By 1914 banking was already a global business, and London was a key international financial market. As a result, British banks employed numerous foreign nationals, particularly in their London-based Foreign departments, where multilingual staff were required.
When war broke out, a number of these men were called up for the armies of their home countries. The largest number were French, and included Stéphane Kahn, the most senior official of London County & Westminster’s large Foreign office. France, like all the major European powers except Britain, had a system of conscription, and had detailed plans in place for general mobilisation in the event of war. The mobilisation order was given on 1 August 1914, and in the next 17 days some 2.8 million Frenchmen answered the call; an enormous number in a nation whose entire population was only about 40 million.
For the London banks, the sudden loss of these men was no doubt a difficulty, but it was nothing compared to the problems it created in London County & Westminster Bank’s Paris-based subsidiary. This office had been established the previous year. Its manager, one of the deputy managers and a handful of other staff were British. A few were of other European nationalities, but most were French. Of the 45 employees of the office at the outbreak of the war, 18 were gone within weeks. Stéphane Kahn, in Paris following his mobilisation but not yet away on active service, visited the Paris branch, and made arrangements for employees on active service in the French army to continue receiving half-pay from the bank.
The Frenchmen who had gone from the London branches also continued to receive pay, on similar terms to those offered to men in the British army. So did two Swiss men from London County & Westminster’s head office, who were called home to join the Swiss army, defending Switzerland’s neutrality. They were only gone a few months, and were then able to return to London. A number of Swiss citizens worked for the Paris office, too, and all of them were granted permission from the Swiss army to delay their duty of military service, so never had to leave work at all.
One man from our staff served – and died – in the Italian army. Louis Isnardi-Bruno was English born and raised, but had an Italian father. He joined the British army early in 1915, but after Italy joined the war in May that year on the side of the Entente powers, he transferred to the Italian army. He was killed in action in May 1918.
It’s not possible to know how many men who’d worked for our banks served in the armies of Britain’s enemies during the First World War, but there were probably some. Over 27,000 German-born people lived in London in 1911, and it is likely that some of them worked for banks, which needed German-speaking clerks and struggled to find them in the British-born population.
Such was the hostility to Germany by the time war broke out that it’s hardly surprising to find nobody listed as a German citizen in the staff lists of our banks. There is one intriguing account, however, in the staff magazine of Parr’s Bank from 1915. In August that year, OR Griffin from the bank’s London head office was a patient in a hospital in France when some German prisoners were brought in. One of his colleagues spoke to one of them, who mentioned that before the war he’d worked for five years for Parr’s Bank in London. Knowing that Griffin worked there too, the man mentioned the coincidence to Griffin, who hurried off to find the prisoner, but he’d already been moved on. Griffin never found out his name, or any more details of his background.