A tiny revelation

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!


  1. 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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14 thoughts on “A tiny revelation

  1. 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?

    Perhaps also because in WWII balloons were often deployed from mobile rather than static locations, allowing a greater flexibility to the defence. Also, given how unpredictable balloon behavior can be, one can imagine the chaos that a tethered series of rogue balloons could do to London's power grid ...

  2. Post author

    Yes, that's a good point about the flexibility. I don't know about rogues though -- I would have thought that an apron would have been less likely to be a problem, because if one balloon broke free, the others would still be tethered and would stop it floating off? But absolutely, rogues could be a real pain. Here's an article which appeared in The Times, 5 July 1939, p. 18:

    BARRAGE BALLOON ADRIFT
    The heavy cable of a barrage balloon which escaped from Cardington, Beds, yesterday, left a trail of damage in the balloon's 200-mile northerly flight. Before passing out over the North Sea at Redcar, Yorks, the cable hit grid wires and plunged into darkness the mining villages of Skelton and Brotton, near Middleborough. Earlier in its flight, over Hull, the balloon damaged chimney pots and broke telephone wires.

    I had another idea, but it doesn't work. The extra weight of the apron cables would limit the height to which the barrage could reach, so I thought maybe they got rid of the apron so the barrage could reach higher (especially since aircraft flew higher in 1940 than in 1917). But actually the WWI barrage was higher than the WWII one: 10,000 ft to 5,000. So that's not it.

  3. You're still way ahead of me. I'd never even thought of that. I've always read "barrage balloon" idiomatically without breaking it down into semantic components or wondering about its etymology. And I'm now using big words in a possibly futile attempt to convince myself that I'm not stupid. ;)

  4. Dan Todman

    'Hurricane barrage'? I think not - for the reason you suggest in the dictionary definition of barrage. The sudden storm of shells was designed to neutralise the target, not to act as a barrier or block. Hurricane bombardment, surely - it rather makes your point.
    What's the etymology of the two definitions - when was the first river barrage erected? and when did armies start using it?

  5. Post author

    DOH! Thanks -- serves me right for straying outside of my area of incompetence.

    The OED doesn't say where the word is from, but according to this it's from the French barrer ("to bar"). The OED gives 1859 as the first cite for river barrage and 1917 as the first cite for artillery barrage. The Times has earlier ones. The first use there of barrage in the riverine sense is from 1844, and it starts being used fairly steadily after that, nearly always in relation to the Nile for the first few decades, anyway. By the end of the nineteenth century it was clearly a recognised piece of engineering jargon, and not just in relation to Egypt (there's talk of a Thames barrage, for example). Why a French word was used for Egyptian river barriers is unclear to me -- the place would have been infested with French civil engineers when the Suez Canal was being planned and built, but that didn't start for another decade.

    The first uses by The Times of barrage in a military context are a bit more complicated, now that I look at it. The very first was in 1854, from a letter to the editor proposing that the entrance to Cronstadt harbour be blocked up so that when the Neva thawed in the spring, the ice would pile up in the harbour and damage or sink the Russian fleet. The next, as far as I can see, is in an article reporting on the 1907 Hague conference on the laws of war, where barrage referred to the closing of 'straits connecting open seas', which is clearly similar to the anti-submarine barrage but also fairly close to the river barrier sense of barrage. Then there are no military/naval uses until the war itself, and the first is in a report on the Gallipoli landings published 8 May 1915. One of the subheadings is 'A barrage of shells', the word itself is not used again but it is then said that 'The [Turkish] gunners tried to put a great curtain of shrapnel between the warships and the transports and the shore'. Next, on 29 May 1915 is an article by John Buchan on the battle of Festubert: 'The enemy attempted to make a barrage of fire behind us, so that it was a perilous business to get up reserves of men and munitions'. Then on 19 June 1915, from a report of the battle for Souchez (emphasis in original):

    before every attack there has been a period of several hours of intensive fire, and then the establishment of a barrage of exploding shells through which the German reserves have seldom been able to force their way.

    These and other instances would seem to back up the idea that a barrage is a wall or barrier through which soldiers have to move. BUT, then I found another explanation for barrage, from 8 October 1915, in an account of the French capture of a village named Tahure (emphasis in original):

    Directly the word is given and the French gunners "lift," either to bombard a more distant line of German trenches or to create the famous barrage, the French infantry dash in to the assault, and they are so quick and impetuous in this action that the Germans under cover often have no time to get out.

