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.

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