While some companies now part of the Aviva group barely referred to the war in their minute books others, like Ocean Accident and Guarantee and Commercial Union, were soon following General Accident in proudly reporting the patriotic response from their staff.
Company minutes recorded names of staff who had enlisted, details of commissions and decorations as well as the names of those reported missing, taken prisoner of war, or killed. General Accident and Norwich Union Fire both had staff magazines which recorded more details of staff activity than the official nature of the minutes would allow, including letters home from the front through which the progress of the war can be followed.
The following extract is taken from a letter sent to the office by a member of Norwich Union Fire, full of optimism, in training camp at Shorncliffe in the autumn of 1914:
We were up again at 5 am and doubled about 4 ½ miles without an ‘easy’, after which we marched 5 miles and felt quite ready for a good breakfast. The rest of the morning was spent in skirmishing drill, while the afternoon found us busy on the parade ground. While out skirmishing on Sunday we had a brief visit from Lord Kitchener, much to our delight. -
Another letter appeared in the Michaelmas 1914 issue of the Norwich Union Magazine written by Lieutenant Stanley Howard of the signal service who was the first in the office to arrive at scene of action.
“Am going on well; we have plenty of food, not like the SA [South African] Campaign in that respect, but in others that much-vaunted war sinks into insignificance. The things which we have seen and heard as to the behaviour of the enemy are hardly to be believed, and certainly cannot be written… We have lately been entering the towns they have left, and the sights alone are enough to make any self respecting man thoroughly enraged".
Also in this issue, the following letter appeared from Private Hedley Browne whose father worked for Norwich Union Fire, although he himself worked for Norwich Union Life Insurance Society.
“Oct 30th have been stuck in a small stable all the day… They started shelling us this morning at dawn with high explosives and “Jack Johnsons” and have kept it up off and on ever since. Two houses within twenty yards have been blown to pieces and in the ground all around us the shells have made holes big enough to bury a horse. Four big shells have - My word! We've just had a fright, one got this roof and has made a large hole: one fellow wounded in the leg".
In the next issue, Lance Corporal W Parsons of the accident branch, who was in hospital with his wounds, wrote:
“I consider myself a very lucky fellow as only 5 of us out of a section of twenty strong returned to the trench; they caught us with the white flag trick and drilled holes in us as they pleased. It was a great pity they would not come out in the open and fight as most probably we should have had our own back… our Brigadier told us after the action that we were seven thousand English to Von Kluck's forty thousand. I expect we shall do better with practice”.
Also in the November 1914 issue, Acting Corporal C H Moore of the 3rd Rifle Brigade wrote:
“They seem to have no end of artillery and wonderfully effective too; plenty of narrow escapes, but you know the old saying “A miss is as good as a mile” - in fact (no bravado) one seems to get quite indifferent except when the shells get too close, then we dodge into our “dugouts” and keep our heads down under cover”.
In the Christmas 1914 issue, came the first letter back from a prisoner of war, Lieutenant R W Thomas, agent at Castletownroche.
“Then we fought for two days, and just as we thought all was over we found we were surrounded, and so a desperate battle began. I could not describe the horrors of it on paper… our Colonel was a wonder to see; he had absolutely no fear, and I followed him and helped him all I could in every charge, but he was blown to pieces in the end by a shell. We had, I think, 10 officers killed, 5 wounded, and the remainder prisoners. I was wounded in two places, a bullet right through my throat, and all the biceps of my left arm blown away by a piece of shell, but no bones broken. My throat of course is bad and very troublesome. They put in a tube so as to allow me to breathe, and I can eat and drink alright, but I can't speak at all… the Germans are really very good to us prisoners, and the doctors seem to be very clever, so there is really nothing to complain about”.
In May 1915, Private Hedley Browne wrote again to his father the following which was published in the Fire Society's Magazine.
“Since I landed in France I have been waiting for the opportunity of seeing what trench life is really like; also to have one pot at the “Bosches”. Well to-day the chance came, and a comrade and myself set out early. We entered the communication trench about one and a half miles from the actual firing line, the starting point being labelled Marble Arch - all the trenches hereabouts were named after London streets. Thus we proceeded along Harley Street to the Brickfields, which the Guards Brigade had captured from the Germans a month previously, turned down Coldstream Lane and arrived at the actual firing line. My first feeling was one of absolute security (as long as I refrained from popping my head over) the trench being so deep that it was necessary to stand on a step to see between the sand bags. A peep through the periscope showed dozens of Germans lying dead between the two lines, and the sight made me realise the horror of it all. I borrowed a rifle and was enabled to send a ‘souvenir’ or two to the enemy”.
Production of Norwich Union Fire's staff magazine was suspended in 1915 when the task of editing was “rendered somewhat difficult” for the editor Major Felce in addition to his other role commanding the East Anglian Artillery Barracks. General Accident continued to produce a staff magazine throughout the war years, with updates on the progress of staff members. Every issue of the magazine included a Roll of Patriots listing those who had joined the war and notes from branches included references to men on leave from the front calling in to the office to catch up with their colleagues.
The January 1916 issue of the magazine carried the following extract from a letter sent by Gunner Vernon Tomlinson:
“I have had one or two near shaves during the past few weeks. On Friday September 3rd, about 5 in the morning a 5 inch shell about 27 inches long came through the roof and did not explode. There were three of us sleeping in the farm, and if the shell had burst we should have been blown to atoms… Eventually they set the farm on fire, so we had to make a dash for it. Happily we had no casualties”.
By October 1916, the full horror of war was beginning to be reflected in the letters home. Private T M Pyke of the General Accident Liverpool office wrote:
“I soon got into conversation with their [the French] machine gunners, being a machine gunner myself, and I heard ghastly tales of the terrible slaughter in front of Verdun, in fact the carnage was so terrible there that the French machine gunners were sick over their guns while mowing down the advancing hordes of the enemy”.
Later in the same letter Private Pyke described going over the top:
“During June it was evident… that shortly we would commence the advance… and it was grand to see how energetically the lads worked without a word of complaint knowing it was all for the “big push”. During the last week in June, the guns increased their activity, and it became a perfect pandemonium; we had to shout to be heard even by the men standing near us. The French on our right (our brigade being to the extreme right of the British line) said that our bombardment was worse than Verdun, and they had not heard anything like it. The bombardment increased in violence and an hour before the attack was timed to commence it was terrific; it's really impossible to describe it: it was just like “Hell let loose“. They did their best to locate our guns but failed, and our casualties were very slight indeed, much less than anticipated. The first wave went over at 7.30 am on 1st July, and it was a sight never to be forgotten to see the men, who two years ago were Liverpool city clerks, going across No Man's Land quite unconcerned, with their rifles slung over their shoulders as if on parade”.