The First World War generation - later lives

Those who fought in the First World War were a unique generation, and their experiences affected the rest of their lives.

A unique generation

Although the First World War affected everyone who lived through it, the most extreme impact fell upon men who were in their 20s during those years. The vast majority of the Fallen from our banks were in that age range, and for those who survived and came home, the experiences of 1914-18 remained deeply significant. The after-effects continued to shape the rest of their lives, marking these men out as a unique and extraordinary generation.

Some men decided not to come back to banking, having had their horizons broadened by war experiences. For those who did, the banks had promised to keep their pre-war jobs open, and prospects for further advancement were good. They were no longer competing against contemporaries who had left to pursue careers elsewhere or, more terribly, against the many who had not come back at all. Even among bank employees themselves, demographics had changed in these men’s favour. Some of the women who had been taken on as wartime cover stayed after the war, but it would be many decades before they were considered on equal terms for career advancement. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was expected that most of them would stick to clerical work, leaving management opportunities to the men.

Banks were also expanding, and changing the way they did business. Some opened overseas branches. They were largely staffed by men who had served in the war, partly because they were young and had no dependants, and partly because the war had given them a glimpse of life abroad, or even an opportunity to learn a foreign language.

It could take years in a bank to demonstrate management potential, but many men came back from military service with indisputable records of leadership. This affected the way they were seen, by themselves and by others, and helped them to progress towards more senior roles.

Other benefits of war service were more unexpected. Westminster Bank’s chief accountant in the 1940s, who spearheaded the bank’s mechanisation initiatives, attributed the beginning of his interest in machines to his time as a Lewis gun instructor in the First World War.

There were, of course, terrible repercussions for this generation too. The psychological effects of their wartime experiences are impossible to calculate, but many were left with permanent physical disabilities, such as missing limbs or impaired vision. Others had sustained wounds that had ostensibly healed, but caused them chronic pain or susceptibility to infection for the rest of their lives.

This generation was called upon again to make a vital contribution between 1939 and 1945. Now in their 40s and 50s, men who had served as young soldiers in the First World War held positions of authority in all sectors, from politics and the military to industry and the press. Most bank managers during the Second World War had served as young men in the First World War. Now, too old for normal military service, they joined the Home Guard in their thousands, keen – like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – to help defend their country. Meanwhile, at work, they helped their banks to revive old procedures first devised a generation earlier, including blackout practices, careful conservation of supplies and management of inexperienced temporary staff. On top of it all, this was the generation that saw their own sons go off to fight. Many men who had survived the First World War lost sons in the Second.

This generation retired, aged around 60, in the 1950s. For those who had risen to branch or department management, there was usually a retirement notice, complete with career summary, in the staff magazine. Page after page, almost every one includes a paragraph about what the man did 40 years earlier, in the First World War.