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Creeping Barrage

Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele 1917, by Alfred Bastien

"I was invited to play this song in Ottawa, at the tomb of the unknown soldier, on November 11th 2008 - the 90th anniversary of the end of World War One.  Behind the Veterans, dignitaries and students in the crowd, I could see families arrive, waiting for the moment much later that night when their relative's name would be shone upon the huge cenotaph"  - Mike


Chalk catacombs and trenches
The flower of the dominion
Awaits the very second
When the guns throw up a wall of fire
On to Vimy Ridge
Beneath a burning camouflage
A final tot of rum then up and over
Under this creeping barrage

Bagpipes announce the moment
Of synchronized precision
From each mud-caked rehearsal
Through the cold and rats and lice and blood
Taking Vimy Ridge
Beneath a burning camouflage
The begging of the wounded and the moans
Lost under this creeping barrage

Here I am
Here I am
Here I am

A nation consecrated
In blood across the ocean
You took what could not be taken
In the cold and rats and lice and mud
Look down from Vimy Ridge
Beneath spent shells and camouflage
See the German boy your age your rank
Your face his face his eyes your eyes
His dreams crushed under
This creeping barrage

Key Terms & Phrases

The Trenches

The image of ‘the trenches’ has long been synonymous with World War I, evoking as much sentiment and infamy as the war itself. At a basic level the trenches were a complex system of ditches and dugouts along the frontlines from which the vying armies waged their battles. While first encountered in the American Civil War, the trench warfare that evolved in the crucible of WWI was an entirely different beast. Driven by the advancement of weapons technology and the mechanisation of war that ensued, by the spring of 1915 trench warfare had become the modus operandi for the Entente and Central Powers, and would remain so until the last months of the war. The nature of this new beast was such that it dragged both sides into a stalemate, and for nearly four years the Great War was mostly but a war of attrition. Life in the trenches was a brutal and miserable one, and Mike Ford’s Creeping Barrage is illustrative of that.

The Creeping Barrage

A repeated reference in the song (and, of course, the song’s title), a ‘creeping barrage’ was a tactic developed during WWI specifically for trench warfare. Canadians played a key role in its evolution and deployment, most notably at Vimy Ridge, where an adaptation of the creeping barrage (the rolling barrage — See Below) was used for the first time. In military parlance, a ‘barrage’ is a line or barrier of exploding artillery shells created by the coordinated aiming and firing of guns (the “wall of fire” referred to in the first stanza of the song). As it pulverises its targets, a barrage also prevents any army from advancing — including, however, the side doing the firing. Thus the creeping barrage was developed, where the curtain of bombardment sweeps toward the enemy line, allowing infantry troops to follow close behind and advance their position.

The Rolling Barrage

The rolling barrage, which was developed and first deployed by Canadians at Vimy Ridge, was slightly more advanced than the creeping barrage, but was still built on the same concept. It involved two or more groups of guns that alternated their shelling, taking turns while the other group(s) re-aimed guns ahead of the advancing line of the troops. This allowed for a continued and overwhelming deluge of bombardment.

As the creeping/rolling barrage was used to devastating effect by all armies, it reinforced the two-steps-forward, two-stepsback nature of the war, with most gains being nullified by losses almost immediately. Nevertheless, in the hands of the Canadians especially, who became renowned for their fighting prowess in the War, the ‘creeping barrage’ proved its usefulness - if one can call the maximized killing of others ‘useful’.

Chalk Catacombs

Chalk Catacombs refers to the chalky earth along much of the Western Front out of which trenches were dug. Given the vast number of soldiers who died in their chalk-lined trenches, it is fitting to refer to these ditches as catacombs — an underground cemetery for the lucky living and the soon-to-be-dead.

Vimy Ridge

It is what many have called Canada’s finest hour, a “nation-making moment” that involved Canadians from every region of the country. Fought from 9-14 April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a major turning point in the war and also marked the high point in Canadian military achievement in World War I.!

Vimy Ridge was a key high ground in northern France. The Germans had dug themselves in and the hill was riddled with tunnels, trenches, and complex fortifications, including artillery that was reinforced with machine-gun platforms.

Numerous attempts had been made by the British and the French to take the hill, with disastrous results: more than 200,000 men had been lost with no ground gained. Giving up, however, was not an option: having shown their mettle at Ypres (a key battle in Belgium where the Germans launched the first-ever gas attack), it was now the Canadians’ turn.

Whereas previous assaults on Vimy Ridge had been hobbled by haphazardplanning and a lack of coordination between forces, the taking of Vimy Ridge would be marked by thorough preparedness, leaving nothing to chance. It was here that Canadian Major-General Arthur Currie, commander of the First Canadian Division, and British general Julian Byng, commander of the Canadian Corps, devised the strategy known as a ‘creeping barrage’ (see above), which allowed the Canadian troops to advance upon and overtake the German defences. The assault plan worked because of detailed planning and the courage and discipline of Canadian soldiers, who attacked together for the first time. By noon on April 9 1917 Canadians forces had achieved an incredible victory, sweeping the Germans off the ridge. By April 14 they had gained more ground, more guns and more prisoners than any previous British offensive had done.

