More than 1 in 7 of our men who joined up were killed in the war. This figure is higher than in the population as a whole, probably because so many of them became junior officers, among whom casualty rates where particularly high.
It’s harder to estimate how many of our men were injured, but some of our constituent banks put the figure at 1 in 4 or more. Of these, most made a full recovery. According to government statistics, only 8% of war injuries caused patients to be discharged from the army, while another 18% left them unfit for physical military service, but capable of sedentary duties.
Banks had promised to keep jobs open for staff who joined up, and were keen to keep that promise, including for those who came back with lasting disabilities. It could be difficult, though. Banking in the 1910s did not offer a wide range of different work roles, particularly not for men still at the junior end of their careers. They needed to be able to read and write fluently and quickly. If something got in the way of those tasks, it would be hard for them to continue in banking.
The banks’ governing principle in handling cases of injured men was the question of how likely they were ever to return to work. If it seemed that rest or rehabilitation could restore a man’s health, they granted periods of leave, often lengthy. One clerk from London County & Westminster Bank’s Foreign branch was given six months on full pay in 1916, so he could undertake a sea voyage on his doctor’s advice. In other cases, men received only half pay, or none at all, but their jobs were kept open for a year or more.
In London County & Westminster Bank, it was even possible – should a man wish it – to convalesce among colleagues. In 1918 Vincent Yorke, one of the bank’s directors, invited applications from bank men to come to his country house, which had been converted into an officers’ convalescent home. His wife, who was the matron, had some freedom to select patients, and Yorke was keen to see some bank men among them. ‘I get to know all the patients pretty well during my weekends’, he wrote, ‘and I should much value the opportunity of getting to know some of our younger men.’
In a very few cases, if there seemed no hope of recovery, men were asked to resign. One was a clerk who’d been discharged from the army with tuberculosis. After nearly a year on half bank pay he was still unfit for work, and doctors advised that he posed a contagion threat to others. The bank asked him to resign, granting him a payment equal to one month’s salary for each year’s service he had given. In another case, a man suffering from a mental breakdown was kept on salary for several months until he was formally declared insane, at which point – although he was only in his early 40s – the bank asked him to retire, and granted him his pension.
For those staff who managed to continue their bank work, little or no reference was ever made to their disabilities in official staff records. Banks expected injured men to prove they could still do the job, but once they had done so, their disabilities were seldom mentioned. For this reason, even the most tangible disabilities are almost invisible in the surviving records. This makes it hard to know how many of that generation overcame physical challenges to return to work, or how their lasting disabilities affected them. It’s only through occasional references that we can gain glimpses of who these men were.
- HESM Black of London County & Westminster Bank was wounded in May 1915, losing his right arm just below the shoulder. In November 1916 he returned to the bank’s Luton branch on six months’ probation, ‘to see to what extent he can perform clerical duties.’ At the end of the six months his manager reported that he was completing all his work efficiently, and he was permanently reinstated.
- John Rawlinson worked for the same bank. While serving in the Honourable Artillery Company in 1916 he was severely injured, losing both legs. He later resumed his career with Westminster Bank, eventually rising to branch management. He retired in the late 1950s as manager of Westminster Bank’s Weybridge branch; his retirement appreciation in the staff magazine noted that many colleagues and customers were probably not even aware of his disability.
- John Allan Brown of National Bank of Scotland lost the sight of one eye when he was injured while serving as a Private in The Black Watch. After returning to his bank, he rose to be a branch inspector; then superintendent of branches; secretary; and eventually general manager of the bank. He retired in 1954. Outside work, he was actively involved in various charities and organisations for blind people, including the Linburn Centre for blinded war veterans, Edinburgh’s Royal Blind School, and the Braille Press.
It’s also impossible to tell how many of the illnesses affecting staff in the 1920s and 1930s could be traced back to the effects of war service. Many men had time off for ‘nervous debility’, ‘mental breakdown’ and other psychological conditions that, in at least some cases, probably represent the after-effects of war. Others suffered from respiratory infections or other illnesses such as lupus which could be linked to having being gassed. One man had time off work in the early 1920s with bilharzia, almost certainly contracted on military service in a tropical zone.