As war loomed in July 1914, it was the navy that mobilised first. Knowing the dangers they would face if war was declared, many of the men who were called to active duty took steps to prepare their financial affairs for the worst.
The naval pay agency Stilwell & Sons, later part of RBS, received detailed customer instructions to be carried out upon receiving news of the customer's death. Some of these instructions survive in the bank’s archives. They include details of invoices to be paid at shops, addresses of lawyers to be notified, and arrangements for providing for family. One officer asks for his wife to be allowed to withdraw any amount from his account up to the full balance. Another instructs the bank to take charge of applying for a widow's pension for his wife. Yet another asks the bank to transfer £30 to his wife’s account immediately upon receiving news of his death, presumably to see her through the immediate expense of processing his will and applying for a widow's pension.
Some instructions include letters to be forwarded to loved ones in the event of the customer’s death. One ends, ‘Anyhow, mother, you can be glad to think that a son of yours was doing his best and died like an English gentleman. Well, mother my darling, no more. I hope this letter will never have to be sent to you, but if it has – goodbye, darling, and God bless you. Your devoted son, John.’ Fortunately John survived the war, and his letter was never sent.
We have to advise that we have made arrangements with the Credito Italiano, Milan, for opening credits with them in favour of British officers serving in, or passing through, Italy
National Bank of Scotland circular, November 1917
Banks with specialist links to the army or navy were the first to see their customers go on active service, but soon all banks had customers in this situation. Of course, many men – particularly in the ranks – didn’t have bank accounts at all. For those that did, military service overseas offered limited opportunities to spend anything more than pocket money, and separate allowances were paid direct to dependants back home. In general, therefore, men serving overseas didn’t need complicated help from their banks, as a pre-war businessman trading abroad might have done.
Some soldiers opened bank accounts for the very first time. Our constituent Beckett & Co of Leeds received a letter from a man serving in the Royal Engineers: ‘Dear Sir, I am sending two money orders[…]for you to put in a deposit account for me. I don’t know naught about banks. I am a Leeds soldier fighting in Mesopotamia, but I have heard ‘em say yours is the best bank in Yorkshire, so I am sending my pay to you, hoping you will put it right for me, and you can send me a letter to let me know how to go on in future.’
Banks also provided services to American and other allied soldiers posted in Britain, paying out cash for army pay drafts, remitting money to loved ones at home, and even acting as a mail forwarding address. Posters and leaflets advertised the various services. They were provided, as London County & Westminster Bank explained to its staff, ‘not…as a means of profit, but for the convenience of the soldiers of our Allies.’