Although the opportunities for spending money on active service were limited, a major change came for those who were unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner. International law required nations to provide for prisoners of war, but in reality food and other necessities were often severely inadequate, and prisoners had to find ways to meet their own requirements. Most British prisoners depended on Red Cross parcels, but for the few who had bank facilities and could access them, their chequebooks became another lifeline.
In 1918, the War Office became nervous about the number of British prisoners in Turkey who were buying provisions from local suppliers in return for personal cheques drawn on their British bank accounts. The recipients of the cheques didn’t have a sure way of presenting them for payment, so many were holding on to them for extended periods, waiting for the end of the war, or a safe opportunity to process the cheque. The War Office feared that officers might write cheques far surpassing their account balances, or that accounts might have been closed by the time a cheque came in. It did not want officers’ payments to be dishonoured, so it contacted every bank in Britain, asking to be consulted whenever such circumstances arose.
The banks also had customers who were being held as internees in Holland and Switzerland. These countries were neutral, and international law decreed that any combatants who ended up there had to be interned until the end of hostilities. Conditions for these men were much better than for prisoners, but still they suffered from boredom, and the extreme frustration of being out of action when their country needed them most.
Internees had much more free communication with home, and indeed by the end of the war some were allowed to visit Britain on temporary leave. They still had free access to their bank accounts. Nevertheless, the government was reluctant to see British money spent abroad, where it could adversely affect the strength of the pound. It considered imposing a ceiling on what internees could withdraw from their bank accounts, but was reluctant to worsen their situation, or seem to be punishing them. Instead, it settled on a ‘voluntary limit’ of £25 a month, hoping to achieve its goal through moral pressure, rather than coercion. To make that pressure as strong as possible, the government required banks to submit weekly statements detailing the names of internees and how much money they were withdrawing.