It is New Year 1917, the beginning of the fourth year of the war, and the 1st Australian Division has been in France for nine months. The year begins with promise as the Germans withdraw from a large swathe of occupied France, ground for which they had fought so tenaciously and at great cost to hold the previous year. Early optimism on the part of the Allies, however, is quickly dashed as they realise that in pulling back to new, carefully prepared positions the Germans have given up little and gained a considerable shortening of their line, allowing them to garner deeper reserves. The overthrow of Russian Czar Nicholas II in March casts a further pall over what is obviously going to be a long and bloody year.
At Chantilly in November 1916 the Allies agreed on a strategy for 1917 that would take the form of simultaneous attacks on the Central Powers. The Italians are to strike the Austrians across the Isonzo River. France's new commander, General Robert Nivelle, fresh from some limited success at Verdun in late 1916, replaces Joffre as French commander-in-chief, and he aims to launch a breakthrough on the Chemin des Dames ridge. Haig will support him by attacking at Arras. By now the BEF has hit its peak wartime strength and, even with the losses of the previous year, by December 1916 the British Empire had four million men under arms world-wide, and Haig's command stretches to five armies. And it is a much more capable force, having learned considerably from the errors and miscalculations of 1916. After a faltering start on the Somme it appears that the BEF might have found a successful operational doctrine in its limited-objective attack, although whether this can generate strategic success remains to be seen.