A week after Britain declared war, more than 500 staff members (70 per cent of Chief Office staff) had already enlisted in the forces. On 12 August 1914 Prudential’s General Manager, Alfred Corderoy Thompson, called a meeting at Holborn Bars to encourage other men to join up.
Enlisting was not always straightforward. Recruits had to be taller than 5 feet 3 inches and aged between 18 and 38 (although the minimum age was 19 for those serving overseas). However, ‘too old’, ‘too young’ or ‘too short’ proved to be elastic terms. So intense was the enthusiasm in the early weeks of recruitment that many staff members managed to enlist despite being under or over age, or even failing to meet the physical requirements.
J D Ballantyne was well below the age limit when he joined up at 16. His height was below the standard by half an inch, and his chest measurement by one inch. However, these problems were solved with the assistance of an obliging recruiting sergeant. The sergeant accepted Mr Ballantyne’s age as 19, placed his hand between Mr Ballantyne’s head and the slide when he checked his height, and wound the tape round his thumb at Mr Ballantyne’s back when the medical officer took down the measurements.
R Davies only weighed 7 stone 3Ibs and was initially rejected by the medical officer, who informed him that he was more suitable to be a jockey than a soldier. However, after another three attempts he succeeded in joining up. Mr A Smith was also rejected on his first attempt, but gave the recruiting sergeant half a crown and was told to come back later – he was then passed ‘A1’ by another doctor. Another persistent staff member was G D Cover, who was rejected 18 times. Finally, on his 19th attempt, he enlisted on 3 January 1917. He went on to hold every non- commissioned rank and was even offered a permanent position as regimental sergeant major at the end of the war.
Once enlisted, staff members embarked on rigorous training regimes, as described in a letter from R B Newson:
‘During the first two weeks I was with the Civil Service (Territorial) Regiment, and we slept at Somerset House, our daily routine being Breakfast 7am; Parade for route march, 9am till 1pm; Dinner; afternoon parade, 2:30, for musketry instruction, and sometimes bathing parade at Westminster Baths; Tea at 4:30, after which we were free till 9:30pm. A fortnight of this, and we were marched to Stanmore, on the way to Bedmond, near St. Albans.
We arrived at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening, and lay down for the night in an open field, resuming the march the next morning… The training is fairly hard, the intention no doubt being to make everyone as fit as possible, and harden them to endure privations.’