This post is about a revelation I had a while back, which those of you with a firmer grasp of the English language than I will think is nothing at all new (and you're right!) The thing is that I'd always been puzzled by the word barrage. This gets used a lot by journalists: 'the minister faced a barrage of criticism for her decision', 'the home team's late barrage of goals sealed their victory', and so on. Obviously, this is related to the artillery barrages so characteristic of trench warfare on the Western Front, intense bombardments which were usually the prelude to an attack across no-man's land. There were several kinds of artillery barrage, for example hurricane barrages (shorter but even more intense) [edit: bzzzt, wrong, see below] and creeping barrages (moving just ahead of the advancing troops). There was also the anti-aircraft barrage, where the targets are up in the sky instead of on the ground. So it's easy to see how the civilian uses of barrage came from the military ones (or perhaps vice versa); the sense of the word in both would seem to be something like the raining of blow after furious blow upon an opponent.
OK, but what about barrage balloons? They didn't rain furious blows upon anything, they just sat there swaying in the breeze, on the off chance that enemy aircraft might fly down low and hit their mooring cables. And what was the deal with balloon barrages,1 which confusingly were composed of barrage balloons? And then there were anti-submarine barrages, essentially nets stretched across maritime choke-points such as the Strait of Dover or the mouth of the Adriatic. None of these things have the very active quality of the previously-mentioned barrages -- they're all in fact very passive indeed. It's hard to see what the one sort of barrage has to do with the other, but since they are all called barrages and arose during the same period of the two world wars, presumably there's some logic to it all. But what?
Of course, I could have looked it up in a dictionary, but it wasn't something which bugged me that much so I never thought to. My revelation came when reading a contemporary account of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935-6 which mentioned an Italian air raid upon a barrage in the Nile. Which initially made no sense, because I was thinking artillery barrage and how do you bomb that? But from the context I eventually worked out that the barrage in question was something like a dam in the river, a barrier -- a wall. And then it all clicked. All of the military uses of barrage are actually walls! Balloon barrages are walls of cables to stop bombers. Anti-submarine barrages are walls of netting to stop submarines. Those are easy.
Now, anti-aircraft barrages are walls of cannon shells put up in the flight path of enemy aircraft. That makes sense because AA fire wasn't generally accurate enough to pick out individual aircraft at 15,000 feet, which anyway were moving very quickly. So what they did was calculate where the target (or targets, when it was a group of bombers) was going to be by the time the shells reach the required altitude, and keep firing at that area, preferably with multiple guns, and thereby create a wall of flak for the bombers to fly through. And as for artillery barrages, they too are walls, walls of artillery fire. Because of the spatially linear nature of trench warfare, any bombardment of an opposing section of the front is going to be spread out along a line, and so the continuous pouring of shells along that line creates a wall of fire. Eureka.
So the original sense of the word was in fact passive, but it acquired a much more active meaning when it passed back into civilian life again. If I had bothered to look it up, would the dictionary have told me the same thing? Yes: the OED has as the first definition of barrage:
The action of barring; the formation of an artificial bar in a river or watercourse, to increase the depth of water; the artificial bar thus formed, esp. those in the Nile.
and as the second:
In modern military use: a barrier of continuous artillery or machine-gun fire concentrated in a given area, used to prevent the advance or retreat of enemy troops, to protect troops advancing against the enemy, to repulse attacks by aircraft, and for destructive purposes; creeping or moving barrage, a curtain of fire moving before and directed from behind advancing troops. More explicitly barrage fire.
So everybody knew this and it's no great discovery. But at least I felt better for knowing that the world made a little bit more sense than I had thought!
In the First World War these were called balloon aprons, a slightly different idea where the balloons were also connected to each other by horizontal cables, from which yet more cables were suspended. I'm not sure why balloon aprons were abandoned by the Second World War; perhaps because they were more fiddly to deploy? ↩
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