The Battalion’s mid-winter respite was brief. On New Year’s Eve, 1917, the 2/4th Oxfords quitted the wretched Suzanne huts and marched through Harbonnieres to Caix. No ‘march past’ was necessary or would have been possible, for so slippery was the road that the men had to trail along its untrodden sides as best they could. Old 61st Divisional sign-boards left standing nearly a year ago greeted the return to an area which was familiar to many. The destination should have been Vauvillers, but the inhabitants of that village were stricken with measles. Better billets and freedom from infection compensated for a longer march. At Caix the Battalion was comfortable for a week.
The Division’s move from the Bray-Suzanne area to south of the Somme heralded a new relief of the French, whose line was now to be shortened by the amount on its left flank between St. Quentin and La Fere.
About January 11 the Battalion found itself once more in Holnon Wood, where a large number of huts and dug-outs had been made by the French since last spring. The front line, now about to be held between Fayet and Gricourt, was almost in its old position. The outpost line of nine months ago had crystallised into the usual trench system. Those courteous preliminaries, so much the feature of a French relief, were, on this reintroduction to scenes soon to become so famous and so tragic a little marred by an untimely German shell which wounded Weller, who had
accompanied the Colonel to see the new line.
Industrious calm succeeded the relief. Since the Russian break-up and the consequent liberation from the Eastern Front of fresh German legions, the British army had been on the defensive. A big effort by the enemy was expected, and when it came, the St. Quentin front was not unlikely to receive the brunt of his massed attack. The months of January and February and the first half of March were ominously quiet. Shelling was spasmodic. After the artillery activity of the last summer and autumn our guns seemed lazy. So quiet was it that Abraham used to ride up to the two small copses that lay behind our front.
For the time being the ‘offensive spirit’ was in abeyance; our paramount task was the perfection of our defensive system. By this time in the war it was acknowledged that against attacks in weight no actual line could be held intact. Faith in ‘lines’ became qualified in favour of the series of ‘ strong points ‘ or redoubts, which were constructed to defend ‘ tactical features.’ This policy, founded on our experience of the German defence during
the Third Battle of Ypres, was very sound. All the redoubts constructed in the area occupied by the 184th Brigade were so well sited and so strongly wired that the faith seemed justified that they were part of one impregnable system. But against loss of one important factor no amount of industry could serve to insure. ‘ Strong points ‘ must act in concert and for such mutual action ‘ on the day ‘ good visibility was essential. As we shall see, this factor was denied. In rear of these redoubts, which lay along the ridge west of Fayet, a line known as the ‘Battle Line’ was fortified, and in rear again a trench was dug to mark the ‘ Army Line,’ where the last stand would be made. These lines were strong, but more reliance was apt to be placed upon their mere existence on the ground than, in default of any coexistent scheme to fill them at a crisis with appropriate garrisons, was altogether justified.
Early in the year the Bucks had been taken from the Brigade (now like all Infantry Brigades reduced to three Battalions) and went to Nesle to work as an entrenching Battalion. Many old friends, including especially Colonel ‘Jock’ Muir, had to be parted with. The three Battalions which remained were now arranged in ‘ depth,’ a phrase I explained by stating that while one, say the Berks, held the front line ‘twixt Fayet and Gricourt, the
Gloucesters as Support Battalion would be in Holnon Wood and ourselves, the Oxfords, in reserve and back at Ugny. When a relief took place the Gloucesters went to the front line, ourselves to
Holnon, and the Berks back to Ugny. The Battalion holding the line was similarly disposed in ‘ depth,’ for its headquarters and one company were placed more than a mile behind the actual front.
After the January frost and snow had gone, a period of fine, clement weather set in. This, in a military sense, was a golden age. Boxing, thanks to encouragement from the Colonel and Brown and under the practical doctrine of ‘ Benny ‘ Thomas, the Battalion pugilist, flourished as never before. Each tour some officers, instead of going to the line, were sent to worship at the shrine of Maxse. The Battalion reached the zenith of its efficiency.