Battle Bus: Driving in the Somme

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Our Battle Bus tour to Ypres and the Somme has been blessed with mostly good weather but the occasional downpour has given us just a hint of the difficulties drivers would have faced one hundred years ago. The Commercial Motor Magazine published a series of ‘Despatches from the Front’ during the war and no.68 of 23 December 1915 – ‘Worst Possible conditions for Driving’ – illustrates the difficulties our predecessors encountered:

“Although I have been here over 12 months and been on the road almost every day – and a good many nights – of that time I have never seen the roads so bad as they were one day last week. The mud had accumulated…and formed a thick covering over the pave (cobbled surface). During the night we had a terrible hard frost which continued the whole of the day and the pave roads that day were so treacherous to motor traffic as to make the drivers who had to use them tremble with anxiety. One never knew what antic the car would be up to the next moment.”

Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014
Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014
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Battle Bus in Bouzincourt, then and now

“If these pave roads were flat, driving would be easy enough, or not be any more difficult than  would be in London on a bad day, but the roads rise so high in the centre that when one has to go off the crown of the road, the car develops a wicked desire to get itself well into the ditch…To touch one’s brakes was disastrous, and to attempt a high speed madness.”

“I like most of the general public was always of the opinion that most of the accidents were the fault of the bus driver, due to want of driving experience. Actual experience of B26 driving a London bus out here has proved the error of my views…I maintain that on certain days in London a bus driver, has absolutely no control over his vehicle on some parts of the road.”

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B-type bus carrying Indian troops. Date and location unknown

Ian Read, Richard Hussey and Tim Shields done a great job driving the bus in modern traffic conditions but admittedly they were not faced with shellfire, horse traffic or even frost.  We have had to plan round low bridges, avoid busy roads and even occasionally lop overhanging tree branches. The magneto has been replaced following misfiring but otherwise B2737 and it’s drivers have taken it all in their stride. We continue to have only admiration for the B-type drivers who worked under such difficulties on the pave of Flanders and the Somme a century ago.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Battle Bus reaches Albert

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Today the Battle Bus reaches its final destination of Albert, France.

One hundred years ago, German armies were spreading into Northern France. British and French troops mounted a series of counter-offensives known as the ‘Race to the Sea’ starting with the First Battle of Albert that began on 25 September.

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Army Service Corps lorries at Albert, August 1914

Albert was also a key location in the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916, one of the worst battles in human history. At the end of five months of fighting British and French forces had advanced six miles into German-occupied territory and around one million lives had been lost. B-type buses, organised into Auxiliary Omnibus Companies as part of the Army Service Corps played their part carrying troops to the Front, and wounded men back.

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Auxiliary Omnibus Companies’ Association medallion

The Auxiliary Omnibus Companies’ Association, fore-runner of today’s TfL Old Comrades Association, was formed in 919 by London bus drivers who had served with the Army Service Corps during the First World War.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Battle Bus in Peronne

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Today the Battle Bus reaches its penultimate destination of Peronne, a small town situated on a hill side overlooking the battle fields of the Somme, where more than a million men were wounded or killed in 1916.

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Battle Bus leaving the Citadel Barracks in Arras, France
Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014
Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014

The Musee de la Grande Guerre occupies the Chateaux de Peronne in the centre of the town. It tells the story of the men and women who lived through the conflict and suffering of the First World War. The return of the Battle Bus brings one small aspect of that story back into focus, helping us to imagine what we did not see. The 51st Army Service Corps bus company served at the battle of Peronne in 1918; as part of the Allied advance that halted the German offensive and moved the conflict closer to the Armistice.

Phillip Sydney Bowden, 1918
Phillip Sydney Bowden, 1918

In 1920 the first Remembrance Service was held at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. London General Omnibus employee Philip Sydney Bowden was chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of London’s transport workers. He had volunteered for the army at the age of 17, fought at the Battle of the Somme and been wounded in a gas attack. Philip Bowden was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery for carrying a wounded comrade to safety under enemy fire. His daughter Jean recalled that like many men of his generation ‘he never spoke much about the war’.

