In the glorious sunshine of June 1914, there was no thought of war, no international crisis and no hint that crowned heads of Europe were poised to tumble, one after the other. But all this changed on August 4, 1914 when war was declared, the street posters of Kitchener pointing his finger at young men creating a fervour of patriotism. Ted Digby, a 45-year-old driver of the iconic London red double decker bus, is no exception.
Ghost Army charts the Great War and its impact on a spectrum of British society, mostly through London’s East Enders, seen through the eyes of TED DIGBY, the driver (45) of a red London Omnibus and of NORAH and RUBY, his wife and daughter’s lives in London signalling major changes on both sides of the Channel. Dalston-born and bred, he is seen as too old to take on such arduous, dangerous work by his wife and daughter but due to strong feelings of partisanship on the opening days of war, he decides he must be instrumental in the battle, albeit as a driver, not a soldier. Like many, he believes that the war will be short-lived. He does have ulterior motives, however.
Without consulting Norah or Ruby, he signs up and is accepted despite his age and is seconded to the Army Service Corps, his bus affectionately named Ol’ Bill, pushed into service from its usual route of Euston Station to Shepherd’s Bush via Trafalgar Square to the Western Front during the four years of conflict in Belgium and France. Ol’ Bill joins over 1,000 London double deckers enroute to the Front.
Passengers on the bus – apart from soldiers, the wounded, prisoners - include RALPH GANT (23), pigeon handler who takes over the top of the bus for communication purposes to the Front Line and who cannot communicate verbally to people due to shell shock, only to his birds; BILLY BOY COTGRAVE (20), Ted’s co-driver who finds a mentor in Ted and falls in love with Ted’s daughter Ruby; DICKIE LOVELOCK (29), a London wheeler dealer and one-time driver to Lord Harmsworth of Northcliffe publishing fame via whom he discovers the finer things of life working for the print baron. He will stop at nothing to acquire stolen goods when working on the war bus including appropriating the best wines from châteaux cellars and food from their kitchens destined for high-ranking officials. He also stoops to new lows by stealing watches, rings and other paraphernalia from the trench’s dead to sell. But Ted is no saint, his vows of family fidelity crumbling as he falls for KITTY HOWARD (38), an independent married nurse who raises funds to work with co-nurse Dora on the Western Front, rescuing soldiers to nurse on their own terms, Kitty’s motorbike creating the initial link between her and Ted with whom he has a long-term relationship. Ted and Dickie share a secret which could both see them court-martialled and sentenced to death if found out.
The story alters between the Western Front (Ted, the bus, Kitty, Billy, Dickie, Ralph, other characters including the sadistic sergeant Dawkins and the effects of war) and the Home Front (Norah, Ruby, the impact on their lives and the growing awareness of women’s emancipation due in part to the absence of men, new openings in their lives including taking on jobs previously filled by men, now at the Front). Norah works in the German Hospital laundry in Dalston but with prejudice rising against the Germans despite the hospital being an East London institution since the 1860’s, she is forced to leave. She joins Ruby, who also quits her job (in the Peak Frean biscuit factory) to work at the Woolwich Arsenal filling armaments, as the pay is better. But does the promise of new roles for women last when the men return from war? Ghost Army is so named as bus drivers were often regarded by other soldiers as honorary ones as they did not fight, their sole purpose being to drive the buses, hence ghostly.
Extensive research at Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum, Dalston Museum, BBC, Bishopsgate Institute, The Long, Long Trail, Army Service Corps, Base Depot, Royal Logistics Corps Museum, Chichester Library and many books including Zeppelin Nights, Fighting on the Home Front, My War Diary, Tommy’s War, Forgotten Voices, Dictionary of Tommies’ Slang and Songs, Trench Talk, Trench Orders, Love Letters of the Great War, My War Diary, Elsie and Mairi go to War, Woodbine Willie, The Beauty and the Sorrow, Thirty-Odd Feet below Belgium, Destination Western Front, Women in Britain 1900 – 2000, Women on the Warpath, London, The Story of a Great City and other comprehensive research.
London, August 2000