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From Bank to Battlefield

Managing the Bank in Times of War

Governor Denison Miller

Portrait of Governor Denison Miller, first Governor of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Sir Denison Samuel King Miller was the first Governor of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and played a significant role in the establishment of central banking in this country. He had a unique burden of responsibility. Only a few years after setting up the Commonwealth Bank as a commercial concern, Denison Miller was faced with the challenge of having to also support the financial needs of the government in a time of war.

The extraordinary demands placed on him during the First World War spanned both his professional and personal life. At the same time as he was shaping a national institution, three of Sir Denison's four sons enlisted. The eldest was killed on the Western Front in 1917. And, of course, the Bank's staff were also serving on the battlefields. Sir Denison was renowned for his personal attentiveness and pastoral care, and his concern was returned with such gratitude and admiration that a number of Bank officers wrote to him from the battlefield, even while they were under threat of death.

Recalling Sir Denison's role in the financial management of the war effort, The Sydney Morning Herald reported: ‘… Sir Denison Miller played a part the value of which cannot be assessed in monetary terms. He was in finance the Government's chief of staff, director of strategy, intelligence and publicity bureau. Every Administration, whatever its political doctrine, acknowledges its debt to this just and provident steward.’

On the home front, the First World War presented Australia's banks with two major problems: how to raise enough money to pay for the war effort, and how to finance Australia's international trade under war conditions. Sir Denison Miller and the Commonwealth Bank took the lead in solving the banking side of both these matters by issuing and managing loans that ended up providing more than half the total spent on the war. The 10 war loans raised £250 million.

Story about Governor Denison Miler's sons enlistment in the war -  by the Banker's Insurance Manager's and Agent's Magazine
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Progress of
Commonwealth Bank of Australia
Reprinted from
Insurance Managers’ and Agents’
September, 1918.

In August, 1914, at the outbreak of the war, three of Mr. Miller's sons volunteered for service. The eldest, Lieut. Clive L. Miller, Australian Filed Artillery, served through the whole of the Gallipoli Campaign. He was killed in action at Messines on July 4, 1917. In private life, Lieut. Miller was a member of the Sydney Stock Exchange. Another son, Gunner John K. Miller, Australian Field Artillery, after returning to Australia in 1915, came over and has been in France since December, 1916. He has been wounded twice and gassed once, and is now ordered out to Australia.

On the outbreak of war, Mr. Kell's elder son, Lieut. Ralph Kell, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a private. He was in the original landing at Gallipoli, and after the Gallipoli Campaign was promoted to Lieutenant; he was wounded in France, and after promotion to Captain was returned to Australia, where he has resumed his duties with the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney.

Mr. Campion's eldest son, Dr Rowland B. Campion, Captain, R.A.M.C., crossed over to France with the First Expeditionary Force, under Sir John French, on August 8, 1914, and served at Mons, St. Quentin, the Marne, and the Aisne, after which he proceeded with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in 1915. He is now in charge of the Auxiliary Hospital at Alexandria. Captain Rowland Campion has been mentioned in Despatches, and especially commended for his services.

The second son, Gifford (Wadham College, Oxford, and the Inner Temple), was in King Edward's Horse during his three years at Oxford, and is now a Captain in the Royal Field Artillery, having seen much service on the Western Front, including the Somme, Messines, and Ypres. He sustained a severe shrapnel wound at La Bassée;, and was mentioned twice in Despatches for distinguished service. Captain Gifford Campion is an M.A. of Oxford University.

Dr Oliver St. Leger Campion is a Lieutenant in R.A.M.C., and is at present serving in Africa. The fourth son, Austin, after serving with King Edward's Horse, has been for several years a Lieutenant in the Second Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, and is at present on the Western Front. The fifth son, Jasper (of Hertford College, Oxford), served as a Lieutenant in the Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, then commanded a Trench Mortar Battery for a year on the Western Front, and was later in command of the 439th Siege Battery, which he took out to France.

This record of service would be difficult to beat; nevertheless we believe it to be symptomatic of what is general, not only in the Commonwealth of Australia, but in all parts of our Empire.

The Bank also played a big part in financing the export trade. Before the war, the export of commodities had been handled by wool-broking firms, grain merchants and others. But not only did the war limit the available shipping, it also upset the established means of payment and varied the demand for Australian products in Britain. The solution, which was financed by the Commonwealth Bank (under the watchful eye of Sir Denison), was to pool commodities, arrange finance for producers and control exports. As a result, by the end of the war the Bank was firmly established as the Australian Government's banker and its agent in most financial matters. The physical evidence of its evolving stature was best expressed by the imposing Head Office, opened in 1916 in the heart of Sydney.

After the war, the Governor's high standing in the community was consolidated as repatriation, immigration and land settlement became the key issues of the day. Such was his status in the public eye, there was even some discussion following his death as to whether he should be the first and last Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, with one commentator suggesting that some other title, such as President, be created for his successors ‘so that the people down through the centuries to come will think of Sir Denison Miller as always being with them as Governor of their Commonwealth Bank assisting in the shaping of Australia’s great Destiny’.