In the Shadow of War

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How do we, as social historians, attempt to unravel and understand the general mood or atmosphere that existed in a massive city like London at any moment of time? Whilst significant historical events are often extensively recorded and reported often more problematic is our ability to comprehend the atmosphere of day-to-day life in the capital.

As a Museum curator my role is to interpret and make sense of history through visual and material culture and the creation of atmospheric displays.  Similarly my talk at Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front, will attempt to reveal the mood and atmosphere in London prior to the outbreak of World War I.  Using images of objects, photographs and paintings held in the Museum of London and other collections the talk will give both a broad overview of London in 1914 as well as analysing the minutiae of life at street level.

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As the shadow of war began to draw more heavily over the capital what were Londoners getting up to – what was their day-to-day life like, what was happening on the street, what was popular, what were Londoners talking about, were they aware of the impending threat and, more significantly, was the mood on the street being obviously affected by the threat of imminent war?

Written by Beverley Cook, Curator of Social & Working History, Museum of London (Speaker at Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front)

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.

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London’s First Air War, 1915-1918

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Bus after Zeppelin raid, 1915

Air raids on London by Zeppelin airships were expected from the moment war was declared. Early precautions included a blackout at night and the installation of guns on prominent buildings and in the parks. Even so, raids finally began from the end of May 1915, provoking a mix of responses among the Londoners from sangfroid to blind panic.

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Zeppelin raid in The War Illustrated, April 1915

When the air cover by fighter aircraft became more effective against Zeppelins during 1916, the Germans switched to the use of heavy bombing planes, which proved generally immune from attack by London’s air defences. The civilian authorities’ response to the air attack was lacklustre throughout the bombing campaign. Scores of thousands of Londoners huddled in the tubes, in the cellars of industrial buildings thought to be safe, or fled the city altogether. The ‘Harvest Moon Raids’ of autumn 1917, marked one of the low points of morale in London during the war.

Written by Professor Jerry White, Birkbeck College, University of London (Speaker at Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front)

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.

1920: King George V and Ole Bill

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King George V in conversation with Lord Ashfield, chairman of the ‘Combine’, with ‘Ole Bill’ driven by James Melton and veterans in the background

This weekend has seen a host of special events commemorating the sacrifices of those made during the First World War, culminating with Remembrance Sunday today. In a series of posts leading up to this event our Director Sam Mullins takes a look at what life in London was like following the war – the beginnings of  Armistice Day, the role of commemoration and the significant contribution made by London’s Transport workers.

In February 1920, a group of LGOC drivers from the Middle Row garage, Kensal Green, who had seen service overseas as drivers were presented, with their B type bus B43, to King George V at Buckingham Palace.  This momentous event was reported in the staff magazine:

“His Majesty shook hands with the men and had a friendly talk with them as His Majesty shook hands with the men and had a friendly talk with them as he passed down the line when they formed up for inspection, and afterwards examined the ‘bus. He remarked that this was the first time he had boarded an omnibus, although he had travelled before on a tramcar of the L.C.C. …There was an appreciative crowd outside the Palace to cheer the old ‘bus and its gallant passengers as they left.”

The bus’s appearance was recorded in a Pathé newsreel, and “thrown on the screen at many picture theatres”.

B43 had been built by AEC at Walthamstow for the LGOC in 1911 and ran on the 8 and 25 routes out of Mortlake garage until requisitioned by the War Department and sent to France in September 1914. Driven by volunteer drivers who joined up, the bus did a huge mileage carrying troops and supplies up to the line and bringing back wounded soldiers. In 1919 it was repurchased by the LGOC and first put back into emergency service still in khaki and then in red to Dalston on the 8 and 9 routes. By the time it was presented to the King, B43 had acquired a small bronze plaque commemorating its passage through the war:

1914 – Antwerp, 1915 – Ypres, 1916 – Ancre, 1917 – Somme, 1918 – Amiens, 1919 – Home

To mark this special occasion, the bus was decorated and became a mobile war memorial. A brass shell was mounted on the dashboard, ornate brass plates for the numbers on the bonnet sides and a brass bust of ‘Ole Bill, the cartoon figure created by Bruce Bairnsfather, formed the radiator cap. This association with the hugely popular cartoon character was to rapidly give the bus its nickname of ‘Ole Bill, commonly but incorrectly rendered as Old Bill. The title was derived from Bairnsfather’s first cartoon of two Tommies under fire in a shell hole, Bill saying to his companion, ‘If you knows of a better ‘ole, Go to it!’

B43 had been given a new body and overhauled for the Palace in 1920. Battle honours were added to the windows – Antwerp, Ypres, Ancre and Somme – before being handed over to the Auxiliary Omnibus Companies Association. The veterans used it for parades and funerals. At the King’s behest, the bus and veterans from Underground and the General took part in the first Armistice Day parade from 1920. These accounts are from the staff magazine ‘Train, Omnibus, Tram’ in the 1920s:

LGOC veterans march with ‘Ole Bill in the Armistice day parade of 1923
LGOC veterans march with ‘Ole Bill in the Armistice day parade of 1923

After many years in the service of remembrance, ‘Ole Bill was retired to the Imperial War Museum in 1970. Back on home ground, this venerable bus is currently on loan to London Transport Museum and plays a central part in the current ‘Goodbye Piccadilly’ exhibition on London in World War One.

