100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme
The RAF Museum holds several items connected with the events of the 1st July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. One such item is the personal diary of Captain Paul Copeland Maltby, who flew on artillery co-operation duties with 15 Squadron on the day of the attack. Below is a transcription of his entry for this fateful day.
“Two contact patrol machines and mine for lift work were out at 7. The attack to begin at 7:30. The bombardment was going on ferociously. (unreadable name) had let his mechanic put too much oil in his engine and had to change machines at the last minute in consequence. He was only just in time. I got to the lines just in time to see the mine under Hawthorn Redoubt go up. It was charged with 20 tons of Amytol. The debris and column must have gone up about 3000 feet. Luckily no machine was over it, or it would certainly have been fatal. The crater must have been some eighty yards across.
The bombardment went on for about another five minutes, a ‘hurricane’ bombardment with Stokes guns taking up the last five minutes. That and the mine must have given the huns the tip that the attack was starting. Anyhow they were up manning their parapet while our infantry were passing through their own wire. It was too awful to watch. You could see our men going down all over the place, the survivors making for shell-holes when it got too much for them. In some places, just South of the Redan, opposite and S.W. of Beaumont all the shell-holes and sunken roads were full of our men trying to find cover. In several places you could see the result of gallant attempts to charge home, a sort of triangle of corpses, apex near the German trenches. And all the time you could see huns all along their parapets firing like blazes. Almost at the first instant of the attack they fired red very lights into the air which was immediately followed by a wonderful artillery barrage in front of our front trenches. This caused enormous casualties amongst our supporting battalions.
A smoke screen was made which simply hid (unreadable place-name) and all the ground to the north. The only places where our men could be seen in the German trenches were the Quadrilateral (where about 100 must have been) and on the western lip of the crater. Huns were all round the former lot on E, N and S sides, and I could see ferocious bombing going on. I also saw bombing round the edge of the crater where our men were bunched in thousands. I had to spend most of my attention in sending down “mostly” observations to the batteries lifts. The R.F.A. barrage carried on quite prettily if only our infantry had been able to keep up with it. When I came down I found that Packe had been wounded with (unreadable name) by rifle fire from the ground, quite slightly luckily, and that his petrol tank had been punctured. Henderson went up with Tucker to carry on in his place and came down in half an hour with Tucker wounded and his petrol tank punctured. His machine being hit in 79 places and so badly damaged that it had to be struck off charge. (unreadable name) also had a bullet through the sump of his engine. My machine was hit only 13 times. I had to report at Corps HQ and saw Hunter Weston. They had reports that the infantry had taken Serre and the Station road but that they were being held up at the Quadrilateral. I volunteered to fly low & have a good look. When I got there I found that the huns from Ancre to Beaumont had again gone to ground in their dug-outs, as out hows were again bombarding them. Our people & the huns were digging in on each side of the crater. Beaumont was full of little parties, probably huns and our men in bands. No signs of our people on the Station road. Frontier lane undoubtedly German. About 1000 of our men in the Quadrilateral being held up by Germans on all fronts. Huns in the front line north of this, with small parties in the 2nd and 3rd lines. These apparently were those of our men who had got through being rounded up by the Germans.
I went down to 800 feet to look & Serre was undoubtedly empty, as were the trenches S & E of it. I went back and reported to the Corps again, where the infantry reports of the advance had come down a bit. After our front line had gone over, and while the supports were being mauled by the barrage, the huns seem to have come out of their deep dug-outs and manned the front line, cutting off those who had already got over. They wouldn’t believe me when I said that the whole front-line, with the exception of the Quadrilateral, was in German hands. This has since proved to be correct. I then went up for a third time, and all was exactly as before, with the exception that those of our men in the Quadrilateral, of the 11th Brigade, who hadn’t returned back to our trenches, appeared to have been scuppered. I could see them sitting in a lump, about 500 or so of them, with the front trenches held again by very few men, apparently Germans. The attack undoubtedly failed to advance, but must have tied a lot of troops down. The counter-battery work appears to have been a decided failure, hardly a single German gun appears to have been silenced. We could do nothing with our guns to shell the German ammunition columns, which were coming up all the time, as it took our guns about 10 minutes to get off one shot, by which time their target was in quite a different part of the map.
I put the attack down as a failure owing to the hun trenches not having been properly knocked about, and to the warning they got when the mine went up & the “hurricane” bombardment by Stokes guns. They must know by now that a hurricane bombardment & a mine explosion can be nothing but the prelude to an infantry assault. Hence the Hun’s readiness. Apparently his machine-guns were pretty deadly as well. Hunter-Weston was apparently relieved by Gough in the evening. I never want to see another assault fail. My machine was hit 13, 9 & 18 times. We hear that the French have taken about 4000 prisoners & some guns, and that our right have also taken many prisoners, some guns and their objective. The tenth Corps on our right have been only partially successful. Gommecourt was taken at last by the VII Corps. The Huns appear to holding this salient very strongly.”
Museum Accession number: AC73/15/2/6.
Captain Maltby survived the battle, and the war, going on to serve through the inter-war years, before becoming Air Officer Commanding Java during the Second World war. Captured by the Japanese, he spent three years in captivity before being released in 1945.
Air Vice Marshall Sir Paul Copeland Maltby KCVO KCB CB DSO AFC DL, died in 1971.