Today, we remember Saturday 1 July 1916 as the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. But most people at the time knew nothing of the events unfolding on the Western Front. It was not until later that the first day of the Somme took on its terrible historic resonance.
For the employees of some of our biggest banks, the first of July was always an important date. It was the day after the end of the first half of the year, when all branch accounts from the past six months had to be balanced up and reported to head office. The whole process of conducting the six-monthly balance could not begin properly until the bank’s doors closed at the end of 30 June. There was always pressure to get the job done quickly, so the bank could publish its balance sheet promptly. Staff were expected to work late, and – if there was even the smallest problem with tallying the records – there was a great deal of rushing about trying to resolve issues.
I thought of you fellows on balance night. I was on sentry go in the trenches, and I thought of the difference between this balance and last.
Rifleman DR Beck, Kensington Rifles, letter to bank colleagues, 5 July 1916
These six-monthly ‘balance’ days were one of the ways that bank workers counted time. During the war, they were a moment when clerks on military service thought of their colleagues back home. In their letters home, the well-known cliché ‘over by Christmas’ was often replaced by references to being home in time for the next balance. In summer 1916, for example, Lance Corporal Bickerton wrote to his colleagues in Parr’s Bank, ‘let us hope that by the time the next balance comes along the boys will be all back again.’
A new clerk’s first balance day was a rite of passage, and many of the bank men on military service were curious to see how the women who had replaced them would cope at this time of great pressure. There is a cartoon in the bank's archives, drawn by an anonymous colleague, that depicts a scene of considerable mayhem as the women tried to get the work done on the night of 30 June 1916; but they must have managed, because all the banks published their balance sheets on schedule.
Meanwhile, in France
It is clear from letters home that at least some of our men on active service on the Western Front were well aware by late June of the impending ‘big push’. One of our clerks, writing to his bank colleagues on 26 June 1916, remarked ‘You will now be in the throes of the ‘balance’, and I can only wish you a speedy finish. Out here we are just going to start our ‘balance’ and I wish I was able to tell you more about it, for I could write reams on it, but am prevented, so please excuse what must be a short note.’
In the event, the ‘balance’ mentioned in this letter – the ‘big push’ that started on 1 July – proved terrible and bloody. Hundreds of our banks’ men were there, and more than 40 of them died on that first day. By the time the campaign was forced to a halt by the onset of winter four and a half months later, nearly 150 of our men were among the many thousands of British dead.
Nearly 20,000 men of the British army were killed on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916
As news from the Somme began to arrive in Britain, there must have been considerable shock among bank colleagues, as everywhere. A couple of months later, Parr’s Bank Magazine published a long and detailed account – passed by the censor – by one of its clerks, Rifleman BJ Fryer, who had been injured that day. He described spending the last few days of June digging trenches, and then the night of 30 June – ‘whilst you were engrossed with the balance’ – waiting for morning, and the signal to go 'over the top'. When it finally came, he and his comrades succeeded in reaching and taking over a German trench, but were soon forced back. On the way, Fryer sustained an abdominal wound and barely dragged himself back to the trench he had left some time earlier, now so damaged it was barely recognisable. Fryer was taken to a dressing station, then a field hospital, and by the time he wrote his account for the staff magazine, was staying at a convalescent camp in England.
Hungry as staff were for news of this kind from their colleagues, the first weeks of the Somme also marked a turning point in the handling of news of casualties. In August 1916 Bankers’ Magazine announced that it no longer had enough space to list the names of bank men who had been wounded. From then on, its regular Roll of Honour section listed only the dead.