The armistice was agreed at Compiègne, north east of Paris, at 5am on 11 November 1918. It was to come into effect 6 hours later, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Ever since, this has been remembered as the moment that ended the First World War.
In fact, the armistice was only a suspension of hostilities, not a final peace settlement. It was only valid for 30 days, after which it would have to be renewed. Fighting could resume within 48 hours if the terms were deemed to have been breached. Furthermore, although the ceasefire held on the Western Front, fighting continued in the territories of the former Russian and Ottoman empires. Formal peace negotiations would be much slower, more complicated, and would take many months to complete.
Nor should we imagine that the armistice ended the suffering, or the dying. More than 40 men from our banks died on or after 11 November 1918, most of them of the deadly Spanish flu, but others as a result of other illnesses, wounds or accidents. One died in a plane crash while serving as a pilot carrying passengers and messages to and from the peace negotiations at Versailles.
Nevertheless, the signing of the armistice was a joyous moment. News reached London at around 10.30, half an hour before the armistice came into effect. Flags came out and groups of laughing and singing people spilled into the streets. Bus fares were waived and crowds gathered. Church bells rang. Even the afternoon rain couldn’t stop the celebrations, which continued long into the night.
No doubt many bank workers and their families were among the cheering crowds. Even for those who marked the occasion more quietly, it’s hard to imagine that many people thought or spoke of much else on that historic day. Nevertheless, references to the armistice are curiously absent in the archives of our constituent banks. Board meetings, day-to-day correspondence and account record-keeping carried on just the same as usual. The bankers who created these records may perhaps have danced in the streets at lunchtime or after work, but in the offices and behind the counters, they had much to do.
The banks were as busy, and as short-staffed, as ever. The Spanish flu epidemic was still raging, and the government’s constant need to raise war finance – sold largely through the banks – was unabated. Many banks were deep in merger negotiations. Furthermore, it was in the nature of bankers to be cautious about apparent changes of circumstance. Many would have been keenly aware of the difference between an armistice and real peace. As late as 12 December 1918, a month after the armistice, this caution is evident in the words of The Royal Bank of Scotland’s cashier to his counterpart in the Bank of Nova Scotia: ‘Like you I feel profoundly relieved at the turn which the war has taken. The break-down of Germany has been so complete that one sometimes rubs his eyes and wonders if it is all true.’
The banks also knew that peace – if that was what the armistice really meant – would make them even busier. As early as 14 November, they were notified by the War Office that the wartime ban on opening new branches was lifted. All of them had plans, if not for extending their branch networks, then for expanding the range of their business; on the same date, National Bank of Scotland was busy preparing to open a foreign exchange office in Glasgow. Letters started arriving from staff in uniform, asking about arrangements for their return to work. This in itself was sure to be an immensely complicated procedure. As the staff magazine of Ulster Bank noted, ‘peace had indeed come almost as dramatically as the war came and may possibly find us as unprepared as then.’
Only one of our constituent banks is known to have made an immediate gesture marking the armistice. On 11 November 1918 Reginald Hindley, general manager of Williams Deacon’s Bank, issued a circular letter to all staff. One copy has survived in the bank’s archives, kept by an employee at the bank’s Bolton branch:
Ladies and gentlemen, the news has just come that an Armistice is signed…
We give our thanks and praise to all those who on the battlefield and at home, in perils of great waters, and in perils of our munitions production, have given their utmost for the Nation and for us individually. May we honour them as they deserve.
And we remember, with warm hearts though sad, the forty of our own members who have laid down their lives, and the four who are missing. Their names will ever be before us, may their memorial inspire us each and all to make sacrifices if by so doing we can reach our highest ideals.
And thus the new day dawns – the day of reconstruction with all its problems, difficulties and adjustments. May we all bring our best to bear on these problems, and by loyal co-operation and mutual understanding of each others' viewpoints, do our utmost to build up our bank firmly and well upon the broader foundations that have been made possible to us in the past four years of ever-changing conditions.
I thank you each and all for your help in those past years.
Reginald Hindley, general manager of Williams Deacon's Bank, 11 November 1918