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From Bank to Battlefield

Staff Profiles

Corporal Walter Harry MacQueen, a bank clerk with the Commonwealth Bank's Head Office, was the first Sydney-based member of staff to enlist, signing up on 16 August 1914 (just days after the proclamation of war). By the end of the war, a total of 206 Commonwealth Bank officers had made the same decision to serve. Some of them didn't survive, others suffered injuries that could never be overcome while the lucky ones somehow picked up the pieces of their old lives after the hostilities were over. The mixed fate of these Bank staff who saw active service was a reflection of the war's brutality as well as an acknowledgement of their courage, tenacity and resourcefulness.

Battle Profiles

Centenary of the First Battle of Bullecourt, 11 April 1917

The Hindenburg Line was Germany’s strongest defence on the Western Front, with trenches stretching from Arras to Laffaux in northern France. Incorporated into this line were several villages, strongly fortified by Germany, including the village of Bullecourt. On 11 April 1917 Bullecourt was attacked by the 4th Australian and 62nd British Divisions. Although the infantry managed to break into the German defences, the Australians were forced to retreat. They suffered 3,300 casualties and 1,170 Australians taken prisoner, the ‘largest number captured in a single engagement during the war’.

Lieutenant D.O.L. Kitto was mentioned in despatches for his bravery and fortitude during the attack of the First Battle of Bullecourt.

The Battle of the Somme

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.

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.

Branch Profiles

Profile of Hobart Branch

Hobart's Heroes[1]

At the height of hostilities during World War I, just over half the staff from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s (CBA) Hobart Branch[2] had enlisted. As the Reserve Bank descended from the central banking division of the Commonwealth Bank, we honour the staff from the Hobart Branch and share their story.

The Bank was barely two years old when World War I was declared. For Governor Denison Miller, this international calamity posed two very immediate professional challenges, as well as an incalculable personal crisis. On the business front, the Governor was well aware that the war heralded a potential economic crisis and an important central banking role for the newly formed institution; at the same time, he saw that there was an urgent need to keep the Bank’s administrative offices and branch network operational in the face of the mass departure of male employees who were eager to defend the nation.

On this latter issue at least, Governor Miller was able to act quickly and decisively. As well as formalising the Bank’s procedures for military leave, he broke with tradition and temporarily replaced his male bank officers with female staff.

On the home front, he did not manage the shock of the war so well: three of his four sons enlisted, only two returned.

The impact of the war was felt in homes country-wide and in the Bank’s branches across all locations. It was particularly striking in Hobart, Tasmania, where the population was relatively small and the passionate expressions of loyalty to the British Empire were overwhelmingly large. Around 35 per cent of the male population of Tasmania enlisted in World War I – some two-thirds signing up in the first two years. More than half of the 13 000 who served overseas were casualties, with 2 432 losing their lives.

Some 14 of the 22 staff at the CBA’s Hobart branch took part in the war effort. Two of these brave young men (Edwin Clifford Trethewey and Vivian Cyril Brooke) were killed in action while fighting in Harbonnieres, Somme in France and Gallipoli respectively.

The news of Brooke’s death reached the branch in early May 1915, not long before clerk Cyril McIntyre joined the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Gallipoli. Others were already overseas, including Rupert Pennycuick, who was fighting in Egypt with the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, and John Chambers, who was serving in the 12th Battalion under the command of the branch’s superintendent Ernest Hilmer Smith. Five more bank staff enlisted in 1915 and another two enlisted in 1916 when Australia joined the fighting along the Western Front. Although they served in different battalions and in different spheres of the war, they tried to keep in touch with each other and the staff back in Australia, and to maintain the ties that had been formed in the close-knit Hobart branch.

It took almost two years for the final staff member, Victor Tolland, to return to Australia and receive his discharge after the armistice was declared in November 1918.

Many lives were dramatically changed by the war. Bank employees Thomas McGhee and Victor Tolland both returned to Tasmania as married men ready to settle down with new families. Ernest Hilmer Smith came back a decorated hero after being mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches; he was subsequently appointed a Companion of the Order of Bath.  Others were happy just to pick up the lives they had left behind and enjoy simple pleasures like re-joining the Bank’s cricket team.

Every one of the men who returned from the war was welcomed back to their positions at the Bank. Many went on to have long and successful careers and a few, like John Chambers, enjoyed some unexpected surprises. Showing that happy endings can appear in even the darkest moments, John went on to marry Kathleen Street, the young woman who had been hired to replace him when he went to war.


[1] This section is drawn from an article in the Reserve Bank's staff journal, ‘Hobart’s Heroes, Currency, April 2016, pp 7-8.

[2] Hobart branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. The Reserve Bank of Australia separated from the Commonwealth Bank in 1959.

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