Prisoners of war
Compared to the numbers of staff who served or died during the First World War, only a few spent time as prisoners of war. Those who did, however, had very tangible needs, and their employers and colleagues back home were glad of an opportunity to help. As Ulster Bank’s staff magazine noted, ‘For the dead we can do nothing; but for those in captivity it may be that we are not so helpless.’
British prisoners in Germany were forced to undertake hard labour, and often received very inadequate rations. Many had been injured at the time of their capture, and in these conditions it was hard for them to recover. At least 14 men from our banks died in enemy prison camps.
Back in Britain, friends and family of prisoners tried to send parcels of food and other necessaries to their loved ones, but the government soon realised that such piecemeal efforts were insufficient. Parcels were often misdirected, or disappeared en route. From ignorance, some families sent the wrong items. Some prisoners received too much, while others received nothing at all. Furthermore, the government was worried about the security risk of sensitive information falling into enemy hands.
To regulate the parcels system, the government introduced a management committee and then, from November 1916, a centralised system for purchasing, packaging and sending out parcels. Friends and families could ‘adopt’ a prisoner – that is, subscribe money each month to pay for his parcels. These parcels were a vital lifeline. HSA Bailes of London County & Westminster Bank later recalled, ‘we lived entirely on the parcels sent from home. The Russians, who receive very few parcels, died off at the rate of two or three a day in our camp alone, so one can guess how little nutriment there was in the food provided.’
Several of our banks subscribed £1 a month for parcels for imprisoned staff. This was just over a third of the £2 17s 6d maximum the system allowed per prisoner, so families also often subscribed if they could afford to do so. A note was enclosed with each parcel, telling the recipient who had paid for it.
One of the recipients of London County & Westminster Bank’s parcels was GA Wilton, a clerk from its Burton-on-Trent branch. When he returned to England after the war, he wrote to thank the bank for his parcels: ‘It is to these alone I owe my life. Without them it would have been impossible to have endured the treatment, and to have carried on the work forced upon us by the Germans.’
The system did not always run smoothly. When Maurice Hunt of the same bank’s Derby Midland Road branch returned home after the war, the bank learned that he had never received any of its parcels. The information about his whereabouts had been mistaken, and all his parcels had been sent to the wrong camp.
Conditions varied from camp to camp, and while some prisoners’ accounts described hard labour and deprivation, others wrote of sports matches and concerts. Eric Hayes, a clerk from Guildford branch, found himself in prison with ‘the best flautist in Belgium’, who gave performances for his fellow captives.
Another clerk, John Gruchy of Epsom branch, had suffered injuries which left him unable to participate in prisoner sports – ‘games,’ he wrote sadly, ‘are finished for me.’ Nevertheless, he arranged for his father to send him textbooks so that he could study towards his Institute of Bankers exams. He also learnt French: ‘here in the camp I have plenty of opportunity to speak French, and I make a principle of speaking nothing else.’
HSA Bailes had suffered terrible injuries in both legs at the time of his capture. Although he spoke scathingly of malnutrition and bullying in his prison camp, he told a different story about his medical experiences: ‘I must…place on record my appreciation of their magnificent hospitals, in two of which I received splendid treatment.’
Not all our imprisoned men were in enemy hands. In the British retreat from Antwerp in October 1914, 1,500 members of the Royal Navy, many of them reservists, were forced to enter neutral Holland to avoid being captured by the Germans. Once there, international law decreed that they must remain interned for the duration of hostilities. Among the 1,500 men who thus sat out the war in a camp in Groningen were around a dozen men from our banks.
For these men, the experience of imprisonment was dominated by boredom and extreme frustration. After years of training as so-called ‘Saturday afternoon sailors’, they were now forced to do nothing, just when their country needed them most. They felt acutely aware of the dangers faced by their colleagues on active service, and of the civilian suffering they had seen on their retreat. One wrote, ‘it is the earnest hope and wish of all the Bank men interned here that all those who are disposed to do what they can…will instead of sending things to us here, divert their energies to the poor refugees from Belgium, who are comparatively a hundred times worse off than we are.’
The men at Groningen went to great lengths to keep themselves busy. London County & Westminster Bank’s FR Ashenden became Captain of the camp’s athletic club. His bank colleague EE Bale appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and also represented the prisoners on a cricket team that played against local Dutch opponents. ME Goodfellow of Parr’s Bank described in a letter home a Christmas fancy dress party, but noted wistfully that ‘the absence of the opposite sex is rather a drawback to functions of that sort.’
At the end of the war, the Groningen men and all prisoners of the enemy were repatriated to Britain, where they were generally given two months’ leave from the army or navy. Some needed rest or even hospital treatment, while others were anxious to resume their pre-war lives as soon as possible. Ernest Holmes of Hathersage branch got home to England in early December 1918. Before the end of the month he volunteered to go back to work at the bank during his two months’ army leave, helping with the half-yearly balance that was always an exceptionally busy time in banks.