    So it looks barrage already had a meaning in French military parlance. (Since it's essentially a sprint, it may be related to another English use of barrage to mean a heat in a sporting contest.) I initially read this passage as meaning that the artillery was mimicing the infantry barrage (ie by having the line of fire "dash" forward), but from the following sentences it's clear that it's the infantry who are doing the barraging here. But there's also General Hamilton's dispatch on Gallipoli from 7 January 1916 (incidentally, only the second use in The Times of barrage by the military; the first came a couple of weeks earlier in a GHQ communique), where he refers to the '"feu de barrage" of the French artillery'. My not-even-schoolboy French would translate that as "wall of fire" but perhaps it was a standard French artillery tactic related to the 'famous' poilu barrage?

    So to conclude this now meandering comment, it may be that artillery barrage does not come directly from river barrage, except that they both (probably) derive from the same French word. It may be that the French derivation of artillery barrage has to do with a sprint or a race, but became confused by journalists with the older (in English) sense of barrage as a barrier. It would seem clear that maritime barrages derive from that sense too, either from the English barrage or the French barrage. AA barrages don't crop up until 1917, balloon barrages not until after WWI.

    Phew!

  6. Chris Williams

    Top comment, Brett. You should get yr own blog.

    E B Ashmore (he of the defence system) invented the balloon apron, and spent some of the 1920s in an unseemly battle with the Treasury over the amount of cash he was entitled to because of it. ISTR that the problem with the apron was that it was too heavy to go much over 5,000 feet.

  7. Dan Todman

    Not quite sure where the barrage as sprint comes from in the quote you give Brett. The French gunners would have lifted their fire - ie lengthened the range - to produce the 'famous barrage' between the first and second German lines, thus preventing reinforcement. So it's a barrier. It seems the derivation from engineering is pretty clear and understandable. It would be interesting to see how artillery fire during the Boer War was reported. Still, top detective work.

  8. Post author

    Oh man, I'm clearly having a very stupid day (or two). You're right, I misread the bit about the 'famous barrage', or rather, the clause following it as a parenthetical comment instead of the continuation of the action that it (now) obviously is. That makes the story nice and consistent. Between this and the Guernica IV thread (where the consensus from Orac's readers seems to be that I'm a cretin for preferring photos to Picasso), I probably shouldn't have blogged today! BTW, I did keep an eye out for Boer War uses of barrage, but didn't see any.

    Chris, that's what I thought about the balloon apron vs balloon barrage too, but it seems that the WWI apron actually went higher than the WWII barrage. Powers says the apron went up to a maximum of 11000 ft, Cole & Cheesman say 9500 ft; and according to Hough and Richards, the barrage only went up to 5000 ft. Since the balloons were much more numerous in WWII, maybe it was an economy measure -- higher ceiling (plus weight of extra cables) means bigger gasbags means means more area of material required?

    Cole & Cheesman claim that the balloon barrage/apron idea actually originated before WWI. They don't give any details of that but do give some of somewhat-similar proposals aired in 1916. Also, the Germans and Italians were using balloon barrages in early 1917; somebody from the RFC apparently went and had a look at the Venetian barrage during the Gotha campaign.

  9. Jakob

    Fascinating as ever, Brett. Do you have any idea about the effectiveness of balloon barrages? I don't remember ever reading any descriptions of them downing a bomber - the closest I can get is the recollections of an RAF fighter pilot dodging the cables over London (?), having chased or been chased into the area during the Battle of Britain.

    I know RAF heavy bombers were fitted with cable-cutters in the wing leading edge, but I've no idea if the Luftwaffe used balloon barrages at all extensively.

    Actually, thinking about it, the barrages would have been far more effective against dive-bombers; perhaps this was their main purpose?

    Apologies for my thinking out loud...

  10. Post author

    Good questions. The London balloon apron was credited with 1 kill, at least in most post-war accounts, which is not too bad given how few Gothas total were shot down by fighters or AA. In WWII, there were a lot more kills -- this page says 66 "during the height of the blitz". But they were more intended to prevent low-flying attacks, to force the bombers up to a height at which AA could engage them, and to reduce the amount of airspace the fighters needed to patrol. But you're right, they were very effective against dive-bombers, imagine diving into a nest of barrage balloons and then having to dodge them as you pulled out ...

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