By the time the Gallipoli campaign began on 25 April 1915, hundreds of men from our three Scottish banks were away on military service. Many had already experienced battle, and had seen comrades killed or injured. Back home in the banks, however, reality had not yet hit home. One man from The Royal Bank of Scotland had been killed; one from Commercial Bank of Scotland; and two from National Bank of Scotland. Shocking as these deaths were, it was still possible to think they were isolated tragedies. The scale of loss that was to come was not yet apparent.
All this was soon to change. On 28 June 1915 several dozen men from our Scottish banks, all serving in the 4th Royal Scots, were involved in a battle that left more than 200 of the battalion dead, including 6 of our men.
The Bankers’ Company
The 4th Royal Scots was an Edinburgh-based volunteer battalion. Before the war it had included a Bankers’ Company, comprised entirely of men from the city’s many banks. The Company gave its members an opportunity to serve side-by-side with friends and colleagues. Their employers provided some of the necessary uniforms and equipment.
When war broke out in 1914 many men from the Bankers’ Company became officers elsewhere. Those who remained were divided into volunteers for overseas service and those preferring to stay at home. The Bankers’ Company as it had existed pre-war was thus broken up, but about 50 of its old members left for Gallipoli at the end of May 1915 with the 4th Royal Scots.
They sailed from Liverpool on 23 May, on board the Empress of Britain. Also on board were the remnants of the 7th Royal Scots; the two companies of the battalion that had not been involved in the terrible rail crash at Quintinshill the previous day. Perhaps the Royal Bank men on board found out from them that among the 226 dead was one of their bank colleagues, 24-year-old Alexander Gibson from Cockenzie branch.
The men arrived at Alexandria on 3 June and several days later moved on to Gallipoli, where they were initially put to work digging trenches. It was hard work in such oppressive heat, and many men fell ill.
The 4th Royal Scots first went into the trenches on 19 June. The same day, Lance Corporal Andrew Aitken was killed, probably by a sniper. Before the war he had worked at The Royal Bank of Scotland’s head office in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. He was the third Royal Bank man to be killed in the war.
On 28 June 1915 the 4th Royal Scots were involved in a major attack at Gully Ravine. British shells were supposed to bombard the enemy for two hours before the attack began, but no shells fell on the part of the line where the 4th Royal Scots were to advance, although Turkish shells did hit them as they waited.
When the advance finally came, many men were cut down almost immediately. Most of the officers had fallen before the first objective was reached. Only about 60 men reached the trench that was their final objective.
219 men and officers of the 4th Royal Scots were killed in the attack on Gully Ravine. Among them was Captain John Robertson, commanding officer of the Bankers’ Company and manager of National Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh Blenheim Place branch. His Second Lieutenant, Charles Paterson of the Royal Bank’s head office, was also dead. Among the fallen men were Private Ernest Bailey of Commercial Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh Newington branch; Private Smollett Clerk of National Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh Leith Walk branch; Private Robert Brockie of the Royal Bank’s Edinburgh Leven Street branch; and Private Charles Johnston of the Royal Bank’s Perth branch.
By the time news of these deaths reached Edinburgh, more fatalities on the Western Front were also being reported. In the space of two months from late April to late June 1915, these three banks’ death toll had risen from 4 to 18 men.
The list of the fallen was to become unimaginably longer as the war continued. There would be other bloody days; on 1 July 1916 alone, 44 men from our British constituent banks died. But for our three Scottish banks in particular, these few weeks in the early summer of 1915 marked a shocking and terrible moment of realisation.