Auxiliary Omnibus Companies' Association medallion
Auxiliary Omnibus Companies’ Association medallion

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Battle Bus Apprentices: Engaging with History

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Harry Young, Battle Bus Project Apprentice, reporting for duty during the Battle Bus tour of France and Belgium, September 2014

The Battle Bus Learning Programme supports audiences to understand the role that London Buses played during the First World War. Our key audiences are: Young People from areas of disadvantage, Female London Bus Staff and Primary School Children.  The programme has two young people who are supported through an apprenticeship. They support the learning and participation of the Outreach Volunteers, document the restoration and support the interpretation and content development of exhibitions which will support this project.

Kathryn Skillings, Battle Bus Project Learning Officer

I spent much of my 24 hours on the Battle Bus tour on the road, either accompanying Battle Bus from Le Shuttle to our base in Messines or travelling between villages all along the areas where once there were army camps, casualty areas or crossroads where people and supplies arrived at or departed from the Western Front.

What I was continually struck by, as I weaved through tiny roads and everyday villages was the constant reminders of battle. On each journey I passed a handful of cemeteries and saw road signs indicating a dozen more in any direction. I passed field upon field where I could still sense the hundreds of soldiers bedding in each night. It is impossible to ignore or not be affected by each area and each story it brought with it. I was very aware that while exciting and adventurous for the team and I, there are many difficult memories that could also be stirred.

My journey began in Folkestone where we were visited by local schools and shoppers. We couldn’t fail to notice we were on our way to France, surrounded by The Tricolour and parked on Rendezvous Street, there was a “street party” atmosphere and visitors revelled in climbing aboard such an unusual, emotive vehicle. An ever-present contrast, here we met a man who recounted the bombing of a “potato queue” in the town during the First World War and the effect on his family.

The next day we awoke in Belgium and travelled to Poperinge, where we were greeted by colleagues from a local museum and locals enthused by Battle Bus. All were welcomed into our mobile exhibition telling the stories of the buses that went to war and the people whose lives were changed both at home and abroad. Many came with their stories, one that was especially exciting was a visitor who returned to show us his collection of French, Belgian and German papers from the First World War. It was truly fascinating to see all of the perspectives. I felt truly honoured to have played even a short role in such a historic journey.

VIDEO via BBC
Battle Bus retraces battle routes through Ypres

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Gianna Fiore, Battle Bus Project Apprentice, pinning the location of the Bus onto a map, September 2014
Gianna Fiore, Battle Bus Project Apprentice

Our day at Poperinge was amazing, with visitors all excited to see the famous bus. I played the role of a conductress as we took locals, stakeholders and friends of the museum on a tour around the town.

Later that day, there was a more sombre tone as we took Battle Bus to Bus House Cemetery to lay a wreath in a thoughtful ceremony. Along the way, the heavens opened up over our poor old bus, causing leaks through the roof in several different places. Everyone frantically saved the moquette seats from getting wet. Thankfully, the rain eased off and we stayed to pay our respects before heading back under some daunting and perhaps appropriate grey cloud over head. The next day we headed off to Ypres, it was a bright and busy Saturday so we were in for a good day. We attracted a great amount of visitors; I handed out at least 200 leaflets.  I then took part in a tour around the cemeteries surrounding the area along with museum colleagues and a historian.This was a truly moving and surreal experience seeing the thousands upon thousands of soldier’s graves.

We then prepared for the grand ceremony at the Menin Gate which was an overwhelming and emotional experience. The music played by the marching bands pulled on everyone’s heart strings, they were amazing to listen to. The best part of the night was when we drove the bus through the crowds to close the ceremony. A sea of people either side watched in awe and clapped joyfully as we drove past. I must say, I think we all felt pretty proud at that point and it was a perfect way to end the day.

Overall, my time on the tour was extremely enjoyable and I was thrilled that I got the opportunity to be involved in such a wonderful project.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Reflections on the Front

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Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014

Our Battle Bus is proving to be a powerful flux for the emotions surrounding the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. As we drove out of the Menin Gate after the moving Last Post ceremony, the crowds gave the bus a round of applause and wherever we have been we get cheers and waves and people keen to climb up to the top deck.

