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Accountants in wartime

Accountants in wartime

A personal tribute by Garry Howling


Armistice Day is always special.  I too served.  I spent 7 years in 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, was posted to Germany and served in the first Gulf War.  Today, I’d like to pay my personal tribute to those who, across the centuries, lost their lives in the defence of individual freedom.

The first accountants in history are thought to have emerged around three thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.  With war playing such a large role in life, these accountants very often found themselves as active participants – either keeping tally of the expenses of war, or, more often, conscripted to fight.  Such is the nature of the Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I’d like to focus on World War I and the part the conflict played in both the evolution of accounting practice and the lives of accountants themselves.

Wartime accountancy and social upheaval

Experts in the history of accountancy tell us that World War I was especially significant.  However, although the war was relatively recent, they’re not in full agreement on its impact on accountancy practice.  Cost Accounting for example.  Some argue that the conflict hastened its ‘coming into the light’.  Others are not convinced, arguing that its emergence was inevitable.

During the war, accounting was blamed for social discord.  Along with many other sectors, it accelerated the emancipation of women.  With so many men serving at the front, the war gave a boost to women’s claims to enter the profession.  It also encouraged demands for accounting in higher education.

All these were, in themselves, significant events.  However, perhaps the greatest impact of the war on accountancy was the way in which it altered the very nature of the work performed by accounting practitioners.  For example, perhaps you’ll have read about wartime advertising campaigns, encouraging the population to remain thrifty.  These campaigns urged people to incorporate basic accounting disciplines at home – a practice which, before the conflict, had often been neglected.

The call to arms – an irresistible lure

The enthusiastic determination of young men to enlist is well documented.  In pursuit of this tragically-misjudged desire to be part of a quick, glorious, cavalry-charge victory, many aspiring accountants were happy to interrupt their progress towards qualification.

On the day after the declaration of war, The Council of the ICAEW agreed that subject to the consent of their employers, articled clerks should be allowed to go on active service, without prejudice to their articles.

One London firm, Goodricke, Cotman, Hooper, Phipps & Co. reported that 18 members of their audit staff had joined the forces by early 1915 – in those days, a considerable figure.

An early casualty

Amongst the eighteen were Arthur Daphne, Edmund Parker and Cyril White.  These three articled clerks had all passed the Intermediate examination.  Only the Final examination stood between them and a career as Chartered Accountants.  The first winter of the war approached.  As members of the 5th Battalion City of London Rifles, the three friends found themselves at Ploegsteert in Belgium.  Poor Arthur Daphne didn’t even get to see the year out.  He was the first man of his company to fall.  On 13 December 1914, while trying to rescue a wounded comrade, he was killed by a single shot.

An unusual graduation ceremony

You might think that, once these young men reached the front, professional ties would be forgotten.  But no – there are countless stories of how the young men would strive to keep in touch with each other.  Equally, many were keen to keep updated with developments in accountancy.  They would ask for copies of The Accountant to be shipped across the channel.  They could then keep track of their colleagues’ progress, both at home and at the front, as well as learn how their clients were faring.

At least one such soldier technically started his career on the battlefield of Gallipoli.  His name was Arthur Eaves.  His father sent his articles out to him.  These were then ‘witnessed’ by his commanding officer, who wrote beneath his signature ‘In the field, Gallipoli, 1915’.

All hands on deck?

Articled clerks from across the country had flocked to answer the call.  The Bristol Chartered Accountants Students’ Society estimated that 30% of articled clerks in their area had volunteered within a month.  Of course, this depleted the staff of many accountancy practices.  At the highest levels of government, a fierce argument broke out.  In times of such national trauma, how would the nation be best served?  Was the answer to have ‘all hands on deck’ – every able-bodied male serving his country at the front?  If so, what was to happen to industry and commerce?  With the country’s accountants away on military duty, who would be looking after the financial stability and well-being of the nation’s engine room?

In the end, the government concluded that the country’s long-term interests would be best served by protecting and nurturing the nation’s accountancy brain-power.  Consequently, as the war progressed, many accountants were dissuaded from following their colleagues to the front.

Saying ‘thank you’

Would you like to help to keep alive the memories of those who died in the cause of freedom?  It is, of course, thanks to the brave men and women across two world wars that we have the freedoms that we have now – the freedom to live free lives and the freedom to thrive in the world of accounting practice.  Why not make a donation to The British Legion?

Thank you.


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