This is a guest post for Silent London by Jo Pugh, based on hitherto unpublished information about the military record of British film director Walter Summers.
“I did fairly well in the war – not that it would interest you very much.”
– Walter Summers, interviewed by Garth Pedler in 1972
In 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went to town on the international distribution of the British war film Mons, from the British director Walter Summers. Chronicling the 1914 defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France (but a defeat as great as any victory – to paraphrase a classic Summers intertitle) Mons was promoted alongside Ben-Hur and its director “Captain Walter Summers, D.S.O., M.C.” praised for his wartime experience. One newspaper went further, asserting that Mons had “a genuineness and a reality that could only have been achieved by a director who had actually lived and fought during the immortal retreat.”
History written by the victors is one thing, but history written by movie studio advertising executives may not meet the highest standards of evidence: Walter Summers did not fight at Mons, Walter Summers was not a Captain in the Great War, Walter Summers was not the recipient of a DSO. But the truth is not any less interesting. Walter Summers was a highly decorated war veteran but the precise details of his early life and military career have become a little mangled through a combination of hazy memory and the application of a bit of stardust. Surviving records allow us access to a little understood side of Summers and seem to place his film career in a slightly different light.
Walter George Thomas Summers was born on 2 September 1892 in the West Derby district of Liverpool. This date has become confused, probably because Summers seems so confused about it himself, writing conflicting ages on just about every official form going. His mother and father were both actors, his father (also Walter) a member of one of D’Oyly Carte’s touring companies who had a close association with Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. He died when Summers was quite young, leaving his mother, Mary Ann, to bring up Walter and his three sisters, Mary, Beatrice and Irene in Liverpool. In the 1911 census, Walter gives his occupation as “Theatrical Property Maker” – his association with the theatre began very early. On his application to become an officer, Arthur Lawrence, manager of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, testifies as to Walter’s good character for the period 1903-6, in other words from the age of about 11 to 14. In their haste to join up in 1914, many young men lied about their age. Summers was a more seasoned 22 (though, characteristically, he wrote 21 on his form) and unlike many of his compatriots was not contemplating leaving England for the first time: he had already travelled to Australia and South Africa with Thomas Quinlan’s opera company, prior to his first film work with London Film Productions. This latter role probably culminated in work on George Loane Tucker’s version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which a certain amount of armed European conflict is treated with all the seriousness of a works outing.
London Film’s studio was a former skating rink at St Margaret’s, just over Richmond Bridge, which explains why Summers, the Liverpool boy, joined the army at Kingston. He joined up in October 1914, less than two months after the defeat at Mons. In retrospect, MGM’s claim that he fought at the battle is not very plausible: only members of the British Expeditionary Force, regular soldiers who had joined up before the war started, fought at Mons. Summers was a member of Kitchener’s volunteer army and would have been among the first significant wave of recruits to reach France. Even so, he didn’t leave England until the autumn of 1915, almost exactly a year after he had joined up. Joining as a private, Summers quite quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in the 9th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. This battalion is most closely associated with the playwright RC Sherriff, who used his experiences serving within it as the basis for his most famous play Journey’s End, subsequently directed on stage and then in 1930 on screen by James Whale, who had himself served in the Worcestershire Regiment. Summers and Sherriff knew each other but seemingly as comrades, not friends. Summers arrived in France a year before Sherriff and shortly after the battalion had suffered appalling losses at the battle of Loos. Subsequently, the 9th East Surrey fought at Ypres and the Somme. At the latter in July 1916, Summers was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his service at the Battle of Delville Wood. “A nightmare that men will dream again,” wrote the journalist Philip Gibbs, of the month-long conflict over the small piece of woodland believed to offer some tactical advantage. By the end of it, thousands had been killed and barely a tree was left standing.
Summers won his Military Medal for leading a fighting squad of eight men from the battalion in a risky daylight raid on 25 January 1917 near Hulluch, in the Pas de Calais. One of six such squads, with orders to identify the unit opposite, “inflict losses” and obtain a sample of German bread, the small force ran across no man’s land under the cover of somewhat tardy smoke bombs and a smattering of “wild and erratic” machine gun fire. With the element of surprise, the British killed a number of Germans (Summers shot at least one) before meeting “hostile resistance”. Summers’ group were among the last to withdraw from the German trenches. The force returned with three prisoners and the bread sample. By its own account it had suffered seven casualties and inflicted around 21. German records in contrast put their losses at eight. Summers was personally commended for “the determined and fearless leading of his fighting squad”. Reading the description of the attack in the unit’s war diary, it is impossible not to be reminded of the raid depicted in Journey’s End. This is because it was indeed Sherriff’s inspiration for the attack that preoccupies his characters in the second half of the play.