VIDEO via BBC
Battle Bus retraces battle routes through Ypres

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A group of children ride on the top deck on the Battle Bus in Place des Héros, Arras

The First World War exerts a uniquely strong emotional tug for us Britains. The carnage had a doleful impact on almost every family and every town and village in the country. Everyone can cite a personal connection with it but only in the cemeteries and scattered monuments can we make a physical connection with the terrible events of a century ago.

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Entrance to Tyne Cot Cemetery, September 2014

Then this familiar object hoves into view, the distinctive shape of the B-type bus, a moving, clattering noisy survivor from the war, it’s usual red livery and shiny glass dulled and made a little forbidding by being boarded up and painted khaki green all over. Battle Bus makes that connection with a past that there is no one left to remember .

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Battle Bus in the Somme, September 2014

During the War, the convoys of buses also struck a familiar chord with the hard pressed soldier approaching the front line. In her book, Somme (1983), Lynn Macdonald quotes an interview with a soldier who had fought in the great battle of the Somme in 1916:

“It was the first time the Riflemen had not had to march. The buses arrived at ten o’clock in the evening of 5 July. There were twenty of them to transport the Battalion, and they had seen better days since they trundled around the peacetime streets of London, shiny and red and cheerfully noisy. They were still noisy, and here and there, where the drab khaki of their wartime paint was chipped, a glint of red still hinted at the days when they had plied along Oxford Street, travelled north of Kilburn or honked through Piccadilly and South to Kensington. The windows were boarded up but miraculously on some the conductors bell was still functioning…as the boys clambered aboard, one wag inevitably positioned himself on the platform and rang the bell. ‘Do you stop at the Savoy?’ It was the old joke Joe Hoyles couldn’t resist asking. ‘No Sir’ the ‘conductor’ was familiar with the old chestnut, ‘can’t afford it. Did you say a twopenny one sir? Comes cheaper if you take a return’. But for one in three of the boys it would be a one-way ticket.” [1]

[1] Macdonald, Lynn (1983) Somme, pp.90-93, quoting Captain J Hoyles, MM, no.3237, 13th (S) Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, 5 July 1916.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Goodbye Piccadilly: Joe Clough’s Story

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Joe Clough (1887-1976) was not only one of London’s first Black  bus drivers, but he was also  among the first drivers of the  mechanised motorbuses that  replaced the horse-drawn buses.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1887, Clough worked for a Scottish doctor, Dr RC White. When Dr White came over to England, he brought Clough with him and after learning to drive as his employer’s chauffeur, he managed in 1910 to secure a job as a bus driver with LGOC. He drove the Route 11 between Liverpool Street and Wormwood Scrubs.

In 1915, Clough joined the Army Service Corps at Kempston Barracks and drove an ambulance on the Western front in France until the end of the War. Clough was a popular member of the Army Service Corps and he was the captain of the cricket team. Yet as one of few black soldiers, he was sometimes the victim of racism. Demobbed in 1919, he became a member of the Royal Legion and joined the National Omnibus Company at Bedford, where he lived with his wife Margaret. Between the world wars, Clough would drive an open-topped bus in Cambridgeshire every year on Remembrance Day.

Joe Clough’s story can be seen in a video made by a group of young people from the Theatre Royal Stratford East that features in our Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front exhibition, on until 8 March 2015.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

TELL YOUR STORY

If you have any personal family stories, photographs, mementoes, medals, letters or diaries that you would like to share with us then we’d love to hear from you. You can email us at collections@ltmuseum.co.uk

Battle Bus goes to Arras

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Today our restored B-type Battle Bus will be been in and around the French city of Arras, close to the Western Front. Allied forces took control of the Arras area in a series of offensives between April and May 1917 that have become known collectively as the Battle of Arras. The intention was to break the stalemate of the Western Front, but despite heavy losses, this was unsuccessful.

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Troops on 11 April 1917 cheering the capture of the village of Monchy-le-Preux

The village – an important strategic point – lay 10 miles to the east and benefited from a relatively high and commanding position.

