Long before “battle buses” were used to shuttle campaigning politicians the length and breadth of the country, London buses commandeered for the war effort were used to transport troops to France in World War One.
Now, 100 years later, the London Transport Museum has sent one of the original battle buses – No. B2737 – across the channel to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
What’s the story of the battle bus?
Packed with men, the cheery red paint replaced by utilitarian khaki, and with the windows boarded over, the vehicles bore little resemblance to the omnibuses familiar to London.
When, in 1916, enlisted men boarded, it’s unlikely they realised the ride would culminate in 141 days of horror, in which more than one million people would be killed.
The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest. For five months the British, French and Commonwealth troops fought the German army on a 15-mile front in northern France.
Once in France, although the majority of buses were used to transport soldiers, others were adapted for a wide variety of purposes, including pigeon lofts, engineering workshops and even touring cinemas.
Pte George Gwynn was a driver sent to Ypres in Belgium with his bus. He gave a recorded interview, which can still be heard, to the Imperial War Museum in 1985, when he was 95, describing how the vehicle was his only shelter.
“I slept at the roadside on those buses, with no cover. We ate on board.
“Each night in the winter we had to get out of our beds and start the engine every two hours. We had to be ready at any time to rush out and pick troops up from their billets.
“We came under fire every night and think ‘game over’. The driver of the bus in front of mine was killed. Every night we had something like that.”
Pte Gwynne, whose job also entailed taking injured men to field hospitals, recalled driving past “fields full of men, they’d been gassed. All the men just lying on their backs”.
According to the London Transport Museum, this year’s tour paid tribute to the transport workers who served during the war.
The bus – one of only two working 1914 B-types buses in the world – operated between Barnes and Liverpool Street and was transformed by the museum into a military troop carrier exactly like the ones that went to war.
It travelled along key locations from the battle, from Gommecourt in the north to Maricourt in the south.
Sam Mullins, director of the museum, said more than 1,000 London buses were requisitioned for war service – about one third of the London fleet – in many cases with their civilian drivers and mechanics.
Most vehicles went to France and Belgium, though some travelled as far as Greece.
The progress of the bus at the Somme, with information and photos, can be followed on Twitter.
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme
- Began on 1 July 1916 and was fought along a 15-mile front near the River Somme in northern France
- 19,240 British soldiers died on the first day – the bloodiest day in the history of the British army
- The British captured just three square miles of territory on the first day
- At the end of hostilities, five months later, the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to break the German defence
- In total, there were over a million dead and wounded on all sides, including 420,000 British, about 200,000 from France and an estimated 465,000 from Germany
Find out more:
- How the Battle of the Somme unfolded
- Why was the first day such a disaster?
- Timeline: World War One 1914-18
- Has history misjudged the generals of WW1?
- How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?
- WW1 centenary – full coverage