Apart from new tyres and a replica cab and body this Liberty is remarkably original and a very good runner.

Liberating Belgium: Driving a 1918 Liberty B truck back to the Western Front under its own power. What could possibly go wrong?

By Tim Gosling
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site 

“We are taking a couple of trucks over to Belgium for the Armistice commemorations, would you like to come?” asked my good friend Ian Morgan. He briefly explained the plan, that his 1918 Liberty B truck and 1913 Model T Ford would be trailered to the Pond Farm museum just outside Ypres where they could be stored and we would sleep in a nearby barn for three nights. Travelling out on the Saturday we would come back on the Tuesday which would give us a couple of days to visit the battlefield and attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. The museum was having an open weekend and the trucks would make an interesting addition to their display.

The Pond Farm museum is a remarkable private collection set up by Stijn Butaye comprising exhibits that he has dug up on the family farm. The collection includes shells, grenades, bullets, tools, personal equipment, parts of a MK IV tank and every imaginable kind of detritus that was left on the battlefield all of which he has displayed in one of the barns. Also currently residing at Pond Farm is the replica MK IV tank Damon II which was built by the Poelcapelle 1917 Association and which occasionally makes appearances at public events.

Unfortunately a small problem occurred when the transporter was unable to take the Liberty all the way to Belgium so it would have to be unloaded at the channel tunnel and then drive under its own power from Calais to Ypres. This was a distance of just over 60 miles. Not an insurmountable problem but one which did not fill me with much enthusiasm if we were to lose the light.

                               The Liberty does look a little incongruous on such a modern train, but the channel tunnel is a lot quicker and easier than taking a ferry.

                               Loaded on to the train to take us under the English Channel. The journey gave us time to undertake some quick maintenance

I was to bring my truck as a support vehicle and duly arrived at the Channel tunnel for an 8:20 departure, but there was no sign of anybody else. A quick phone call revealed that the Mercedes truck which was bringing the Model T had broken down and they were waiting beside the road for spare parts to be delivered. They finally arrived at 11:20 and with much amusement from Border Force and the channel tunnel staff we quickly loaded on to the train and made our departure. Half an hour on the train allowed us some time to look over the Liberty. It really had not been very happy on the last bit of the journey but this was found to be due to the brakes dragging. These were adjusted and by the time we arrived in Calais the problem had been resolved and the Liberty positively flew off the train. With Rowley in the Mercedes navigating, the Liberty following and me at the rear we set off on our epic journey. It was now nearly one and with a top speed of 20mph I was concerned that we would end up completing the journey in the dark, not a problem in a modern car but with 100 year old lights on the Liberty this was a real concern.

                               Filling up with fuel was an expensive exercise, but it gave the driver the opportunity to warm his hands on the radiator

Travelling down the back roads we hardly saw any traffic at all and were making a good speed. I was a bit concerned when Rowley suddenly did an emergency stop and pulled in off the road with the Liberty and me pulling in behind him. What possible calamity might have occurred I wondered? Actually, nothing serious. An item was about to finish on E Bay which Rowley had been watching so he stopped in order to make his bid. Off we went again, the roads were now getting busier but the drivers seemed to be of good nature and made no complaint. As we reached Ypres the light began to fail and by the time we arrived at Pond Farm it was dark. The trucks were put away for the night and Stijn then offered us a ride in the MK IV tank around his fields in the dark. The tank is a little cramped and rather noisy so ear protectors are a must, but despite that this night-time drive across the battlefield was thrilling.

                                Stopping for a quick break on the empty roads between Calais and Ypres

I had prepared to spend the night sleeping in the barn (two sleeping bags, extra blanket etc), but Rowley had just arranged a town house for the six of us in the centre of Ypres. This sounded like a much more civilised option so we drove back into town and settled in to what was a super house close to the historic Cloth Hall.

                               Damon II fly’s the brown, red and green flag of The Royal Tank Corps – “Through the mud and blood to the green fields beyond”.

