Planning for demobilisation | RBS Remembers

RBS remembers 1914-1918


Planning for demobilisation

Sketch by an unnamed employee of London County Westminster & Parr's Bank, contrasting the perils of 1918 with hopes for peace in 1919 © RBS

 

As soon as the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, people were anxious for the soldiers to come home overnight, but of course this was impossible. Nearly 3 million men were demobilised in the ensuing 12 months, but bringing so many men home quickly was no minor accomplishment. One government minister claimed that dismantling such a huge army was at least as difficult as assembling it had been, with the added difficulty that people were no longer as patient as they’d been when there was a war on.

The original demobilisation plans, drawn up in 1917, prioritised so-called ‘pivotal’ men, whose peacetime jobs were in industries that would be central to reconstruction. In November and December 1918 many employers, including banks, made enquiries about having members of their workforce counted in that category. Before they got very far, however, these plans were scrapped. The men in vital industries tended to be the ones who’d been called up last. Many people thought it deeply unfair that they should also get to go home first. Amid widespread public outcry, in January 1919 the government changed the system to give each man’s length of service, age and battle injuries more priority.

For our banks, the first challenge was to find out how many men actually wanted to come back. Almost all had promised to keep jobs open for their men on active service. Some had watered down that guarantee in later years, but were still anxious to honour it, even in cases where men had joined up without permission, and were therefore not officially covered by such promises.

In the meantime, however, thousands of temporary staff had been taken on. Women and boys had worked hard, and shown dedication. Although the banks had made them no promises, they didn’t want to lose this new skilled workforce unnecessarily, or cause them excessive anxiety about the future. While they waited to find out who was coming back, the banks appealed once more to the temporary clerks’ understanding, assuring them that decisions would be made as soon as possible, and that many of them had ‘an excellent chance of being appointed to permanent positions ultimately’.

The people who’d run banks in wartime had been given responsibilities that it would have taken years to earn in peacetime. Nevertheless, the banks were anxious to avoid any suggestion that a man’s service to his country could have placed him at a career disadvantage. Fortunately, banking business continued to expand in the immediate post-war period, so there were destined to be plenty of promotion opportunities in new branches and departments, for men who’d gone away as well as those who’d stayed behind. Women clerks, meanwhile, were not generally considered for promotion, particularly in the branches. It was still assumed that most of them were only working temporarily, before leaving to get married.

 


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