The song’s poignant lyrics are from a poem written by a D-Day survivor during the Second World War.
Unfortunately, the sentiments of this anti-war tune are as timely today — with the Russia invasion of Ukraine — as when the poem was first penned by Canadian soldier George Johnson after the London Blitz of 1940 and 1941.
“War devastated the civilian population. It devastated my grandmother’s children,” said Johnson’s nephew Baird, who set the words to I Saw a City Burning to music in 2005.
The Red Deer musician thought of his late uncle’s poem whenever newscasts showed bombings in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.
The Russian invasion was the main news story of 2022, instilling fears across the globe of a possible Third World War. The contemporary conflict was much in Baird’s thoughts as he performed I Saw a City Burning for residents of 15 Red Deer nursing homes around Remembrance Day.
Each time he sang:”I always will remember that dark and starless night… when the bombers in the distance broke the silence of the night…. I saw a city burning while planes few overhead…” he saw tears in listeners’ eyes — “particular the war brides because they experienced that,” said Baird.
His uncle, who was from Carrot River, Sask., was training to fight the Nazis in Europe when he wrote the poem.
Stationed at an army base just outside London, Johnson was witness to the human suffering caused by the Blitz, said Baird, whose three older brothers also fought in the Second World War.
“People would go down into the bomb shelters at night and come up the next morning and their whole street would be gone,” he recalled his uncle telling him.
Sometimes dead civilians would be found among the rubble and broken belongings.
Johnson later fought on Juno Beach on D-Day and survives to see VE-Day. But he never spoke much about his wartime experiences, preferring to write about them as poetry.
In 1955, Baird had been a 21-year-old home on leave from his own army career. Late one night at a family gathering, he recalled his uncle first shared the poem I Saw A City Burning.
“He asked me if I could set it to music,” Baird recalled, “and I said I would,” but he soon forgot about the promise.
Now an 88-year-old, Baird doesn’t remember being particularly struck by the poem at the time. However, many years after his uncle’s death in the 1970s, Baird saw the words again family memorabilia shared at another gathering in about 2005.
With more lived experience under his belt, he was very much affected by his uncle’s poem this time, and thought it high time he fulfilled his promise.
It didn’t take Baird long to compose the music. The retired agricultural industry worker explained he has been writing his own songs for many years, performing them at community functions and recording three CDs.
I Saw a City Burning is now part of his repertoire. Whenever he sings about “the women old and grey,” his wife, Linda, said she gets goosebumps, thinking of her own parents escaping from Austria (then part of Czechoslovakia) just before the German invasion.
Her father, who had openly opposed Hitler, had been on a hit list, she added, so was lucky to be smuggled out of the country with her mother to resettle in Canada.
Linda noted wars are constantly being fought around the world, including in Ukraine, where the Russian invasion will be a year old in February. “The Great War was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and think of all the wars there’ve been since…
“There’s a world of tortured people out there,” she added, so it would be amazing if everyone could finally have a peaceful New Year.
Meanwhile, Ray will keep singing I Saw a City Burning for anyone who wants to hear it. The song is important, he said, because it brings to the forefront the human costs of war.