The next day we returned to Pond Farm and demonstrated the trucks to the museum visitors. We then drove back to Ypres to get some fuel and parked up under the Menin Gate for photographs. I was quite amazed that just about everybody we saw ran to take photographs and seemed generally overwhelmed to see us. As we left the Menin Gate the Model T had a puncture. The Jack and pump had been left back at the farm so the Liberty went back to get them while three of us watched over the Model T from a nearby pub. On their return the inner tube was quickly changed and we headed back out to Pond Farm which was very busy with visitors. At about six we decided to take the trucks back to Ypres to attend the Menin Gate last post. As it was now dark the lamps were lit which made a marginal improvement. Concerned about security the Police had blocked off the roads leading into town but rather good naturedly they waved us through without batting an eyelid and even directed us to park up just outside the Menin Gate which is where we remained until the ceremony had taken place. Once again everybody was thrilled to see us but could not believe that we had driven from Calais. At the end of the ceremony we parked up outside the Cloth Hall to get dinner and then drove back in the pitch black across the old battlefield to the farm.

                               Looking a bit battered and muddy the Model T at a New Zealand memorial in Flanders

On the Monday the weather had turned and it was now heavy rain. Stijn had arranged for us to visit the Hooge Crater museum where we warmed up and then attended the Armistice commemoration across the road at the cemetery. This was very moving and unfortunately very wet. We did not complain though as at least we had the opportunity to dry off later on, unlike those who had gone before us. We stopped off at Hill 62 for Rowley to place a cross at the grave of a relative but the Liberty was rather sluggish so we wanted to get back and look at the brakes. On the way back we visited the remarkable ‘Brothers in Arms’ memorial and museum set up by Johan Vandewalle following the discovery of the remains of five Australian soldiers in 2006. One of the bodies was that of ANZAC John Hunter who’s body had been very carefully laid to rest by his brother Jim in 1917 with the intention of recovering it later for a proper burial. Sadly this was only achieved in 2007, long after Jim had died. This was an incredibly interesting museum and worth a visit if you are there.

                                A day of heavy rain. The Liberty and Model T behind park up outside the famous Hooge crater museum

The last part of the journey back to the farm passed without incident. We put the trucks away and started investigating the Liberty truck. Jacking the back axle off the ground we found that one rear wheel was completely stiff and would not turn. Taking the wheel off we found that the bearings had seized up and were so worn they would have to be replaced. Unable to drive the Liberty home the next day we had to leave them in Stijns museum until new bearings are acquired and a return visit made to replace them and take the Liberty home.

Despite the bearing issue the whole trip was a remarkable exercise and great fun. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of covid and restrictions on travel the Liberty is still at rest in a Belgian barn two years later. Hopefully, in 2022 we will make the return trip and drive the Liberty from Ypres along the Somme battlefield before heading back to Calais. A trip of about 120 miles. What could possibly go wrong?

                               There is nothing like a breakdown to attract the attention of passers by! Parked outside the Menin gate the Model T is having a new inner tube fitted.

The Liberty B

Probably the best known American built truck of World War One is the Standardised Liberty B. Designed by committee and built with proprietary parts, they were assembled by 15 manufacturers. By the end of the war approximately 10,000 had been built, but they only started arriving in France shortly before the end of the war. The intention was that the Liberty would be the standard truck of the US Army, replacing the large number of different makes then in use, but the war ended before this aim could be realised.

                               The Model T passes the replica MK IV tank Damon II on Flanders Fields  

                                Filling up the Liberty with fuel once again. It didn’t take long before someone would jump out with a camera to take photographs.

                               Driving back into the city of Ypres. The other road users were generally all good natured towards us.

                                With an absence of other traffic the Model T makes good time back towards the city centre

                                The Menin Gate is the most sacred British Commonwealth war memorial and makes a perfect backdrop to the Liberty. The drive home across the old battlefield in the dark using primitive lights was very evocative

                                Left in a Belgian barn, the Liberty is at rest. She has been stuck here for two years now but hopefully in 2022 we will be able to bring her home

                                The cause of the problem – a failed rear wheel bearing.

                                Fitted with a solid rubber tyre, the cast steel wheels are incredibly heavy and difficult to remove.