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B-type bus

The London Transport Museum commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme

By Manon Variol

On 1 July 1916, the bloodiest battle of the First Word War started: the Battle of the Somme. More than 1 million casualties, including 442,000 dead or missing, and half of them were British. British soldiers crossed the Channel to help the French fight the Germans in the Somme. This battle took place a hundred years ago and was commemorated in France by the London Transport Museum.

The French do not really remember the Battle of the Somme. They would rather speak of Verdun or the Chemin des Dames. However, the Battle of the Somme was by far the bloodiest. On the first day of the battle, there were already 58,000 casualties, including 19,420 dead, many of whom have no known graves. And the fighting raged until 18 November 2016. It took place at the same moment as the Battle of Verdun but is known contrary to Verdun, it is known as a failure. For the first time in the First World War, the Brits and the French fought together. However, they only penetrated about 6 miles (9.7km) into German occupied territory.

A 102-year old bus tour to commemorate the Battle

The Battle of the Somme is one of the major battles in British history. This is why the London Transport Museum (LTM) wanted to be a part of the centenary commemoration. The event was organised by the French Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the French Mission of the First World War centenary. From 27 to 29 June, a battle bus from 1914 drove along the entire Somme front line, from Gommecourt to Maricourt. It was then on display at Albert-Picardie Airport and Albert Railway on 1 July.

This tour is the occasion for the history lover to discover an exceptional legacy of the Battle of the Somme. Indeed, “there are only two B-type buses operational in the world today, the other one being a part of a private owner’s collection”, Tim Shields, senior curator at London Transport Museum, explained. The LTM’s bus is therefore the only one open to the public.

The visitors came to see the bus at the Grande Mine
The visitors came to see the bus at the Grande Mine

During the tour, people were able to climb inside the vehicle and sit on the top deck,” Tim Shields added. “The history enthusiasts explored the bus and it did help them understand what it was like to be a soldier during the Battle of the Somme.” Every time the Battle bus stopped, members of the public were able to discover the role this vehicle played during the First World War.

From red to khaki

During the war, more than 1,000 London buses were painted in khaki and turned into battle buses. The windows were boarded over to protect the people inside. The vehicles were used to transport as many as 25 soldiers and their equipment from England to the front line in the Somme. As they were built originally for the city, they were only able to travel at 20 miles per hour (32km/h).

The London Transport Museum's B-type bus
The London Transport Museum's B-type bus

For the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the London Transport Museum restored this 102-year old red bus and converted it into an army bus, just like the Brits did in 1916. “The project took 4 years, from having the idea to finishing the restoration”, Tim Shields said. “We worked with a number of specialists, contractors and engineers who worked on vintage buses. This work was helped by the National Lottery Fund and the LTM Friends.

These adapted vehicles were used to transport troops and also served as ambulances and mobile pigeon lofts which enabled messages to be sent from the front line back to headquarters.

The battle bus will not be on display in England. However, visitors wishing to learn more about these buses can see the B340 bus at the Museum Depot in Acton and  a B43 bus nicknamed "Ole Bill" at London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

For more information about the tour, visit the Battle Bus Twitter account.

The Battle buses were used to transport troops and equipment
The Battle buses were used to transport troops and equipment


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