Equipment Overseas During WWI

1,319 London buses went on war service. This is their story

The trench bus service (1915-12-01)TfL Corporate Archives

The first hint of what war would mean came when the Admiralty requested to inspect various types of vehicles. They required motor ambulances, and within 2 hours the head of the Admiralty medical service had selected the single-deck type of bus

Motor Ambulances off to the Continent

Within 26 hours these were taken off the streets, alterations made in coach factories, and the buses, complete with drivers, placed on the road en-route for Chatham, Dover, and Plymouth

In October, 1914, Winston Churchill telephoned from the Admiralty inquiring whether in 14 hours 300 buses equipped with drivers and kits, maintenance gangs and stores, could be supplied to provide the entire transport for the Antwerp mission. The buses were selected and overhauled during the night, and 330 volunteers were with the buses lined up the following morning on the Embankment ready to proceed with the Naval Brigade.

LT000030_1_00009 AntwerpTfL Corporate Archives

Bus ready to leave Embankment for Antwerp

The buses reached Antwerp and got back to Lille with a loss of only 24 dozen lost or hopelessly broken down

Antwerp adventures (1914-10-31)TfL Corporate Archives

1914-10-31 Antwerp Adventures

Antwerp Adventures

It's remarkable that humour formed so much a part of the account and experience: " wish us God speed the Germans gave us a grand slam of about 200 guns, which made those with bad feet forget their sufferings and increase their steps by quite 12 inches"

LT000030_1_00045 AntwerpTfL Corporate Archives

1915-03 The Buses at Antwerp

The Buses at Antwerp

In an extract from his book "A Surgeon in Belgium, Dr H S Soutter describes his experiences of the flight from Antwerp drawing particular attention to the role of the buses

LT000030_1_00032 AntwerpTfL Corporate Archives

M.E.T. Bus in the hands of the Germans

Some buses got captured by the enemy 

That no bus was willingly abandoned is shown in a letter sent by Mr. William Westenra to his mother. Describing the evacuation of the city, he wrote:

“I was in the last car to leave...Someone remembered two motor-buses that had been left at the other end of the town, and my captain, I, and two Piccadilly busmen had a joy-ride once more through the city and got them...All the streets had holes in them 2ft deep from the shells. The tram wires were all hanging down, but we got those buses and got back safe.”

LT000030_1_00026 SaundersTfL Corporate Archives

Not a single mishap

Letters published in the 9th January 1915 edition of the staff magazine give a taste of the experiences of the staff and their buses overseas

LT000030_1_00026 VehiclesTfL Corporate Archives

Not one in difficulties

"They are a great success'"

Equally interesting are the experiences of the drivers of the other thousand buses who “carried on” at other parts of the front. Here is the novel incident of a London motor-bus charging cavalry.

"A convoy of six bus loads of ammunition was going to the front. Mine was the leading bus...we came round a sharp bend...and found ourselves within a few hundred yards of a Uhlan patrol...there were about thirty Uhlans, who opened fire on us. There was only one course open to us – to charge..."

"...I have never got such speed out of a bus as I did on that occasion. We swerved from side to side of the road, gathering speed every moment. A bullet glanced off the radiator and knocked my cap off. At first the Uhlans stood their ground, but a motor-bus charge was too much for their nerves."

Christened with chalk (1915-08-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Buses were often baptised with various names

Polly, Mary, and “The Missus” disclosed where the drivers’ thoughts were. “Nobody Loves Me,” “Happy-go-Lucky,” “Side-slipper,” were names that told the story of their origin, while Fagin, Micawber, and Pickwick in one column reveal a literary touch

Troops on the march in London buses (1915-03-06)TfL Corporate Archives

Troops on the march in London buses

One of the most striking features behind the lines were the motor-transport columns, nearly a mile long, churning up the mud and dust on the long straight roads of Northern France, each vehicle running to a set speed at a fixed distance of about fifty yards apart    

Wounded Generals (1915-01-23)TfL Corporate Archives

1915-01 Wounded Generals

Wounded Generals

Letter from Lance Corporal Welsh regarding company buses being used by the army

London General Omnibuses with the troops (1916-03-31)TfL Corporate Archives

LGOC Continental Services

Pictures show the state of the buses after 18 months hard work, and the primitive conditions under which maintenance was undertaken

“At times, driving a motor-bus to and from the trenches is very exciting…It is at night our worst time comes, when we go to the trenches. When we are about six miles off we have to put our lights out and do the best we can in darkness. If you happen to go about a foot off track, or get in the ditch, over goes your bus…and you may be there for a couple of days until a relief party comes.”

Letter from W Thornburn (1915-02-20)TfL Corporate Archives

A Back Street Ride on a B Lorry

Letter from W Thornburn commenting on the terrible conditions of the roads the buses had to contend with

Motor Transport Drivers' Instructions (1915-03-01)TfL Corporate Archives

M.T. Drivers' Instructions

Extract from the general instructions given to drivers overseas. The most prominent was to always drive on the right hand side of the road!

The War Journey of a Bus and its Driver pt 1 (1919-02-01)TfL Corporate Archives

The Journey of a Bus and its Driver

Private G Gwynn was with the bus from 1914 all through the war

The war journey of a bus and its driver pt 2 (1919-02-01)TfL Corporate Archives

The most famous war bus (1920-02-14)TfL Corporate Archives

The Most Famous War Bus

B43 was the first bus of its kind to be sent overseas in the WWI and had the nickname 'Warrior Bus'. This bus was brought back into service after returning from the war. Its visit to Buckingham Palace demonstrates the reverence that people felt for the vehicles and their service

Credits: Story

Story compiled by TfL using information in records at the Transport for London Corporate Archives. The Corporate Archives seeks to preserve and make accessible records, not to interpret them. A wider range of material is available for physical consultation.

Permission is granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.

This story has been enhanced using video from the collections of the British Pathe. All enquiries regarding this video should be made directly to that institution.    

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