A specific chain of events led to the outbreak of war in 1914, but the international tensions behind it had been building for many years. As early as 1908 the army had tested the suitability of London buses for troop transport. It was recognised that reliable motor vehicles would be crucial in any future war, as horses had been in earlier conflicts. In 1912, the government assessed a range of commercial motor vehicles for potential military service, and came to an arrangement known as the Subsidy Scheme; in the event of war the government would pay civilian businesses for their lorries and buses. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), was one of the biggest contributors to the scheme.
On 1 August, 30 of the LGOC’s new B-type buses were requisitioned, and converted into ambulances on the home front. In September the first buses went to France as part of a hastily arranged Royal Naval Division mission to relieve parts of Belgium. Some arrived with their original destination boards and adverts still intact. Soon afterwards the first of the green Army Service Corps B-type buses arrived, followed by hundreds more buses and their drivers, mobilised to transport troops and supplies to and from the trenches of the Western Front for the next four years.
The brightly coloured poster above by Charles Sharland was issued to promote the August bank holiday of 1914. It declares 3 August as ‘Underground day’ and encourages passengers to make their choice of what to do and where to go from the many destinations available by tube and bus.
However, when the day came, festivities were overshadowed by the threat of Britain becoming involved in the war on the Continent. By the end of the following day, on 4 August 1914, Britain had declared war on Germany.
The poster for the 1919 bank holiday reflects on the changed circumstances. The ‘short’ war had turned into a four year conflict with millions of lives lost, and many more changed forever. For the first time there had been a home front, with Londoners at risk from aerial bombardment.
The subdued design gently invites passengers to enjoy holidays once more. The emphasis of the trains, buses and trams being at the service of Londoners reminds us of the important role that London transport staff and vehicles played in the war.
Did you know: Originally the bank holiday in August was the first Monday of the month, as dictated by the Bank Holiday Act (1871). This was until the Banking and Financial Dealings Act (1971) decreed a century later that it would fall, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on the last Monday of the month. Why? One suggestion was that as the latter half of August is cooler the roads would be less busy with the crowds that thronged to the seaside, getting drunk and causing all sorts of mid-Summer mischief!
Recently we launched a crowdfunding campaign asking you to help us get our ‘Battle Bus’ back to the Western Front. But what does this really mean, and why is it so significant?
During the First World War London’s buses were to become crucial to the war effort. Our B-type bus, B2723, was one of the 1,200 buses requisitioned by the War Office and used as troop transport, ambulances, lorries and even pigeon lofts. In September, the Museum is taking B2737 back to key sites in Northern France and Belgium to commemorate the Londoners who fought and the busmen who supported them in the early months of the war.
Back in April we reconnoitred the route and places to visit. We tried to compare postcards and photographs of buses at the Front with those places today. This sometimes possible, such as in the market square at Poperinge in Belgium. In other places, rebuilding after the devastation of the war, as at Bethune, had radically changed the view and such comparisons were not possible.
It is difficult to reconcile the small towns and rolling countryside of the Somme and the wooded Messines Ridge today with the devastation of the wartime photographs, the huge systems of trenches of the aerial photographs, the highly dangerous places like Hell Fire Corner, now a roundabout on the Menin road out of Ypres, or the evocative place names where so many men fell, at Passchendaele, High Wood, Gommecourt or the Hawthorn Redoubt. Visitors need a mental overlay, such as provided by a good guide, in our case, Andy Robertshaw, to ‘see’ the First World War once again in the landscape.