Ole Bill is probably the most famous of the LGOC B-Type omnibuses built by the London General Omnibus Company. Built in 1911, it was registered as LN 4743 and given LGOC fleet number B43. It was designed by Frank Searle specifically to meet the particular needs of the stop-start nature of a bus service on London's streets. However, most of Ole Bill's working life was spent in very different circumstances on the Western Front.
The first London omnibuses to venture abroad were seventy Daimlers from the Gearless and MET fleets, which were subsidiaries of the LGOC. Hired by the Naval Brigade they left for Dunkerque in early September 1914. From here they conveyed the Royal Marines to Antwerp, where many were lost to the enemy or destroyed in the subsequent retreat within days of arrival. They were then used to convey men from the London Scottish to the first Battle of Ypres on 21 October 1914.
The first of the LGOC B-Types were requisitioned in October 1914, with further requisitions through to March 1915. The first 300 left for Avonmouth and onto France in their London livery, which was painted grey on arrival at Rouen. At this point some had the top decks of their bodies sawn off to convert them into general cargo lorries. Ole Bill, which kept its omnibus body throughout the war, would have been one of those requisitioned between October 1914 and March 1915. Roughly half of the omnibuses went with their volunteer LGOC civilian drivers, who were immediately enlisted into the Army Service Corps, with their jobs kept open by the LGOC for their return.
The driver of Ole Bill found life very different in France to the streets of London. The roads were mainly rural and often no more than dirt tracks worn into the countryside by centuries of farm carts. Dust penetrated everywhere during dry spells and mud turned roads into skid pans and sucked the buses down to their axles. In Belgium, the pavé shook every bolt loose and became notoriously slippery when wet. Roads were shared with horse transport, motor lorries and infantry creating levels of congestion that often resulted in a 10 mile journey taking as many hours. In winter, the open cabs with no heaters afforded no protection from the icy winds, snow and rain.
In the early days, Ole Bill and the rest of his Company was attached to one of the armies on the Western Front. Each of the omnibus companies being attached to different armies. Operated under direct command of their respective armies their primary role was to convey men of the infantry and working parties to the front lines. To avoid detection, these runs were usually undertaken at night, with no lights, making the already treacherous roads even more dangerous. Often it was only possible to travel at walking speed to avoid slipping off the edge of the road and getting bogged down, or to avoid the increasing number of shell holes that would disable the omnibus driven by an unwary driver.
The omnibuses were worked relentlessly, seven days a week with maintenance only undertaken when they could drive no longer. By December 1916 the condition of the omnibuses had become so critical that the Auxiliary Omnibus Park was formed at St Valery-sur-Somme and the omnibuses were taken from the armies and placed under the command of GHQ. This meant that the armies had to notify GHQ of impending troop movement and GHQ then provided the transport. The workload was no less arduous, but this consolidation of resources allowed for omnibuses to be rotated into workshops for the overhauls and running repairs that had been missing and was so sorely needed. At any one time, there were two omnibuses undergoing complete overhauls in workshops, which were also able to accommodate urgent repairs as and when they were needed. Ole Bill still worked just as hard, but at least now received the repairs needed to make that work a little easier.
In addition to troop carrying duties, many of the omnibuses had their bodies replaced with general cargo lorry bodies for the transport of ammunition, food, forage and everything else an army needs on the front line. Others were used as ambulances and twelve were converted into pigeon lofts for use by the Royal Engineers.
During the German advance of 1918, Ole Bill's workload was dramatically increased with its driver often working sixty hours without respite. In the last few days of March 1918, Ole Bill and the rest of the omnibuses travelled 855,638 miles while conveying 211,213 men in an action that did much to delay the German offensive. The flexibility of the omnibus and the resolve of the drivers was crucial in turning the tide and allowed the Allied offensive that lead to the Armistice on 11 November 1918.
In February 1919, Ole Bill along with some 150 others were deemed to be in a condition that was suitable for repatriation. Ninety per cent of the omnibuses sent to France were deemed not worth repatriation back to England. The LGOC purchased the repatriated omnibuses from the War Office and returned many of them to work on the streets of London.
Ole Bill returned to the work it had done before venturing to France, recognised by a brass plaque that proudly denoted its wartime service. In the mid-1920s, Ole Bill was finally allowed to retire when it was donated to the Auxiliary Bus Companies Association and given a new body and commemorative livery and used for ceremonial duties. In April 1970, Ole Bill was presented to the Imperial War Museum, where it now resides, resplendent in its 'General' commemorative livery.
The full story of Ole Bill and London's omnibuses is told in Destination Western Front - London's Omnibuses Go to War.