Serving with pals

Bank workers on war service sometimes met up with pre-war colleagues, either deliberately or by chance.

A new environment

Upon joining the army, men were thrown into a wholly new environment, among strangers from very different backgrounds, with unfamiliar habits and accents. Although they quickly got to know their immediate comrades, army life meant moving around, working with men from many different units. It was a big change from life in a bank, where clerks would see the same faces and perform the same routines every day.

The Bankers' Battalion

The phenomenon of Pals' Battalions began as early as August 1914, when 1,600 men volunteered in a single week for a 'Stockbrokers' Battalion' of the Royal Fusiliers. In the next two years, over 600 Pals' Battalions were formed, many from the men of individual towns, but others from specific trades or professions.

The 26th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers – the Bankers' Battalion – was announced in July 1915. It was launched on the initiative of the Lord Mayor of London, to be raised from men working in the City's banks and insurance offices.

In fact, many of the men who would have been eligible had already joined up by then, and it took four months for the Battalion to reach its intended complement of 1,000 men. They were then posted to Aldershot for training, becoming part of 124th Brigade, 41st Division. On 15 April 1916 the Battalion marched through London on parade. The Evening News described how older bank workers, who had stayed behind to keep the banks running, came out of their offices to cheer their young colleagues as they passed. Soon afterwards, in early May, the Bankers' Battalion shipped out to France.

The Battalion's first experience of battle came on 15 September 1916, at Flers-Courcelette. This battle, part of the Somme campaign, is remembered today for the debut of tanks in combat. The battle lasted a week, and the Bankers’ Battalion suffered heavily, with over 260 men killed, wounded or missing. Eight of the dead were from our constituent banks.

The Battalion also took part in the Battle of Transloy, towards the end of the Somme campaign of 1916. During 1917 it participated in the battles of Messines, Pilckem Ridge and Menin Road, before being transferred to Italy in November. It returned to Belgium in February 1918, and remained there until the end of the war. The Battalion was demobilised in early 1919, and formally disbanded in April 1920.

In the course of the war, 2,700 men served in the Bankers' Battalion. Of them, 700 were killed.

The Bankers' Company of the Royal Scots

Even before the First World War broke out, the Scottish banks had a tradition of military service with work colleagues, through the Bankers' Company of the Royal Scots. This was part of the 4th Royal Scots, an Edinburgh-based volunteer battalion, and it was composed entirely of men from the city's banks.

When war broke out in 1914 the Bankers' Company was largely broken up, as many of its members became officers elsewhere and membership was reorganised according to the army’s urgent new requirements. Nevertheless, its old members remained strongly-represented among the officers and soldiers of the 4th Royal Scots, who went to Gallipoli at the end of May 1915.

On 28 June 1915 the 4th Royal Scots were involved in a major attack at Gully Ravine. British shells were supposed to bombard the enemy for two hours before the attack began, but no shells fell on the part of the line where the 4th Royal Scots were to advance, although Turkish shells did hit them as they waited.

When the advance finally came, many men were cut down almost immediately. Most of the officers had fallen before the first objective was reached. Only about 60 men reached the trench that was their final objective.

219 men and officers of the 4th Royal Scots were killed in the attack on Gully Ravine. Among them were Captain John Robertson, manager of National Bank of Scotland's Edinburgh Blenheim Place branch and former commanding officer of the Bankers' Company, and at least five other men from our Scottish branches.

Chance encounters

Even men with no bank connection in their military posting were often delighted to bump into a pre-war colleague, whether they knew each other personally or not. One clerk from London County & Westminster Bank's Shoreditch branch remarked: 'when one comes across a County & Westminster man there is a kind of masonic friendship at once. Quite by chance I found one of our men from Cranbrook in the next mess to me…' Another clerk from Aldershot described his recent transfer to the Machine Gun Section, and the news that he had met 'one of our men from Catford branch.'

The comfort of familiar faces was never more important than when a man was injured. Ulster Bank's staff magazine in June 1917 carried the story of three such encounters in the experience of Bob Gilmour, a bank man who had been wounded in France. First, the Serjeant who helped him off the battlefield after his wounding was an Ulster Bank colleague. Next, the doctor who saw him at the field hospital was a customer of the branch where he had worked, and recognised him from behind the counter. Finally, the nursing home to which he was sent in Dublin was very close to that branch, Dublin Pembroke.

Serving in other armies

As men in the British army moved about to different postings and duties, chance encounters with familiar faces were by no means uncommon. They were less likely for those of our men who served in other armies.

By 1914 banking was already a global business, and London was a key international financial market. As a result, British banks employed numerous foreign nationals, particularly in their London-based Foreign departments, where multilingual staff were required.

When war broke out, many of these men were called up for the armies of their home countries. The largest number were French, and were required to join up under the general mobilisation order issued by the French government on 1 August 1914.

Victor Jacon of London County & Westminster Bank's London Foreign branch was one of them, and his lasting affection for England and his English friends is evident in the letters he sent to his former colleagues at the bank. In one, he wrote 'the next few days I will have occasion to see some of your Tommies, and you may think that it will afford me great pleasure to have a talk about old England with them. All my colleagues only call me the 'English friend', and you may be sure I am one of them.'

Two Swiss men from London County & Westminster's head office were called home to join the Swiss army, defending Switzerland's neutrality. They were only gone a few months, and were then able to return to London.

One man from our staff served – and died – in the Italian army. Louis Isnardi-Bruno was English born and raised, but had an Italian father. He joined the British army early in 1915, but after Italy joined the war in May that year on the side of the Entente powers, he transferred to the Italian army. He was killed in action in May 1918.

It is not possible to know how many of our men served or died in the armies of Britain's enemies during the First World War, but there were probably some. Over 27,000 German-born people lived in London in 1911, and it is highly likely that some of them worked for banks, which needed German-speaking clerks and struggled to find them in the British population.