Related events and exhibitions

Battle Bus
On Saturday the Museum’s ‘Battle Bus’ appeared in the Lord Mayor’s Show, representing Transport for London. Today marchers and spectators in the Remembrance Sunday parade will also have a chance to see the Battle Bus on display in Parliament Square from 9am to around 3pm.

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.

1919: Battered War Buses back in service

This weekend will see a host of special events commemorating the sacrifices of those made during the First World War, culminating with Remembrance Sunday on 9 November. In a series of posts leading up to this event our Director Sam Mullins takes a look at what life in London was like following the war – the beginnings of  Armistice Day, the role of commemoration and the significant contribution made by London’s Transport workers.

Less than a quarter of the 1,185 buses sent overseas by the War Department returned to London. At the end of the war, the capital was short of petrol, drivers and buses. Battered surviving buses were slowly released by the War Department as they returned from overseas, vehicles which had served at home were refitted with bodies which had been in store and the final batch of B-types was completed in April 1919.

LGOC staff inspect a B-type bus
LGOC staff inspect a B-type bus returned from the front, December 1919

250 buses returned from overseas service. They were judged substandard for conveying passengers but shortages of materials for new vehicles led them being pressed back into service in May 1919 as ‘Traffic Emergency’ buses. They were repainted in army khaki with the ‘General’ logo painted in white on the side. Pre-war bus chassis were also returned to service with timber bodies as lorry buses. Licensing regulations were relaxed to permit these temporary solutions to London’s depleted bus fleet.

Lorry Bus at Victoria, summer 1919
Lorry Bus at Victoria, summer 1919; a lorry chassis with crude wooden bus body and rear staircase, running a service from Victoria to Liverpool Street

Related events and exhibitions

Battle Bus
On Saturday the Museum’s ‘Battle Bus’ will appear in the Lord Mayor’s Show, representing Transport for London. On Sunday marchers and spectators in the Remembrance Day parade will also have a chance to see the Battle Bus on display in Parliament Square from 9am to around 3pm.

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.

1919: The first anniversary of peace

This weekend will see a host of special events commemorating the sacrifices of those made during the First World War, culminating with Remembrance Sunday on 9 November. In a series of posts leading up to this event our Director Sam Mullins takes a look at what life in London was like following the war – the beginnings of  Armistice Day, the role of commemoration and the significant contribution made by London’s Transport workers.

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Underground poster for Armistice Day 1928

The First World War finally ended with an armistice between the combatants on 11 November 1918. LGOC conductress Lesley Davis remembered driving past Waltham Cross depot that day; ‘the inspectors ran and out and yelled, ‘It’s been signed!’. Women came rushing forward and kissed the drivers. Others started crying because they remembered their lost sons or husbands.’[i] 1,429 Underground Group employees and 803 from the London General Omnibus Company had lost their lives. The capital was exhausted by the four years of war and recovery was slow.

From the beginning of November 1918, it had become clear that victory was in sight. The Lord Mayor’s Show on 9 November 1918 included 400 captured German guns and that evening it was announced that the Kaiser had abdicated. Although a large Victory March involving 15,000 Commonwealth troops and captured German tanks, guns and aircraft was held in May 1919, the capital’s mood shifted rapidly from celebration to commemoration. For the Victory Parade of July 1919, architect Edward Lutyens was commissioned to design a temporary Cenotaph built in wood and plaster for Whitehall as a tribute to the fallen. This temporary Centotaph formed the centrepiece of the first Armistice Day on 11 November 1919, as reported by the Manchester Guardian:

“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The train cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume and stopped dead…. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of attention. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still. The hush deepened… It was a silence which was almost pain. And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”

The outpouring of emotion generated at the first anniversary of peace led to the temporary Cenotaph being rebuilt permanently in Portland stone and dedicated at Armistice Day in November 1920. The ceremony that year, reported by the Times, has been followed every year since:

“…the great multitude bowed its head….People held their breath less they should be heard in the stillness… A woman’s shriek rose and fell and rose again, until the silence bore down once more.

The silence stretched on until, suddenly, acute, shattering, the very voice of pain itself – but pain triumphant – rose the clear notes of the bugles in The Last Post…

The ceremony of dedication of the Cenotaph was very sombre, heightened by the presence of the gun carriage bearing the coffin of an Unknown Warrior.”[ii]

[i] Miss Lesley Davis, LTM Box B650, LT News, no.119, p.5
[ii] Manchester Guardian, 12 November 1919

Related events and exhibitions

Battle Bus
On Saturday the Museum’s ‘Battle Bus’ will appear in the Lord Mayor’s Show, representing Transport for London. On Sunday marchers and spectators in the Remembrance Day parade will also have a chance to see the Battle Bus on display in Parliament Square from 9am to around 3pm.

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.