From Bank to Battlefield
At the end of World War I, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia's Honor Roll was officially unveiled. As Governor Denison Miller announced at the time, ‘The Honor Roll … contains the names of those 206 … staff who enlisted: when the war broke out we had 228 men on our staff, and as we have taken on very few men of the military age since, our proportion is a very good one.’ This was a record of which the Bank's surviving staff were simultaneously proud and immensely saddened.
Unveiling the Honor Roll
Staff of Head Office assembled in the Banking Chamber on the morning of 26 June 1919 for the unveiling of the Commonwealth Bank Honor Roll. The ceremony formed part of the wider peace celebrations throughout Australia (and Allied countries), which would culminate with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June. This Treaty would officially end the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers, including Britain (and hence Australia).
Governor Denison Miller and Deputy Governor James Kell spoke affectingly of the sacrifices made by so many within Australia and by the staff of the Bank. Many of those on the Honor Roll were among the first to enlist in 1914, and included Charles Treadgold, Walter MacQueen, Vivian Brooke and Roy Croft.
During the war, Ernest Hilmer Smith of Hobart Branch, who fought at Gallipoli and in France, wrote moving and detailed descriptions of life on the frontline to Denison Miller, highlighting the rapport the Governor obviously had with officers of the Bank. These letters have been digitised and transcribed.
I trust … that on the conclusion of the war we will compare favourably with the other large institutions of Australia Ernest Hilmer Smith, a Bank staff member who commanded a battalion at Gallipoli and survived the war. He corresponded regularly with the Governor.
In dedicating the Honor Roll, the Deputy Governor spoke of the ferocity and brutality of the war as being ‘unparalleled in the history of the world’. Against this background, he noted that ‘the magnificent part that our own brave lads took in the historic struggle has electrified Australia, and has made our name famous throughout the world. In courage, tenacity and resourcefulness, they rank among the finest troops in the world.’
Governor Miller spoke of the many campaigns Australia's troops had fought with distinction. He noted with pride that the Honor Roll contained the names of the 206 officers of the Commonwealth Bank who had enlisted, including those who made the supreme sacrifice for King and country and who ‘… won the greatest distinction of all – the wooden cross which marks their final resting place on those distant fields of battle’. Both Miller's and Kell's own sons had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; one of Governor Miller's sons, Clive Lancelot Miller, was killed in 1917. That they knew the cost of the war effort firsthand made their words all the more poignant to those listening. The grief and personal sacrifice of war was one they had felt too.
Denison Miller's Speech
Governor Denison Miller addresses staff on 26 June 1919 to unveil the Honor Roll:
‘The Deputy-Governor has given some idea of what the British nation has done for the war.
Australia also took its full share of the great war, which commenced on the 4th August, 1914, and ended in the signing of the armistice on the 11th November, 1918, and which is now finalised in the signing of peace at Versailles. Soldiers and sailors voluntarily responded to the call of duty and from the first weary wait in Egypt to the landing at Gallipoli in April, 1915, then fighting there until the evacuation in December, 1915, their participation in the campaign on the west front of France and Belgium, from the battle at Pozieres in 1916 to Villers-Bretonneux in April, 1918, then in the greater offensive which started on the 8th August, their operations in Palestine and Salonica, with the ever-silent work of those who joined the Navy, they bore the strain with fortitude, and by their conspicuous bravery and initiative earned for Australia a reputation of which we all have very good reason to be proud.
As you know, over 420,000 Australians enlisted, nearly 60,000 made the supreme sacrifice, over 150,000 were wounded, and a little over 4,000 were taken prisoners. The decorations earned by our soldiers were 63 Victoria Crosses, 555 Distinguished Service Orders, 1,989 Military Crosses, 29 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1,413 Distinguished Conduct Medals, and 7,449 Military Medals.
The Honor Roll, which I have pleasure in unveiling, contains the names of those 206 officers of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia staff who enlisted: when the war broke out we had 228 men on our staff, and as we have taken on very few men of the military age since, our proportion is a very good one. Of those whose names you see on the Roll, the first place of honour must be given to those who have made the supreme sacrifice; they gave their all, their lives that humanity might live. They have won the greatest distinction of all – the wooden cross which marks their resting place on those distant fields of battle …
We mourn their loss, and our heartfelt sympathy is tendered to their mothers, fathers, and other relatives. I would ask you to be silent for a few moments out of respect to their memory. [The staff here paid a silent tribute to the fallen.]
Next are those who have gained commissions and won distinctions …
We congratulate them on their well-earned distinctions and honours; to all we tender our grateful thanks…
[The staff, who were all assembled in the Banking Chamber, then sang ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and the National Anthem. At 10 o’clock, the doors of the Bank were opened and the public, who had heard the singing from the streets, trooped in and joined in the singing and cheers.’]
Partial transcript of Denison Miller's speech at the unveiling of the Commonwealth Bank's Honor Roll on 26 June 1919 (as reported in Bank Notes magazine, July 1919)