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From Bank to Battlefield

The Battle of the Somme, 1916

Image of Second Peace Loan Campaign - 'Ladies Day' 1920

The Women's Committee of the NSW Second Peace Loan Campaign held a rally in Moore Street (now Martin Place) during August 1920, focusing on those who had served at the Somme. Some women are wearing badges, indicating that their sons or husbands had seen active service. The huts in the background formed part of ‘Diggerville’, a place which helped returned servicemen find an apprenticeship and occupation, as many had missed this stage of their education and training by serving in the war.

Bank Staff and the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, or Somme Offensive, took place between July and November 1916. This year the nation commemorates the centenary of events at the Somme that are described by the head of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, as 'beyond the comprehension of our comfortable modern lives'. There were 39 Commonwealth Bank staff members who fought and served during the Somme Offensive. Three of these died and their bodies rest near the villages of Fromelles and Flers. Of the 36 Bank staff who survived, nine were wounded. Most of these wounded men were unable to ever return to the front. The remainder endured two more years of fighting before they could return home.

On 19–20 July 1916 at Fromelles, there were over 5,500 Australian casualties in 24 hours. One of the Australians who lost their lives in this attack was Commonwealth Bank officer Major Roy Harrison. A veteran of Gallipoli, he was the only original officer of the 2nd Battalion to remain at Gallipoli from the April landing until the evacuation in December. Transferred to the 4th Battalion in early 1916, he was reported missing after the attack at Fromelles and assumed killed in action. Five years later the remains of an officer were found with a small silver cigarette case inscribed with his name in the uniform pocket.

The endurance and determination of the Australian soldiers during the Somme Offensive is exemplified in men like Captain Francis Claude Lloyd who fought at Pozières where there were 23,000 Australian casualties in six weeks. A clerk at the Commonwealth Bank in Brisbane in civilian life, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions at Pozières where, despite being injured in both legs and sustaining a head wound, he remained on duty to organise the withdrawal of his men before allowing himself to receive medical attention. Sergeant John Somer from the Bank's Melbourne Office also elected to remain on duty after being wounded shortly before the initial attack at Pozières, choosing to remain with his mates and fight by their side. Others from the Bank's staff were more severely wounded in the fighting at Pozières. Both Private Roland Jackson and Signaller John Chambers suffered wounds that would prevent them from returning to the front line for the remainder of the war.

The wounds suffered by the men were not only physical. Cases of shell shock were common because of the terrifying conditions under which the troops lived and fought at the Somme. While some men would never recover from the experience, others were helped by time away from the front lines and were eventually able to return to their units. The experience of Corporal Bruce MacFarlane of the Bank's Lismore Branch was not unusual. Wounded at Pozières in August, he was diagnosed with shell shock after his unit was withdrawn from the front lines. After a period of recovery he returned to his battalion and was with them when they attacked the notorious 'Maze' defence system near Flers in early November. He was badly wounded in the back and shoulder during the attack and was later transferred to the Army Pay Corps spending the remainder of the war in London.

The final cold November weeks proved the most costly for the Bank's enlisted staff. Private Ian McLachlan, one of three staff to enlist from the Bank's branch in Orange, was killed in action near Flers on 15 November barely a month after joining his battalion. Private Harry Pillinger died of wounds he received while acting as a stretcher bearer with the 6th Field Ambulance on 7 November. He was dressing an injured soldier's wounds in a dugout when a shell exploded next to them badly injuring Pillinger who died shortly after reaching the nearby casualty clearing station. Private Harold Wright suffered badly from shell shock and in mid-November was evacuated from the line experiencing a loss of memory. Wright recovered and returned to the front lines towards the end of November. On Boxing Day 1916 he was admitted to hospital, suffering both a spinal concussion and shell shock once more. He remained in England for some months before being sent home to Australia with a medical discharge. Both Corporal Bruce MacFarlane and Sergeant Raymond Watts were severely wounded. While MacFarlane recovered from his wound and served away from the front line for the remainder of the war, Sergeant Watts was discharged as being medically unfit after spending eight months in hospital in England.

It was winter and not victory that ended one of the bloodiest battles of the war. After the horrors of the 141 days of the Somme Offensive, the men now settled into their mud-filled trenches preparing to endure what was to be the coldest winter of the war.

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