In 1759, Gen. James Wolfe’s British troops captured Quebec, a victory made possible by men scaling a 53-metre cliff at L’Anse au Foulon, which had been left unprotected. Behind the walls of Quebec, the French awoke to see the British lines formed up on the Plains of Abraham. The battle that followed lasted only 15 minutes, and Quebec was ever after in British hands.
Somehow, the scaling of the cliff at Quebec has become almost synonymous with the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The Ridge extended for 14.5 kilometres between the Scarpe and Souchez Rivers and formed a barrier across the western edge of the Douai Plain. The Ridge overlooked the coal-mining city of Lens to the east and Arras to the south, and tactically it was one of the most important features on the Western front. The Germans had taken Vimy Ridge in October 1914 and driven off French attempts to take it back with heavy casualties; the British, who had taken over the Vimy front, had also been pushed back by German attacks.
The Canadian attack on April 9 was a part of an offensive by the British Expeditionary Force on the Arras front. The Canadian Corps’ task was to take the Ridge, its four divisions fighting together for the first time, assaulting in a carefully planned, heavily rehearsed set-piece attack.
But contrary to myth, the Canadians did not need to scale the cliffs of Vimy. The crest of the Ridge is dominated by two heights—Hill 135, just north of the village of Thélus, and Hill 145, the highest point on the ridge, some four kilometres to the northwest. The northern end of the Ridge extended to The Pimple, west of Givenchy, after which the ground dropped to the valley of the Souchez. The western slopes of the Ridge facing the Canadian lines rose very gradually over open ground. Control of the Ridge gave a perfect view across the plain to Lens. But, most important, there was no cliff facing the Canadians.
The cliff in fact was behind the German lines atop the Ridge. The sharp drop of 60 metres caused the Germans no end of difficulty. Their armies had developed a strategy of defence in depth as a method of dealing with Allied assaults, but their hold on the Ridge top meant that they could not put it into practice. Instead their lines were thin, though they could hold reserves of men in bunkers on the reverse slope. Crucially, their supplies had to be hauled up the Ridge by manpower, hard enough in ordinary circumstances but devilishly difficult when the weather was wet and cold and when Canadian and British guns hammered the battlefield before the attack launched on April 9.
Vimy was an important Canadian victory, but as every visitor who has approached the wondrous Canadian National War Memorial on Hill 145 has realized, there was no cliff for the Canadians to scale. That was Quebec 1759, not Vimy 1917.
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
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