difference, with your eyes closed of course. The new engraved case back has very high ridges, the Lt. Baer case back is MUCH smoother to the touch as if it has been worn down. Time for the microscope test! First, is the newly engraved case back. As you can clearly see the center groves of the engraving are almost white in color with a black outline which are the high ridges that I mentioned. Now, on the Lt. Baer engraving the center of the groves are black in color, an obvious vast difference. I found this to be a bit odd because several people on the watch forums are claiming that the Lt. Baer engraving has to be recently done. So, I found a couple other Philadelphia Silverode or Keystone Silveroid case back that were also engraved and I put them under the microscope, (Keystone owned Philadelphia). They too were black in color in the center of the engraving groves. These other cases are NOT newly done, they are old engravings. In my opinion it would take years if not DECADES to get the enough natural patina, dirt sweat buildup and anything else in there to give the center of the groves this black color. Some have suggested that acid was applied into the Lt. Baer case back in order to "age" it rapidly. Well, putting acid onto a case back does NOT make the center groves turn black, if fact it has the opposite effect. When I ran the "acid" test on one of these genuinely older case back engravings it turned the center of the engraving a lighter color, not a darker color. So much for that theory!

Philadelphia silverode case back, old engraving by handLt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watchnewly engraved case back
Philadelphia silverode case back, old engraving by hand
Philadelphia silverode case back, old engraving by hand
BEFORE Acid Test
AFTER Acid Test
Lt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watch
newly engraved case back
Lt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watch
newly engraved case back
Lt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watch
newly engraved case backLt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watch
newly engraved case back
Lt. Baer Case Back from 1916 Elgin Trench Watch
newly engraved case back



 The "103d" has been brought up on the engraving by several people. Both 103d and 103rd and have been used in official documents so the point is moot. Don't beat it to death, both are considered correct.

Now the question of the font style has to be looked at very hard! This is why I put many pictures of the case back onto the forums, I wanted this watch put under very hard scrutiny intentionally. Several very similar font styles had their beginnings around 1908 like News Gothic and News Cycle of the Sans-Serif style of fonts. Others contend that the font is something different like Helvetica, New Hermes or a Akizidenz-Grotesk derivative. I see high-breds and characteristics of several of these fonts in the Lt. Baer engraving. Folks are debating this point rather feverishly on the forums, even getting rather nasty with each other about it. I honestly cannot make up my mind on the font, I will leave that for YOU to decide for yourself. Now when it comes to how it was engraved is another hotly contested issue. Most watches from this era that had an engraving had it done by hand, but I have seen a couple that also look like a machine did the work in the past and recently. You don't see many engravings on watches from this era on cases that are made of silverode. The VAST majority of the ones that were hand engraved had sterling silver cases. Sterling silver is a MUCH softer metal when compared to Silverode like the Lt. Baer Trench Watch. Sterling silver would be much easier to engrave as well. But there is a double edged sword because of that. Sterling silver is soft so the engravings wore down with ease. Silverode is much harder so it will not wear down as fast as sterling silver. You must take that fact into consideration! The technology for machine engraving was certainly around during this period so once again make up your own mind. I am not here to make absolutions in judgement on the engraving, I am only doing this to show you the microscope test results. But, I will give my thoughts. This engraving was not recently done in my opinion, it was done years ago. When? That I cannot tell you. The black color inside of the engraving groves, the much smoother finish on the high ridges of the groves when compared to the newly engraved control test case and I don't see any file or tooling marks where somebody tried lower the height of the ridges on the engraving. Plus, add in the picture of Lt. Baer wearing a trench watch of the same dimensions, case style, dial color and required strap to make the case back tracks in the very first picture. But, I implore you to make up your own minds and draw your own conclusions when it comes to the engraving on the case back of this trench watch.

Contrary to popular belief all of the world's answers cannot be found on Google! About half of the mysteries that I have solved over the years when it comes to these incredible American trench watches had nothing to do with a computer. The answers were found in museums and libraries, not digitized documents that are only a few keystrokes away, it's a little bit harder than that folks. I highly suggest visiting the Elgin Historical Museum in Elgin Illinois, the Charles River Museum in Waltham Mass. the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia PA or the Ft. Wayne Historical Museum in Ft. Wayne Indiana just to name a few. 


This has been a great learning experience for me. I hope that you can take some of what you have read and bring it back to your own watch collections in assisting you with future acquisitions.

Thank you for sharing your time with me!


Lt. Paul Frank Baer




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