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.
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.
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.
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.
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.