Destination Western Front: London’s Omnibuses go to war

One of the great advantages of attending Hungerford Historical Association talks is the opportunity to see history from someone else’s viewpoint. Few of us ever think about the financial cost of wartime, being more concerned about the more obvious human cost. HHA’s March speaker, Roy Larkin, developed an interest in the financial cost of The Great War as a result of a prior interest in the road haulage industry in the ‘20s. His research ultimately worked back towards exploring logistics on the Western Front.

Roy initially volunteered at the Royal Logistics Corps Museum and then by delving into The National Archives he developed a broader understanding of his subject, leading to the publication of “Destination Western Front” and “We can Do It”, a social history of heavy haulage. Roy evidently likes anything quirky as evidenced by his fascination with how the value of money has changed since 1914 and the sometimes unbelievable quantities of stuff moved to the front. Huge tonnages of potatoes, vast numbers of tents and groundsheets, not to mention the difficulty of sourcing sufficient trucks to do the transporting.

The scale of material supply was mind-boggling. Roy illustrated this in both costs at the time but also translated into 2023 values. This in itself was sobering, to see that our pounds now are worth around one hundredth of a pound then. One three-ton lorry: £795 or £72,600 today, to provide much of the transport. There were no 40 ton ‘artic’ available in those days! The lorries transported huge quantities of food, armaments, tents, spares and clothing to keep soldiers at the front supplied. Transporting everything from Britain was in itself a headache. There were a limited number of ports and berths in France that could off-load shipments and delays at the ports proved costly due to dock charges and time-consuming slow dock systems.

The requisitioning of property in both England and France was an interesting aside to the supply issues. Hotels in French ports were requisitioned for billeting senior ranks and for hospitals, whilst stately homes in England were requisitioned for training, billeting troops and hospitals. All of these buildings had to be returned after the war in something like their original condition; itself at huge cost. Hundreds of beds, carpets, pillows and sheets to French hotels and much remedial work on the stately homes and their parkland. The National Debt rose from £650 million in 1914 to £7.4 billion in 1919, which was hardly surprising given the extraordinary costs catalogued by our speaker Roy. It took until the 1970s before this debt was cleared.

Roy’s enthusiasm for his subject precluded time for questions but his many contemporary photographs and memories of the vast task of supplying the front were appropriate compensation.

HHA’s next talk will take place on Wednesday 26 April at 7.30pm in the Corn Exchange, Hungerford. This time we return to a local subject – the Crofton Beam Engine by Jon Willis, followed by ‘Littlecote Roman Villa’ on Wednesday 24 May with Dr Hugh Pihlens. The last talk of the season will be ‘History of Thames Valley Police’ by Ken Wells combined with a brief AGM on Wednesday 28 June.

Visitors are welcome every month at the Corn Exchange, Hungerford, 7.30pm. Membership £15 per annum, visitors £5 per talk.

David Whiteley
Hungerford Historical Association



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