Reflections on the Front

bus somme
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.

Battle Bus retraces battle routes through Ypres

disabled children
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.

tyne cot
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 .

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.


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.

One thought on “Reflections on the Front”

  1. I visited London Transport Museum last month as a curatorial intern from India. My visit has been wonderful, during that time I got a chance to know about the battle bus. It feels great to read various posts and stories associated with the much awaited war time bus.
    Cheers to the team.


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