London County & Westminster Bank was the only one of our constituent banks to develop a direct presence in continental Europe before 1914. It began its Paris-based venture in October 1913, just months before the outbreak of war.
Rather than starting from scratch, it took over an existing business, Banque Franco-Américaine, and turned it into London County & Westminster Bank (Paris). Its first few months were difficult, but the outbreak of war the following summer brought a sudden boost to business. Britain and France were now close allies, and trade between the two nations became an act of patriotism as well as a business goal. A bank with a presence in both countries was well-placed to serve a wide range of customers. In consequence, 1914 saw the branch make its first profits.
Nevertheless, conducting business in these circumstances was hard. General mobilisation at the outbreak of war meant the immediate call-up of millions of Frenchmen, including many from the bank’s Paris office. Four of them were killed while serving in the French army, including Maurice Emile Pauchet, the most senior Frenchman on the staff.
Even for those who remained at work, danger could be close at hand. In June 1918 the Germans got very close to Paris, and were bombarding the city. By then, however, the bank had opened an office in Bordeaux. It transferred its Paris books and valuables to the new branch until the danger had passed.
The Bordeaux branch had opened in 1917, after the port was handed over to the American government for landing its troops there. Extensive work was undertaken to enlarge the port, and the new branch gave the bank’s customers access to this hive of commercial activity.
The bank also opened branches in Madrid and Barcelona in 1917. Spain was neutral in the war, but the British government approved of any move that helped British interests to expand in Spain, thereby diminishing German influence. For British banks and businesses, this was an opportunity to take over international business that had previously been dominated by German competitors.
Immediately after the end of the war the bank looked towards Belgium, opening branches in both Antwerp and Brussels. The invasion of Belgium had been the direct trigger for Britain’s entry into the war, and the suffering of its civilians had been a significant factor in the British people’s ongoing commitment to the war. Now, the opportunity to help return Belgium to prosperity was appealing. There were more pragmatic motives, too. Occupied Belgium had lost a smaller proportion of its military-age men than the main combatant nations. This, it was thought, would give Belgium a plentiful and relatively cheap post-war workforce. With the addition of anticipated reparations payments from Germany, Belgium’s economy was expected to boom.
This was not the limit of the bank’s ambitions. In February 1919 it put out a call for staff who could speak a foreign language and were prepared to undertake foreign postings. Branches opened in Lyons, Marseilles and Bilbao in 1919, and Valencia in 1920. Having survived the biggest upheaval in European history, the bank now felt ready to face a bright European future.