More than 9,000 Prudential staff enlisted during the First World War and many of these staff members took part in some of the fiercest action of the conflict.
The earliest Prudential men to enlist immediately found themselves in the thick of the action. T Neuenschwander was captain of the gun team aboard the Lance off Harwich, which claimed to have fired the first British shot of the war on 5 August 1914, hours after Britain declared war. Another staff member, T Sullivan, arrived in France on 17 August 1914 and fired the first shot of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
The autumn and winter of 1914-15, when the Allied and German armies massed along the Somme dug themselves in, marked the beginning of trench warfare and a long military stalemate. Letters sent back to the Ibis Magazine provided a unique insight into the harsh realities of trench life through the eyes of these new soldiers.
'The size of our dug-outs is about 6 feet by 6 inches, and 4 feet high. Then we can improve on them ourselves, by putting up shelves (for accommodating our eatables), bracket for candle, etc, etc. In this we have to accommodate three men and one on guard, so that when we snug together we are quite comfy and warm.’ G J N Best
However, Christmas Day 1914 did bring brief respite, as British and German troops left their trenches to exchange greetings and gifts. Many staff members took part in this temporary fraternisation, which also included a game of football in No-Man’s Land. One member of staff met a German porter he recognised from Victoria Station, while another of the Germans had played football for a Nottingham team before the war.
‘When daylight came we all got out of the trenches and met the Germans half-way, when an exchange of souvenirs took place. I changed a pot of jam for two German cigars, which were a gift from the Kaisar to his troops.’ C L Jefferson
By the winter of 1915 the initial expectation that the conditions in which they were living were temporary soon gave way to the grim realisation that the mud, noise and fighting were now semi-permanent. Letters from Prudential staff at the front evoke the new and awful realities of the battlefield:
‘A modern battlefield after the fight is something just too terrible… One might imagine there had been a huge earthquake, causing great holes and piling earth in high mounds, both holes and mounds containing “cannon fodder”. I spent a fearfully gruesome night. Some of us had to go out and form a screen while the wounded were collected. It was very dark and one could scarce avoid treading on the wounded, and often found oneself standing on a dead body… There is no romance in war now. Even the rifle has given way to the bomb, and whole thing is cold-blooded murder’. H Agate
The first battle of the Somme in 1916, which lasted for four and a half months, was one of the fiercest battles of the war. The battle was notable for being the first time that tanks were used and Prudential staff members were again on hand to report on events.
‘This was the first occasion on which tanks were used. It was considered of such importance that there was a rehearsal behind the lines. Hopes were high that the end of the war seemed near. Such hopes were soon dispelled when it was seen how easily one direct hit from an enemy gun put a tank out of action.’ F Wharhirst
Staff members also served in units that performed supporting tasks which, though less feted than service in the front line, were no less valuable to the war effort. A number of staff were members of the Royal Army Medical Corps and their duties included building latrines and incinerators, road sweeping, and burying fallen soldiers.
‘Broadly speaking, our work is to inspect everywhere and then stamp out and remedy any kind of insanitary conditions that we find or which may be brought to our notice… All this, perhaps, is not very much in itself, although extremely useful, but you will realise that it may not be such a soft thing when carried out under war conditions, and frequently under shell-fire or in gas.’ C F Frost