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.

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