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On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. One hundred years later, communities and organisations are coming together to commemorate this historical landmark – with a whole swathe of events and exhibitions designed to remember those who lived and died through this most complex and terrible of conflicts.

But one aspect of the Great War that is often overlooked is the fact that many of those who went to fight were employees. Their companies did not just face a temporary staff shortage. They lost a major part of their workforce – young men who would never return.

‘We’ve been very struck by the tragic loss of so many young lives; boys that came into the banks as apprentices aged 16 just before the war, volunteered, fell in action and were never able to return to their banking careers,’ says Alison Turton, head of group archives, at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The figures are striking. Around half the total workforce of Lloyds Bank, Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Scottish Widows volunteered or were called up to fight. Of those nearly 1,000 men lost their lives. Similarly, 1,582 employees of Royal Bank of Scotland and its constituent banks died on military service.

The numbers alone can’t convey the devastation of such loss, as these were businesses that also had to keep on running – the banks were vital to helping finance the war effort.

Karen Sampson, head of archives (London) for the Lloyds Banking Group Archives and Museums, explains how for the first time women were employed as clerks to cover major staff shortages, which ‘changed the culture of all banks permanently’.

The banks were far from alone in underpinning the war effort by supplying essential goods and services both at home and abroad. The Post Office, for instance, was critical to communications between fighting lines and the home front – handling at its peak no fewer than 12 million letters and one million parcels every week, much of which was turned around within 24 hours, and delivered to the trenches the following day.

The Post Office achieved this even though tens of thousands of its workers had left to fight in the war. More than 8,500 never returned. ‘Boys as young as 14 were employed to convey news of the fallen to loved ones across the country and women were brought in en masse to take over the work of men who had left their posts to fight,’ says Harry Huskisson, communications manager at the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA).

Bringing wartime archives to life

These details form just part of a wealth of information now emerging on how organisations coped through a period of such major demand and employee loss. These insights are the result of the work of corporate archivists, who have spent recent months dissecting and sorting hundreds of wartime documents stored across their archives. Many organisations are now launching exhibitions – both physical and online– to publish these records and contribute their own wartime stories to the broader centenary commemoration.

For example, the British Postal Museum & Archive has worked with the Post Office to curate a national tour of its flagship exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War, which explores many aspects of the role of the postal services in the First World War.

It has also launched an interactive online version of the exhibition and has worked with the Royal Mail to create primary education resources based on its role in the conflict. ‘We have told the story of the General Post Office’s role in the First World War for a few years through small scale touring exhibitions and a learning pack, but the Centenary has provided a poignant opportunity to explore this in greater depth,’ says Huskisson. ‘The more we explore our archive, the more we unearth fascinating stories of human endeavour that deserve to be told.’

Several banks have also been busy, creating their own exhibitions, microsites and, in the case of Barclays, a mini-documentary for external use on Barclays.com to talk about the work it has been doing in this field. ‘We’re always keen to engage in projects which demonstrate the long history of Barclays, its commitment to the communities in which it operates, and the relevance of our archives,’ says Maria Sienkiewicz, group archivist at Barclays Group Archives.

The Royal Bank of Scotland microsite RBS Remembers 1914-1918 explores the First World War from the perspective of RBS and the 29 other banks that later became part of either the Scottish bank or NatWest. ‘RBS’s own archive collection forms the basis for all the information on the site,’ says Turton. ‘More than 5,000 items in the archive relate to the period 1914-18, including letters, circulars, staff magazines, meeting minutes, photographs and drawings. There are also a few more surprising items, such as glass salvaged from a window that was broken in a First World War air raid.’

Changing perception

It is little surprise that banks should wish to invest time in this work. Many are currently engaged in community programmes but it can be hard to convince the public that such work is anything more than a fairly superficial attempt to bolster reputation in the wake of the financial crisis. By drawing on their rich history, banks may just be able to challenge that perception. As Sampson says in describing Lloyds Banking Group’s First World War exhibition and microsite: ‘We were really keen to illustrate that helping our communities is not a new phenomenon - but in fact part of our heritage.’

What really hits home, though, is the simple fact that these banks, and other organisations, actually have such detailed archives containing not just records of business operations, but often also reams of information on individual employees and their fates.

Take the archivists at HSBC, who have been working within the Midland Bank collection of archives, to digitise and publish details stored on 4,000 index cards of every member of staff who left its service to fight in the war. ‘What is so fascinating about the cards is that not only do they hold information relating to the men and their service with the bank and when they went off to fight for their country, they also have an area on the reverse labelled Remarks’, says Rachael Porter, UK archives manager at HSBC. ‘This was populated with information about what was happening to the individual during the course of the conflict.’