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Arras Town Square in 1919

It was captured by Commonwealth forces on 11 April 1917. A cemetery was quickly established there and continued to be in use as a front-line cemetery until the German offensive of March 1918, when it fell into their hands. It was recaptured by the Canadian Corps on 26 August and used again for a month. The graves are very closely identified with the divisions which fought on this front and 581 troops from the UK and Canada are buried there.

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

Battle Bus: Retracing the steps of William Mahony

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It’s a quiet day today as Battle Bus moves south to Arras and the Somme. Our experiences of driving the bus around Ypres have already given us a greater respect for our First World War predecessors. A remarkable account is that of William Mahony, who volunteered in April 1915 aged 18 and was enlisted in the Army Service Corps. He was trained at Grove Park by LGOC instructors and by mid September was in France serving around Ypres.

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Wreck of a B-type Daimler bus at St Eloi, France. The bus was damaged by shell fire during service as a troop carrier in France, only two weeks after leaving Willesden Bus Garage.

His diary, published in 2011 as The experiences of William Mahony 1897-1963 during the Great War* are a vivid account of the life of the bus driver on the western Front. In April 1916 he was teamed up with Bill Rance, a London bus man who had been out since September 1914. In May 1916 he was bringing troops into the line for the Battle of St. Eloi, the site of Bus House Cemetery;

“Suddenly there was a terrific roar…the guns had fired simultaneously, the battle started. We climbed on top of the bus to watch the attack some two miles away but there were too many pieces of metal flying about so we came into the bus and peeped out of the window…by 9.30 the battle quieted down a bit and wounded began to arrive. These we took to Poperinghe repeatedly, returned for more.

With the German guns having a range of 5-8 miles, even well behind the line the transport convoys were not safe. On one occasion, the convoy arrived in Vlamertinge – “most of us had shell marks on our buses then “bang crash, nearly on us, nine men killed and 40 wounded only 50 yards away. My engine would not start so we had to stay and repair it with shells pouring around us…but we drove fast to miss shell holes, home what a relief, thirty infantrymen killed on top of our buses.”

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British troops board modified B-type buses at Arras, May 1917. The windows of the lower decks of the buses have been completely obscured by wooden planking, which was also added to the upper deck.

Much of the work close to the Front was of necessity only possible at night to avoid the convoy being spotted and shelled. Narrow, slippery roads, the cobblestones or paving difficult to negotiate and with inadequate headlights, just staying on the road was a challenge, let alone finding your way.  In September Mahony was working at Croix du Bac;

“we were actually on the road 18 hours a day and I must admit that towards the end of the week we almost prayed that our stock of petrol would run out. We has hardly time to wash and had most of our meals while the bus was on the run, relieving each other to drive…we were not allowed to have our lights on within 5 miles of the line or sound our horns within 2 miles of the line.”

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Extract from TOT (Train Omnibus Tram) Magazine showing some of the stories of Busmen on the Battlefield, January 1915

At Christmas 1916, he draws the short straw and is detailed to drive a Royal Engineers band around to entertain towns and villages behind the line. Frost had caused his radiator to leak and boil over and then the fan belt broke; “I tied my braces around the fan belt and after one more stop we reached Cassle”. His engine catches fire and the 16 bandsmen on top of the bus who were in such a hurry to get out they throw their instruments over the side and fall over each other down the back stair. “The RE captain is now cold and in a terrible rages and threatens us with being shot at dawn…at St.Vanant W’s tyre comes off and at Bethune another man broke a spring and had to wait for the last bus to borrow the jack. The buses were bad ones and this wasn’t our usual display.” In February, Mahony left the buses to join the Royal Flying Corps.

You can see a copy of the Mahony’s published diary in the the Museum library *[compiled by Peter Mahony] Publisher: Hughes & Company, 2011 (the original diary is held in the University of Leeds Liddle Collection).

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The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

 

Battle Bus in Passchendaele

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Battle Bus outside Passchendaele Museum

The tour moved on today to embrace the ridge which surrounds Ypres, and in particular the site of the third battle of Ypres, popularly known as Passchendaele (its contemporary spelling now ‘Passendale’). We brought the bus and our road show to the Passchendaele 1917 exhibition at Zonnebeke. It is hard to reconcile this peaceful park today with its total destruction by the end of the battle which lasted from July until October 1917. It’s exhibition and replica trench system give a flavour of why that name Passchendaele still holds such a powerful and dark meaning 97 years on.

