London Transport Museum Battle Bus heads through Belgium for First World War Centenary tour

By Richard Moss | 18 September 2014

London Transport Museum's converted battle bus is currently in Flanders and Northern France for the centenary of the First World War

a photo of two smiling men standing next to an khaki painted bus
London Transport Museum's Battle Bus arives in Poperinghe, Belgium© London Transport Museum via Twitter
The residents of Flanders and Somme may be accustomed to welcoming British and Commonwealth tourists interested in the First World War, but not since the conflict 100 years ago has someone driven a battle bus through their former battlegrounds.

Now London Transport Museum is doing just that as it commemorates one of the more curious episodes of the war by taking its recently restored and converted ‘Battle Bus’, the world’s only operational B-type bus, on a ten-day tour of battlefields across Belgium and Northern France.

The trip marks the First World War Centenary and is designed to highlight the contribution and sacrifices of bus drivers during the conflict.

In a war of vast technical innovation – much of it naturally focused on the business of killing – the job of ferrying troops to the front was undertaken by converted London buses; many of them driven by volunteer London transport workers.

The buses were of course camouflaged by removing advertisements and signage, boarding up the windows and painting the exterior khaki. Military markings were stenciled onto the body, War Department headlamps fitted and each was equipped with a pickaxe and shovel.

Now 100 years later, the museum's vintage B-type has been similarly converted and is on the continent having arrived via the Eurotunnel and visited Poperinge, which as the gateway to the Ypres Salient saw thousands of troops bussed through its streets.

a photo of a khaki painted open top bus
The Battle Bus left Covent Garden on September 18© London Transport Museum
After welcoming inquisitive visitors on board at ‘Pops’ - as British troops dubbed the town - it has since made its way to the appropriately named Bus House Cemetery, which contains the bodies of 134 British and Commonwealth soldiers.

The cemetery was named after a nearby estaminet which took its name from a London bus which had broken down nearby in No Man's Land in 1914.

It’s a fate that highlights the lot of the B-type bus drivers during the First World War. And as William Mahoney, who drove buses between 1916 and 1917 wrote, the conditions could be perilous.

“Bang! Crash!! Nearly on us. Nine men killed and 14 wounded only 50 yards away,” recalled the army driver. “My engine would not start so we had to stay and repair it, the shells pounding around us."

But for the most part the buses were very reliable. The B-type was London’s first standardised bus and had interchangeable mechanical parts, which meant damaged vehicles could easily be salvaged for repairs.

Today the conditions are mercifully not so dangerous, but it is to be hoped the elderly example currently retracing the route of its forerunners will be just as robust. 

The remaining itinerary: September 19: Poperinge, Belgium; September 20: Ypres, Belgium; September 21: Zonnebeke, Belgium; September 23: Arras, France;  September 25: Peronne, France; September 26: Albert, France.

A mobile exhibition unit is on display in the Town Squares along the route and at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele in Zonnebeke.

Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front is at London Transport Museum until March 8 2015. Free with general admission ticket.

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