Aviva too has so many details of employees from 1914 to 1918 who worked for its many constituent companies that its group archivist Anna Stone has built a search function on its First World War web pages as a means to provide easy access to information on individual staff members, including putting the records of those who died or received honours in one place.

When today’s employees might not expect any memory of their name to outlast their deletion off the payroll, that such large organisations have carefully preserved these often quite personal records points to a more human and caring side to corporate life in which individuals did – and do – indeed matter. ‘I would hope that [this work] shows Aviva as a responsible company both in respectfully marking the sacrifice made for us and in sharing the information in the archive with the wider community – for some people we have photographs of family members they have never seen,’ says Stone.

Proud heritage

This work has real power to engage employees too. ‘The response from staff has been really amazing,’ says Stone. ‘I think the bit that resonates is that these people did jobs similar to those that people are still doing in the company today; some of them worked in buildings we still work in and it is, perhaps, easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes.’

Some have maximised this engagement potential by actively involving employees in their centenary work. It makes sense. There are surely few corporate projects offering the same opportunity to instil a sense of corporate pride. At HSBC, for instance, employee volunteers helped digitise its wartime employee records – although the archive team was not at first sure whether employees would sign up. ‘But the project ran along at lightning pace, and in fact the full set of cards was transcribed in just a matter of weeks, with volunteers signing up through word of mouth alone,’ says Porter. ‘Seeing the project gather pace in this way was extremely rewarding and really confirmed the appeal of the project.’

Bringing corporate history to life is not without its challenges. While the British Postal Museum & Archive collections feature copious records on staff, pensions, minutes and cashbooks, Huskisson admits that it can be difficult to draw personal stories or ‘add colour’ to these kind of materials, to ‘make it more compelling for an audience to engage with’.

The answer for the British Postal Museum & Archive has been to acquire additional material through purchases and donations to ‘add human stories and relevance to our collection’. But for the many organisations that were considerably smaller in 1914, this would not be an option.

Another obstacle is pulling together material from many disparate sources. After all, 100 years is a long time in business. In keeping with most companies, Aviva has grown through merger and its archive contains records of no less than 1,000 companies, many of which were operating independently in 1914. ‘The biggest challenge is the number of companies involved and the different ways in which they have recorded the impact of war,’ says Stone. ‘Some companies kept detailed files on all staff serving in the war. Some produced pictorial records of those who died or were decorated. Some listed names of the fallen in their board minutes, while the records of other companies seem to ignore the war altogether, so information has to be pieced together from war memorials and references in the insurance press.’

Even if companies can pull together enough material to create a wartime narrative, there remains a communications challenge to this work. War is a subject that corporates tend to avoid. Political and cultural sensitivities loom too large for comfort and many prefer to steer clear than risk offence.

Such was the thinking of Transport for London’s corporate archive team when it decided against marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War with an exhibition. ‘Obviously we wanted to acknowledge the event as we firmly believe that commemoration and remembrance of it are of the utmost importance. However, whichever way we looked at putting together an exhibition we were left feeling a little uncomfortable,’ says Tamara Thornhill, corporate archivist at Transport for London.

‘I think that this was/is due to the nature of the records that we have and the fact that we are a business archive. We continually found that despite our best efforts, any exhibition became inevitably congratulatory in tone as the material largely (and rightly) commends the staff and the organisation as a whole for their efforts during the war at both home and abroad.’

Instead the team will be spending the next four years focusing on more understated acts of commemoration, with an exhibition planned for the centenary of the close of war when it feels it can better match the tone of its materials with that of remembrance.

Insurance group Aviva also had to be sensitive to the fact that it is a multinational company operating across countries that were not British allies during the war. It concluded, however, that this would not be incompatible with respectfully marking the sacrifice made by its staff. ‘These pages aren’t about the politics of war, they are really about making sure we see the members of our staff who died as individuals rather than a list of names – outside they liked to keep chickens or ride motorbikes or play the accordion – they were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation,’ says Stone.

It is difficult to imagine any business archive achieving such personal resonance. And yet that is precisely what corporate archive teams are striving to achieve with their First World War commemoration work. If they succeed, they will not only contribute invaluable understanding to our knowledge of war, but they may go a long way to adding value to the employee experience and restoring public faith in corporate values. When Aviva says Care more and Create legacy, it is this kind of work that will convince people that it really means it.