Vimy Ridge cost Canadians dearly. Casualties mounted to 10,602, including 3598 dead. Nevertheless the sense of achievement and national pride created by this success gave the Canadians a great feeling of self-confidence. Vimy showed the world that Canadians were capable of devising and carrying out a well planned and successful attack. It also proved that Canada was ready to take an important step in forging its identity as a nation independent of Great Britain. After the Vimy victory, Major-General Arthur Currie was promoted to commander of the Canadian Corps: it was no longer necessary for British officers to command Canadian soldiers. For the first time, Canada had its own officers in command of the Canadian Corps.

Up and Over

“Up and over” (along with “over the top”) was a term used in the trenches to signal an assault on an enemy line or position. Infantry troops would literally have to climb up and over the wall of their trench in order to charge across No Man’s Land, hoping to secure a shellhole or perhaps even an entire enemy trench. “Up and over!” was as much a command as it was a summons to look death in the face as infantrymen invariably charged into oncoming enemy fire. Theirs was a bravery and sacrifice the likes of which had not been seen before: the story of World War I was written largely in the ink of their blood. Life in the Trenches:

In the words of eminent war historian John Laffin,

…[S]ervice in [the trenches] profoundly affected every frontline soldier of every nation.

The many soldiers who wrote of their experiences give more space to their time in the trenches than to any other part of their service, yet most men spent longer out of the trenches than in them. The explanation is that the trenches produced an intensity of horror and of emotion that overwhelmed all other experiences of a soldier’s life, especially that of an infantryman.

(John Laffin, The Western Front Illustrated,1914-1918, p. 19)

Canadian Nationhood “A nation consecrated”

Mike Ford refers here to the fact that in and through the crucible of World War I, Canada, as a truly independent and autonomous nation, was born. All Canadians - from the frontline soldiers to the men and women on the homefront, to the politicians who represented them - proved their mettle and demonstrated to the world - and to themselves - that Canada was not but a vassal and glorified colony of Great Britain. Canada had grown up, and it was a global war that provided the rite of passage, the consecration of a nation.

The Inhumanity of War “See the German Boy your age, your rank…”

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the song, in the second half of the second verse Ford draws out one of the more sobering and heartbreaking aspects of WWI: the fact that the frontline trenches were often so close together (sometimes not more than a few yards) that soldiers could make out the facial features of the enemy in the opposing trench (that is, of course, if they dared peer out across No Man’s Land and risk the bullet of the ever-vigilant sniper). This contributed to the lingering and unsettling set of questions that creeped to the surface in WWI as to who the enemy really was and, more importantly, why he was an enemy. Unlike in WWII, where Nazi Germany was clearly the belligerent and left no question as to the need to fight and resist, the ambiguity and opaqueness that obscured the First World War left many soldiers, officers, citizens, and even politicians wondering what the whole point was. The ability to see into the eyes of the soldier in the enemy trench only reinforced the disillusionment, juxtaposing the humanity in a face-to-face encounter with the detached, mechanistic and philosophically twisted call to obliterate that “German boy, your age, your rank.” The inhumanity of war, indeed.


Composer Notes

The stories and images associated with the Vimy Ridge battle of April 9th – 12th  1917 in and of themselves represent a great quarry for the modern day writer to mine. The unprecedented preparations, the new military techniques used, the huge numbers of men and armaments involved, the implications the battle had for Canada and its significance in the wider Great War context, the trench and sortie experience of the infantrymen, the subterranean and airborne levels involved, the railroads, the horses – a list that can go on and on before even getting to the German experience of the battle, before even touching on modern day impressions of this event, the memorials at Vimy and more.  In deciding to create a song about this, however, I had one over-riding goal: to somehow illustrate the universal tragedy of young men being sent to kill, and be killed by, young men, and the heartbreaking and banal symmetry that represents.

The song was written a few months before the 90th anniversary of the battle – as many in the media and education were preparing and producing commemorations of the event.  I was struck by the impression that very little or no mention was being made of the fact that the substantial memorial created at the sight in France (on land given to Canada) was in no way a victory monument, even though Canadian forces were ‘victorious’ that weekend.  It is a monument to bereavement and grief.

