How Bradford entertainer's comic talents helped him survive the Somme

Bradford artist Percy Monkman survived the Somme and the First World War thanks to his comic and musical talents - while his brothers also made it through the conflict against the odds. Chris Burn reports.

Percy Monkman was a member of an entertainment troupe on the frontline called The Archies.
Percy Monkman was a member of an entertainment troupe on the frontline called The Archies.

Of the villages, towns and cities across the UK that were scarred by the horror of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, few places suffered more than Bradford. In the first hour of the offensive, 1,770 of the 2,000 men who made up the ‘Bradford Pals’ were killed or injured in the assault on German lines.

But despite the terrible toll of the battle and the wider war on the city, one group of Bradford brothers who had all been at the Somme - Percy, Gordon and Harry Monkman - all managed to survive the four-year conflict which eventually claimed the lives of over 700,000 British soldiers.

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Now the stories of their very different experiences in the war have been brought back to life through a new book by Percy’s grandson Martin Greenwood.

Percy, Gordon and Harry as young boys.

Martin, whose book Percy Monkman: An Extraordinary Bradfordian was published earlier this year, says the brothers came from humble beginnings as three of the five sons of a street hawker who sold fruit and vegetables on the streets of Manningham.

Harry volunteered in September 1914, with Gordon joining three months later. But Martin says his grandfather was more reluctant to sign up.

“My grandad was two years older and had the makings of a proper job, working as a clerk in a bank,” he says. “I think he had some pacifist tendencies but he joined in autumn 1915 in a non-combatant role.

“They joined up at three different times and had three completely different experiences.”

Percy (seated, far right) in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While Harry was sent home after suffering shell-shock following the Battle of the Somme, Gordon went on to become a commissioned officer and in 1918, he earned the Military Cross for leading his platoon against an enemy machine gun post compelling 100 German soldiers to surrender in one of the last battles of the war.

But it was Percy who had perhaps the most unusual wartime experience. He initially joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher-bearer and like his brothers, was stationed at the Somme. But within weeks, Percy - who was an aspiring comedian and comic actor - was seconded into an entertainment troupe called The Archies who worked just behind the frontline entertaining the soldiers each evening.

Martin explains: “For the rest of the war he was in this entertainment troupe doing characters and music in the evenings. That absolutely suited him to the ground.

“I have gathered evidence of people finding him very funny.

Pictured in 1968, Percy seated with left to right Harry, Gordon and Frank, their younger brother who was too young to fight in the First World War.

“One of the issues in the war was sheer boredom. For ten per cent of the time, it was horror of fighting, but a lot of the time you were hanging around doing nothing. Boredom was a major problem on the frontline and the entertainment was set up to deal with that.

“They performed night after night and one skit in particular was performed more than 200 times that took the mickey out of the senior officers. That of course was very popular!”

After the war, Harry ended up as a successful businessman working in the wool trade, Gordon emigrated to Canada and went on to become a businessman and a city councillor, while Percy continued his work in the bank - but pursued a busy creative life in his time outside work.

Percy was friends with the novelist J.B. Priestley, who he knew from childhood, but forged his own artistic reputation.

“His main interest was painting,” Martin says. “He was a well-known local painter of the Dales and his work was exhibited in Yorkshire and London. He was extremely well-known in Bradford and West Riding. During the Second World War, he ran a musical group which toured around Yorkshire giving performances to injured and returning servicemen.”

Martin says the brothers tended not to talk about their wartime experiences with their families but following the death of Percy in 1986 at the age of 93, he left behind a vast array of documents from his life. Martin says it was only in recent years he started going through them properly and realising the treasure trove of information he had on his hands - leading to the writing of the book.

“My grandad was a hoarder and left masses and masses of documents - letters, photographs, catalogues. He was quite a talented cartoonist and had saved cartoons he had published in The Yorkshire Post and The Yorkshire Evening Post," he says.

“It had all been sitting about for 30 years but when I went through it, I realised there was a fantastic story to tell.”

Martin says recently watching They Will Not Grow Old, the new Peter Jackson documentary about the First World War, brought home how fortunate his family were.

“When you think three people in your family were in the war and they all survived, you think that is incredibly lucky really when you think of the numbers that didn’t return.”