Demobilisation and returning to work

After the First World War ended, the complicated process of demobilisation began.

As soon as the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, people were anxious for the soldiers to come home overnight, but of course this was impossible. Nearly 3 million men were demobilised in the ensuing 12 months, but bringing so many men home quickly was no minor accomplishment.

The original demobilisation plans, drawn up in 1917, prioritised so-called ‘pivotal’ men, whose peacetime jobs were in industries that would be central to reconstruction. In November and December 1918 many employers, including banks, made enquiries about having members of their workforce counted in that category. Before they got very far, however, these plans were scrapped. The men in vital industries tended to be the ones who had been called up last, and it seemed unfair that they should get to go home first. Amid widespread public outcry, in January 1919 the government changed the system to give each man’s length of service, age and battle injuries more priority.

For our banks, the first challenge was to find out how many men actually wanted to come back. Almost all had promised to keep jobs open for their men on active service. Some had modified that guarantee in later years, but were still anxious to honour it.

In November and December 1918, our banks wrote to all their men in the army, navy and air force, asking whether they intended to return. Some did not. They had entered banking as teenagers, and in many cases it had been their parents’ choice of profession, not their own. Having seen different worlds and developed new skills, some wanted alternative careers. Others had left the banks as office juniors or apprentices, and were now lieutenants or captains; seasoned leaders of men who could not imagine returning to desk-bound clerical work. In some cases, family circumstances had changed. One of our men left the bank to go into the family business, filling the place left by an elder brother who had been killed in France.

Meanwhile, the thousands of temporary bank staff waited to find out what would become of their jobs. The banks had made them no promises, but were reluctant to lose this new skilled workforce, and did not want to cause them excessive anxiety about  an uncertain future. They appealed once more to the temporary clerks’ understanding, assuring them that decisions would be made as soon as possible, and that many of them had ‘an excellent chance of being appointed to permanent positions ultimately’.

The vast majority of bank men on military service did want to come back. Nobody knew what the post-war future held, and those with secure jobs to resume were the lucky ones. They were known as ‘slip’ men, because the Ministry of Labour would certify their employment status with a release slip. This gave them priority over men who were otherwise in the same demobilisation category.

The first bank men to make it home were those who had been prisoners of war or internees. Many of them were back in Britain by December 1918 or early January 1919, not yet officially demobilised, but on leave. Some were in very poor health and needed time to recuperate, but others were anxious to resume normal life as soon as possible. EA Holmes of Hathersage branch was one. He had been a prisoner in Germany since May 1918, and got back to England at the beginning of December. Although suffering from occasional headaches, his health was good, and by the end of the month he was helping out at the branch, assisting with the very busy six-monthly balance.

Other men started arriving home early in 1919, and by the end of the year almost all were back, either picking up where they had left off, or striving to carve out new lives for themselves.

Even then, however, the process of returning to work was not straightforward. Men had been transformed by the war, but so had the workplaces they had left behind. For one thing, men and women were now working side-by-side in banks. For those who had stayed behind, this momentous change had happened gradually, and in extreme circumstances. It must have been a much stranger experience for men who had been expecting to return to a familiar old environment.

The nature of the work had changed, too. Some traditional procedures had been abandoned, while new regulations had increased paperwork in other areas. For bank clerks, whose professional expertise was built upon the ability to follow procedures by the book, the changes must have been alarming.

There was also potential for resentment between people whose experiences of the past four years had been so different. In pressured wartime conditions, clerks had been given responsibilities that it would have taken years to earn in peacetime, and the banks were sensitive to accusations that a man’s service to his country might have placed him at a comparative career disadvantage. Fortunately, banking business continued to expand in the immediate post-war period, so there were plenty of promotion opportunities, for men who had gone away as well as for those who had stayed behind. Women clerks, on the other hand, were not generally considered for promotion, particularly in the branches. It was still assumed that most of them were only working temporarily, before leaving to get married – sometimes to men they had met at work, for this was the first generation of bank men who had the possibility of meeting a wife at work.  

Despite all the complications, demobilisation was a cause for celebration. In 1920 the staff of London County Westminster & Parr’s Bank’s large Lombard Street office held a celebration dinner, which was intended to mark the anniversary, not of peace, but of their demobilisation – their ‘return to civil life’. On that occasion they resolved to make it an annual event for as long as any of them lived, although the archives do not reveal how long the tradition actually continued.