The new routemaster bus is starting its rounds of London’s streets today, although for some reason only one is operational at the moment. In 1914, the British were rather better at getting their buses into action – quite literally, as many were taken from the streets of London to the roads of France and Flanders.
With much of the army still using horse-drawn transport, the London omnibuses were a useful resource for the British Army as it expanded into its unexpected role as a major player in a war on the continent.
The buses were famously rushed out for use in the British Expeditionary Force’s first actions in 1914. According to David Lomas’s book on the First Battle of Ypres:
One soldier of the London Scottish recalled that the bus which took him to Ypres was the same one, with the same driver, who had taken him to work each morning before the war!
Some of the buses remained at the front later on, being used to transport tired soldiers fresh from the front lines (or near them) to rest areas.
As ever, there is a nice video from Pathe of some London buses being used. It is likely that these familiar vehicles were a welcome relief from the notorious ‘Hommes 40/ Chevaux 8‘ horse-transport train carriages often used to transport men over large distances.
One of these war-service buses can be seen in the Imperial War Museum. Ole Bill is a pre-war bus that plied the Victoria-Seven Kings and Old Ford-Willesden routes. It was used on the Western Front in the war, returned to London and was painted up in its current colours for Armistice Day parades and similar events. A picture on their website shows it in use on Armistice Day 1926.
Ole Bill does not look the way that it did during the war. Although in 1914 many turned up still looking much as they had on London’s streets, most wartime photos show the buses looking more drab later on. But still, Ole Bill is a good monument little to a rather peculiar participant in Britain’s war effort: the London omnibus.