This blog is part of a mini-series of updates about the Battle Bus Research Volunteer Project. To keep up-to-date with all the latest programme activities, please visit the ‘Battle Bus’ section in London Transport Museum blog.
Getting started on the research
This week the group started to research their chosen topics, which included the use of the b-type buses during the war and the role of transport workers. Research volunteer Carrie Long writes about her discoveries whilst exploring the Museum library and photo collection.
‘A new type of hero in war. The man of the moment at the front is the London bus-driver’, reported the Daily Mail in 1914. Throughout the First World War, bus drivers swapped their foggy routes along the Strand in central London for the ‘veritable hell of shell and shrapnel fire’ on the Western front. Many of those drivers volunteered to go with their bus when they were commandeered for the war. Publicly named as ‘heroes’ as early as 1914, it was clear that the sacrifice and mechanical skill these men were providing was incredibly important to British victory. But, in popular memory the stories of these brave London bus drivers have been forgotten, until now.
This week our research team began a mission to uncover their stories from the archives. The Museum’s photo collection in Collections online was fantastic for allowing us to see the transformation of the bright red buses to their war-time khaki colours. It was notable that the drivers maintained their cheerful smiles and spread a visible culture of ‘comradeship’. However, it was clear the change of scene from London to the Western Front was no holiday for the drivers. Photographs of vehicles transformed into military troop carriers or buses lying burnt-out in a ditch, highlighted the immense danger and high level of responsibility they played in the war.
To understand how these men and their families coped with their transformation from civilian life to soldiering, the T.O.T magazine (T.O.T was shorthand for Train, Omnibus, Tram) proved an archival treasure trove. The magazine, published fortnightly and later monthly after 1915, was produced for members of staff serving at the Front and their families and colleagues at home. It is a fantastic resource for documenting the changes throughout the war. The editors actively encouraged soldiers to write letters and to be personal about their experience, writing that ‘saying what you mean and what you feel’ is most important. The magazine was not intended to be a public newspaper, but rather a news forum for transport workers and their families.
Remarkably, the magazine didn’t read as war propaganda as I expected, but instead provided insights into a diverse range of experiences and emotions. Published letters from the men reveal the attachment drivers felt towards their buses through their affectionate reference to them as ‘old tubs’, provide insight into their personal sense of loss through sometimes graphic accounts of comrades’ deaths, to sharing their joy at meeting other drivers on the road.
A personal research highlight was discovering that London bus drivers were connected to a much wider global story of war. Drivers were at the forefront of forging Commonwealth connection through transporting Indian soldiers to the front lines, driving the wounded to hospital, and facilitating days out for dominion soldiers on leave in London. The international community spirit is clear from Corporal E. Scuffell, who wrote ‘Australians, Canadians, Indians and French … we are mixed up a bit, but all of one mind’.
The T.O.T was consistently described as a joy to read by soldiers. It provided them with a connection to home as they used it to communicate birthday wishes to their children, see pictures of their families on days out, and learn about how women were contributing to the war effort through becoming bus conductors in London. Today, the accounts of the T.O.T provide a permanent record of the bravery of the transport workers who went to war, and of the drivers and buses that supported them there.
Comeback every week to read the latest instalment on how our volunteers are getting on with their Battle Bus project.