  • also struck by all the ever-present talk of it being ‘ the birth of a nation’
  • struck by inability to find any mention of the battle in US, other books

Of the hundreds of times I’ve performed the song, the most memorable for me was in Ottawa on the eve of November 11th, 2008, the 90th anniversary of the Great War’s end.  As part of the inspired Vigil Project, that night, after sunset, in a sequence that was being repeated in cities across Canada, every name of the over 60,000 Canadian war dead of 1915-18 was projected onto a cenotaph – in this case, The Canadian War Memorial near the Parliament buildings.  As part of the dusk ceremonies before the Governor General, Veterans, families and students, speeches were read, reveille was blown, poems were read.  My part was to sing Creeping Barrage.  Immediately in front of me, as I sand, lay the tomb of The Unknown Soldier.  At the back of the crowd, slowly gathering, were pockets of families and individuals with sleeping bags, thermos and cameras, knowing that the name of their great uncle, or a soldier they’d studied, would be appearing at, say, 2:08 AM for 30 seconds high on the cenotaph.  These gatherings, large and small, spread out across the country, were testament to the power of, and need for, the symbolic homecomings effected by The Vigil Project.  My deep gratitude goes out to Canada’s History Society for inviting me to be involved in this meaningful commemoration.

Lyrically, I wanted to avoid any technical, strategic or historical explanations.  My inspiration was haiku – imagistic descriptions using as few words as possible.  Writing this song made me realize that song lyrics can use some of the same techniques as cinema – the lyricist is a cinematographer who’s camera can close in for p.o.v. (point-of-view shots capturing the eye-view of one individual), can swoop up for an aerial outlook (over larger groups, across landscapes, and can make jump edits between the two (as the song repeatedly does).

Musically, although ultimately horrible and murky in theme, I wanted the style to be charging, bright rock/pop – to lead the listener with heroics, grit and adventure (certainly the predominant view of the conflict at the time) through impressions of the horror involved to a declaration of self, to the realization of the song’s final tableau.  The recurring signature instrumental of the climbing string section is meant to at once signify the pounding of the barrage itself, the hope and striving of the soldiers and their generals, and the heartbeats of all involved.  The overall effect was meant to be at first glorious (the powerful climbing motif), then challenging (the violin ‘digging in’ in the solo), then enigmatic (with the final major seventh chord).

The song was recorded in the key of E flat, with a typical rock/pop format (guitar, piano, bass, drums) and 4 piece string section on top (Cello, viola, 2 violins) with one of the violins stepping in front for the solo section.  We had a lot of fun in the recurring instrumental section over-dubbing thumping percussion to give an extra dynamic to the climbing barrage.  This required numerous microphones scattered about the studio while all hands present took to banging the floor, walls, piano lid etc (the effect is most audible just before the opening lyric, but returns subliminally with each instrumental section.

Activities & Lesson Ideas

Class Discussion Questions

  • “When the war ended, the Canadian government felt justified in demanding a separate place at the peace table.  Our soldiers had fought as Canadians, and we would sign the Treaty of Versailles as Canadians” How does (or doesn’t) this change in status qualify as the ‘Birth of a Nation? What makes Vimy Ridge, for some, a central event in that change?
  • Are the events at Vimy Ridge ‘fundamental to Canadian identity?  How so?
  • Some have called the events at Vimy a ‘glorified suicide mission?’ Why was Canada chosen to partake at that point?

“war is never wrong when it is a war against wrong” – Presbyterian Record

Was World War One (and Canada’s involvement in it at battles like Vimy)     Morally Just?

  • Some have called it world’s first electronic battle field – as Canadians used Morse Code from observer planes.  Have Canadians pioneered in other communications use?

Activities / Projects

-use the musical template to write a Vimy song from the viewpoint of a German soldier

  • Claustrophobia of tunnels, proximity of Can/germ. Tunnels: make a vocal counterpoint of thoughts, utterances from both sides

  • Platoon Attacks (a tactical revolution) with their own autonomy, quick response : create a platoon song, describing per verse, each components job, with overall in CH.

  • GAS – create a sound poem texture piece about the new weapon

  • Carvings into chalk underground in final moments – what would you carve?

  • What are the 3 dimensions of the attack? Create a music piece that expresses all 3 levels simultaneously

  • Does this battle deserve its legendary status?  How about an Amiens song? Use template

  • Vimy Ridge Job Fair: Perhaps more than any other Canadian Battle of World War One, Vimy Ridge saw a huge variety of jobs and special regiments occupied with myriad tasks in preparation, during, and after the battle.  As a class activity, create a Job Fair, with representatives at booths/stations seeking recruits for each type of position, and prospective job-holders with ‘background cards’ outlining their pre-war experience, abilities, fears etc.  Jobs on offer could include positions in:

    Cyclist Battalion - Veterinary Corps - Vickers Gun Corps – Infantry - Snipers

    Rifle Grenadiers – Bombers - Army Medical Corps - Canadian Forestry Corps

    Corps of Canadian Railway Troops - Army Service Corps (food, ammunition, fuel)

    Balloon - Communications (Morse Code, Radio, Pigeon, Translation) 

    Cavalry - Road building and repair - Signal, Telephone and Electrical Cable Wiring

References / Suggested Readings

Boyden, Joseph Three Day Road Penguin Canada, 2005
Berton, Pierre Vimy Anchor Canada, 1986

Other Vimy Ridge related songs:

Scott Baragar – “Vimy Ridge”

The Fishing Musicians “The Ridge”

Tanglefoot – “Vimy”
YouTube at Vimy Memorial