On 4 August 1914, following a diplomatic crisis triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Britain declared war on Germany.
Despite being dubbed the war that 'would be over by Christmas', World War One (WWI) lasted four years and saw some 37 million people killed or wounded. Barclays alone lost around 645 men, over 20% of its workforce, on the frontline or as a result of serious injury.
With financial markets reverberating from the effects of war, the Treasury being forced to issue tax payer guarantees and young men signing up in their thousands, the repercussions of WWI hit every facet of society, changing the way people perceived the world. Borders would be rearranged and the concepts of government, internationalism and democracy redefined.
Over the coming weeks, Barclays will publish a series of feature articles examining the legacy of The Great War. This is our commemoration, our story, our moment of reflection on the trials of the past and our responsibility to the future.
In a repository in the north west of England you’ll find millions of stories covering Barclays’ 325 year history. A moss green tome entitled History of Barclays Bank Limited published in 1926, offers a simple but profound summary of the personal impact of the war on Barclays staff.
…no less than 4,246 men left the bank to join the Forces during the war period, whereas the staff at the beginning amounted to rather less than 6,000.History of Barclays Bank, published 1926
These figures represent the combined staff of Barclays Bank, the United counties Bank, the London and Provincial Bank and the London and South Western Bank.
All permanent staff who enlisted in the Armed Forces were still considered to be members of staff. They continued to receive a salary and their jobs were waiting for them on their return.
A register of staff on active service kept track of these men and also recorded some of the new staff – many of whom were women - recruited to fill the gaps.
Of those who joined the Forces, 645 would not return. The board of Directors resolved to formally record in the company minutes the loss of every man who died in action.
Lieutenant HS Davy - a second Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles – was the first Barclays staff member to be killed in action. He had worked in 54 Lombard Street, the head office at the time, and was killed on 15 February 1915. An entry in the minutes reads:
It was resolved that an expression of the Board’s sympathy be conveyed to the relatives of the late Mr Davy, the news of whose death had been received with deep regret.
The same words were to appear in the minutes time and time again, well into 1919.
The Barclays Archives contain a wealth of information on the process the bank went through to ensure these men were remembered honourably. Today rolls of honour, cast in stone, can be found in the bank’s current headquarters at 1 Churchill Place in London.
Also housed in the Barclays Archives is a series of circulars. Circulars were the notices sent out from Barclays’ head office to outline how branch staff were to carry out their jobs. Circulars issued during the war years covered a variety of subjects, from instructions on how to avoid a run on the banks to ensuring that staff took their holiday entitlement.
Your first concern should be to instil confidence into your customers by assuring them of the ability of the banks to meet all requirements, thanks to the arrangements by the government for supplying the necessary currencyExtract from Barclays head office circular, dated 5 August 1914
There were also government initiatives to be accommodated. Accounts relating to the impressment of horses and vehicles had to be accommodated; national relief fund accounts had to be opened and details of subscribers sent to the Prince of Wales; forms had to be completed for securities deposited by anyone deemed to be an enemy. In August 1918, bank staff members were even reprimanded by the Bank of England for over-enthusiastic stamping of bank notes.
The first legislation relating to bank holidays was passed when Liberal politician and banker Sir John Lubbock introduced the Bank Holidays Act 1871.
When war broke out in 1914, a three day bank holiday was declared by Royal Proclamation to prevent a run on the banks.
A Lombard Street photo album gives us a pictorial look into the years immediately preceding the war and during it. Photographs show staff at work and at social events. Later, members of staff appear in army uniforms and there is a distinct increase in the presence of women as they start to work at the bank to help replace men recruited to fight.
Archive copies of speeches given by Sir William Carruthers and Mr Frederick Goodenough, both senior Barclays executives during the post-war years, provide invaluable insight into the challenges presented by the war. Though the years directly following the end of the war in 1918 were seen as boom years, these were short-lived. They were followed by a slump which saw the bank’s resources shrink in the shape of deposits and in the freezing up of a proportion of its advances.
However, the visible effect of four difficult years on the balance sheet is remarkably slight. In a speech he delivered to the Cardiff Business Club in 1923, Sir William Carruthers said:
The banks cannot and certainly do not wish to avoid a very heavy responsibility. In a measure the financial reputation of the country is in their keeping… That this country has succeeded in financing a war of such unprecedented dimensions, and that we have subsequently passed through so severe an industrial crisis, not only without a suspicion of financial collapse, but even with a reputation strengthened and enhanced in the eyes of the world, is no small achievement.Sir William Carruthers, General Manager of Barclays from 1918 – 1923
In fact by 1926, the facilities which Barclays Bank was able to offer its customers were greater than at any other time in prior history.
The impact on individuals, particularly those conducting business, or owning property abroad, was perhaps more marked. A memorandum dated 11 September 1918 invited customers to submit applications for claim forms for property in Russia in accordance with a decision by the Secretary for State.
Some consequences were less predictable. Conscientious objectors were not generally regarded with any sympathy during the war. A letter in the archives gives us some insight into the complexities of war and the unexpected consequences that the Bank of Liverpool which would later merge with Barclays - found itself having to deal with. The letter describes the case of a staff member who, upon joining the army, was court-martialled and imprisoned for his refusal to take a life.
Though discharged at the end of the war, the negative reaction of colleagues prevented the bank from taking him back into employment. Instead, it fell to the bank to support the gentleman in finding alternative employment.
Though 100 years may have passed since the start of the Great War, it remains a pivotal moment in human history that should never be forgotten.