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.
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.”
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.”
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).
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.