John Gruchy was born in Cirencester in 1888, the son of Walter Gruchy, who worked for the Inland Revenue, and his wife Lilie. He had an older brother, Richard, and sister, Gladys.
After leaving school John went to work for our constituent London County & Westminster Bank. Outside work he was a territorial soldier, a member of the London Scottish. As soon as the First World War broke out in August 1914, he left his job at the bank’s Epsom branch to join his battalion, and after training in England went with them to France in September 1914.
At Messines, near Ypres, on 31 October 1914, the London Scottish became the first territorial battalion of the British army to engage the enemy in the First World War. Quite a number of men in the battalion were clerks from various London banks, including John Gruchy and several of his London County & Westminster Bank colleagues.
The battalion fought valiantly, but suffered heavy losses. Among the dead was Edmund Gavin from London County & Westminster Bank’s London West End office. Gavin was a well-known man in the bank, a star of the staff sports club. Gruchy was serving near him that day, and was one of the few people to witness what happened to him. He later described how, when Gavin was cornered, with nothing left to fight with but his fists, ‘he died boxing the Germans.’
John Gruchy was initially reported killed, too. In January 1915 his death was announced in the bank’s staff magazine and a local newspaper, but the information later proved false. He had been hit by a sniper’s bullet, but had managed to get to a field ambulance, where he lost consciousness. When he came round, the line had moved, and the ambulance was stuck in enemy territory. He was stranded for four days before being found and taken prisoner by a German ambulance party.
He had a severely damaged shoulder, broken arm and, before long, typhoid fever. He spent four months in a German hospital in Lille. In February 1915 he was due to be exchanged for a wounded German soldier, but was not passed fit for exchange, and was instead sent to another hospital in Liège, where his damaged shoulder was operated on. He remained there for another four months, before being transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
Gruchy was determined to use his time in captivity productively. He decided to learn French, and had plenty of opportunity to do so in both Lille and Liège, where he was nursed by French-speakers. He continued his efforts in Germany, proudly writing to his old manager at the bank, ‘here in the camp I have plenty of opportunity to speak French, and I make a principle of speaking nothing else.’
He said that coping with boredom was his biggest challenge. Although he insisted in letters home that he was ‘quite fit’, he also mentioned that his injuries kept him from participating in sports, or taking much exercise. In September 1915 he asked his old manager to provide his father with a list of books that could usefully be sent to him, to help him study towards his Institute of Bankers exams.
Gruchy was eventually included in a prisoner exchange. He was sent to Chateau d’Oex in neutral Switzerland, where exchanged prisoners were kept as internees until the end of the war. No doubt helped by the French he’d learnt in captivity, Gruchy struck up a relationship with a local girl, Renée Sacc. The two were married in Lausanne in March 1918.
After the end of the war internees were allowed to return home, and Gruchy came back to the bank. Once again, his French language skills served him well, because in May 1919 he was appointed to a relatively senior post at the bank’s new branch in Brussels. John and Renée lived in Belgium until 1928, when John was posted to Lyons branch, eventually serving as deputy manager there.
In 1936 John and Renée returned to England. John was temporarily stationed at a couple of different branches until May 1938, when he was appointed manager of the bank’s West Southbourne branch. He remained there for the rest of his career, managing the branch throughout the Second World War. He retired at the end of August 1948.
John Gruchy died in Bournemouth in 1950. Renée survived him. A colleague who’d worked with him in Brussels in the 1920s noted in the staff magazine that ‘the one great thing I remember about him was that he was a gentleman – and what more could one wish to be?’