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Battle Bus outside Tyne Cot Cemetery

With the BBC’s wonderful Robert Hall aboard, we filmed and made interviews about the symbolic return of this one bus to a location in which so many once served. A visit to Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery in the Ypres Salient, reminded us sharply of the terrible cost of the slogging offensive uphill into the strong German positions on the ridge above Ypres.

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Photograph of Passchendaele in 1916 before aerial bombardment. Image courtesy of BBC
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Photograph of Passchendaele following the aerial bombardment. which took place between July and November 1917. Image courtesy of BBC

Aerial photographs in the visitor centre demonstrated graphically how the verdant Flanders countryside in 1917 was mashed up by four months of bombardment and counter bombardment into a landscape which from above looked like the moon, where whole villages had become piles of rubble and water-filled shell holes are the only recognisable feature in a blasted landscape. Long lines of gravestones in the Tyne Cot cemetery, so many individual names, all some grieving family’s son, so many regiments, representing so many personal tragedies in one small tract of Flanders.

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The bus was cheered from roadside cafés and attracted great interest when parked, so many people clambering up the narrow stairs and taking photographs. The Mayor of Zonnebeke visited and was presented with the destination board to his town by me.

He and his family piled on the bus and were given a tour of the park. A  French TV crew came to record the bus and hear the stories it attaches us to from a century ago, filming precariously from the back of an estate car as our bus rattled through the quiet Belgian Sunday afternoon.

web-events-olebill

The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.

The Last Post at the Menin Gate

The ceremony of the Last Post has been played at the Menin Gate in Ypres every evening since it’s dedication in 1927, interrupted only during the Second World War. Architect Reginald Blomfield’s memorial to the 54,897 men who fell in the Ypres Salient but who have no known burial is the focal point for the commemoration of the First World War in Flanders. Every evening at 8pm the Last Post is played and wreaths laid as a salutary appreciation of the cost of war in this south-west corner of Belgium.

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Batle Bus outside the Menin Gate

We were honoured to be invited to attend the ceremony with our 1914 B-type bus, perhaps the first time a vehicle has been included in this carefully choreographed act of memorial. As twilight drew in on Saturday 20th September, our Battle Bus in its khaki livery flanked by soldiers in camouflage dress formed a sombre backdrop to the five buglers in their bright dress uniforms.

As the light faded, some 1,500 spectators were stilled to silence as the poignant Last Post echoed out under the illuminated lists of names of the fallen which fill every inside surface of the Gate. As the stirring notes of the Ypres Surrey Pipe Band fell away, Leon Daniels (Managing Director, Surface Transport, Transport for London) and I stepped forward to lay a wreath on behalf of Transport for London and the Museum to recognise the many transport staff who lost their lives in the conflict.

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Battle Bus inside the Menin Gate

After the national anthems of Belgium and Great Britain, the pipes and drums echoed round the Gate as the bands marched off towards the Market Place. B2737 coughed into life and with our little party aboard we followed them out of the brilliantly lit Gate into the town, raising a great cheer from the crowds of spectators. From the top deck of the bus, we looked back towards the Menin Gate, bright against the night sky. Battle Bus had returned to the Front, symbolic of the 1200 buses pressed into service, an emotionally charged touchstone for just one small story in the grim panorama of the Great War, a London bus like its drivers pressed into service in the maelstrom of war.

This event had been in our minds ever since we conceived the restoration of a B-type bus. The transformation from red livery to khaki, the boarded up windows, the crude War Department stencilled markings and finally attendance at this emotionally ceremony of memorial, amongst the seemingly endless lists of names of the fallen, have symbolised the terrible outbreak of the War and shed a new light on its darkness.

We are deeply thankful to the Last Post Association, the Heritage Lottery Fund and our many supporters for enabling such a profound link to be made between 2014 and the events of a century earlier.

web-events-olebill

The story of London’s busmen at the front is also told in our new book by Dr William Ward, Ole Bill – Londons Buses and the First World War.