A prominent Canadian folk music group will be taking the story of Vimy Ridge to stages around the region around the time of Remembrance Day.
Brendan McLeod and the Fugitives are bringing “Ridge” to Trail, Nelson, Golden, Cranbrook and Revelstoke next week.
“Ridge” is a visceral music storytelling show centred around the Battle of Vimy that probes difficult yet necessary questions about how and why we grieve.
Brendan McLeod — a writer, theatre artist, and musician — and the Fugitives (Adrian Glynn, Chris Suen and Carly Frey) will use direct storytelling, verbatim theatre, and live music to examine misconceptions and varying perspectives around the battle, while drawing parallels to other formative events in our nation’s past.
“The Battle of Vimy is the centrepiece of the show — a deeper dive into what happened that weekend,” McLeod said. But it starts at the beginning of the war, and there are some stories from after the war — it follows the trajectory of Canadian soldiers through World War I.
“It examines why Canadians have been taught to think of Vimy as a seminal moment [in Canada’s history] — and in which ways that’s true, and in which ways it’s been expounded upon over the years incorrectly,” McLeod said. “It examines all those questions.”
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War, took place April 9-12, 1917. Four divisions of the Canadian Corps in the First British Army faced three divisions of the German 6th Army at Vimy Ridge in northern France, about 175 kilometres north of Paris. It was a long, high hill that dominated the surrounding landscape, and was a strong German defensive position.
The Canadian Corps captured the German-held high ground of Vimy Ridge after the four-day battle, forcing the Germans to reassess their defensive strategy in the area. The Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties; 3,598 men had been killed and 7,004 wounded. German losses have been estimated at around 20,000 killed or wounded.
Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps to technical and tactical innovation, planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training.
The battle was the first occasion when the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together, and it has become a symbol of Canadian nationhood.
The Fugitives’ fifth album, “Trench Songs,” a reinterpretation of historic soldiers’ songs from the First World War, was nominated for a 2022 Juno Award for Best Traditional Roots album. “Trench Songs” is also a key element of “Ridge.”
“All of the lyrics of ‘Trench Songs’ were written or sung by soldiers in the trenches,” McLeod explained. “They were often parodies of songs of the time, that they would sing about their circumstances. They would often write new melodies for those songs.
“I started reading these songs, and I would play them or say the lyrics to the band, and we started playing them. We wanted people to hear them the way we would sing them now.”
Along with McLeod’s narration, the music makes up part of the narrative of “Ridge,” and the songs present the perspective of the soldiers.
McLeod recounts how the story of the War and Vimy came to inhabit his thoughts, and the provenance of both “Trench Songs” and “Ridge.” During a trip to Guelph, Ontario, where his mother was curling in the Masters Curling Championships, and a visit to John McCrae’s house, who wrote “In Flanders Fields,” McLeod remembered that “Vimy” (by Pierre Burton) had been his favourite book when he was 12.
“And the reason it was was because I was shocked that so many teenagers fought in World War I, and the circumstances they fought under. That always stuck with me. And as an adult I wanted to revisit that, and figure out exactly why that happened, what the circumstances were.
A vivid, kinetic ride through history, as well as an intimate, personal examination of our connection to the past, “Ridge” is a visceral work that argues against the exploitation of young lives. It consider the ideas around war and the sacrifices of those who were given no freedom to participate in battles.
Brendan McLeod and the Fugitives present “Ridge,” at The Bailey Theatre in Trail on November 8, the Capitol Theatre in Nelson on November 10, the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on November 11, the Golden Civic Centre on November 12, and the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre on November 13.