William John CUMMING

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CUMMING, William John

Service Number: 5990
Enlisted: 1 March 1916
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 38th Infantry Battalion
Born: Kerang, Victoria, Australia, date not yet discovered
Home Town: Bridgewater, Loddon, Victoria
Schooling: State School 1098, Bridgewater on Loddon, Victoria, Australia
Occupation: Farm Labourer
Died: Killed in action, Belgium, 4 October 1917, age not yet discovered
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
The Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial (Panel 25), Belgium
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Bridgewater Memorial Hall & Honour Roll, Menin Gate Memorial (Commonwealth Memorial to the Missing of the Ypres Salient)
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World War 1 Service

1 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 5990, 6th Infantry Battalion
28 Jul 1916: Involvement Private, SN 5990, 6th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres
28 Jul 1916: Embarked Private, SN 5990, 6th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Themistocles, Melbourne
4 Oct 1917: Involvement Private, SN 5990, 38th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres

Help us honour William John Cumming's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Heather Ford

IN HIS BROTHER’S FOOTSTEPS

WILLIAM JOHN CUMMING was born at ‘Sorbie Farm’, Kerang in 1894 to Thomas Wylie and Margaret Jane (nee McGowan) Cumming.  He was only 9 years old when his father died, mere weeks after the family had moved from Kerang to Bridgewater, and it was here that his mother took over the sole rearing of himself and his 5 siblings.

Bill finished off his schooling at the Bridgewater State School (No. 1097), and then following in his brother Andrew’s footsteps, went on to work as a farm labourer for the Sloan family, and also became a member of the Bridgewater Brass Band.

He grew into a good-looking young man with blue eyes, black hair and a pale complexion, and apparently was a great favourite with the ladies.  His special girl however, was one of the Swales girls, whose family lived on a small farm/orchard on the banks of the Loddon River, some 2-3 miles upstream from Bridgewater.  This would probably account for his swimming prowess, and the fact that he liked nothing better than to go for long swims up the river.  He was also a very keen footballer.

When his brother Andrew was fatally wounded at Lone Pine in the August of 1915, Bill was a month shy of his 21st birthday.  Andrew’s death left Bill the sole supporter of his mother and youngest sister, and it’s very likely that he spent the next 6 months in ‘discussion’ with his mother, a very formidable woman, in regard to enlistment.

It was the 1st of March 1916, when Bill became a Private (no. 5990) in the 38th Battalion at Bendigo.  Then in the May he was transferred to the 19th Reinforcements of the 6th Bn, and temporarily promoted to Lance Corporal.  Finally he embarked at Melbourne on the A32 Themistocles on 28th of July 1916, and disembarked at Plymouth, England on the 11th of September, from where he proceeded to Larkhill.

The 24th of September saw him returned to his previous rank of Private, and back in the 38th Bn.  This placed him under the command of Maj-Gen John Monash, who had devised an intense training scheme for the raw recruits of the 3rd Division, which included a stint in the ‘realistic’ Bustard trenches on Salisbury Plain.

During the next two months Bill managed to strike up two minor offences, the first being 'disobedience of orders in that he failed to carry a gas helmet as ordered', and secondly he was charged for a 'shortage of clothing'.

The 38th Bn proceeded to France on the 22nd of November 1916, and landing at Le Havre, were immediately subjected to their most grueling march ever, the 7 mile hike, under full pack, up the long hill to Rest Camp No. 1.

Leaving the camp they traveled to Bailleul, where they underwent their final training before moving into the mud and water-filled trenches at Armentieres.  The 38th Battalion’s initiation came on the 1st December when they relieved a NZ unit in the line near Houplines.  Here they endured the appalling conditions for 10 days, before being relieved by the 40th Bn.  During this time they were also introduced to the fighting, when they managed to repulse a German raid on the night of the 9th.

The 38th took part in their first major raid on the 27th February 1917, when they attacked against the 23rd Bavarian Infantry Regiment.  The whole operation was over in little more than half an hour, and although it proved fairly successful, Bill found himself amongst the 103 Australians that were wounded.  He’d received a gunshot wound to his right wrist, which fractured the bone, and was admitted to the 10th Australian Field Ambulance, then No. 1 Canadian CCS, before being transferred on the 3rd of March to the 13th General Hospital in Boulogne.

On the 6th March he embarked on the Cambria for England, where he was admitted to the 1st Eastern General Hospital.  After his release from hospital on the 27th April, he enjoyed a couple of weeks furlough, and traveled to Scotland, where he visited his mother’s 93 year old Aunt, who in turn wrote to her niece to say she’d seen him and he was okay.  He reported back at Weymouth on the 12th May and was marched out to the Overseas Training Depot at Perham Downs.

Returning to France on the 26th June, Bill spent a couple of weeks at the Base Depot at Rouelles, before rejoining his unit at the Messines front on the 13th of July.  Mid-August they began a months rest by the coast near St Omer, where further training was intermingled with sports.  Towards the end of this break Bill was taken sick with Pyrexia (fever), but was discharged back to duty on the 22nd September, the same day that Haig visited their camp for an inspection.

A few days later they were on the march to take their part in the Passchendaele campaign.  Their first attack became known as the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge and took place on the 4th of October 1917.  This was the first time that the 3rd Division had fought alongside other Australian divisions, and it was to be Bill’s last.

While the troops were waiting for zero hour, 6am, the Germans began their own attack, and whether Bill escaped the ensuing barrage to take part in the hand-to-hand fighting is not known.  What is known is that he didn't make it through the day.  He had just turned 23 the month before.

One small mention in Bill’s records shows he was buried in the vicinity of D 15 / 00. (?), but like so many, his remains were either not relocated, or not identified, and like his brother Andrew, he has no known grave.  He is commemorated on The Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium, as well as various Memorials in Australia.

Never having married, his Will dated 5/7/1917, left all his belongings to his mother; and his letters, photos, notebook and a razor were all sent back to her in late 1918.  His mother was also granted an additional £2 p/f pension as from the 13/1/1918, over and above that she was already receiving in respect of his brother, Andrew.  Bill's sister Reta, who lived with their mother, and was also partly dependent on him, was granted a pension of 10/- p/f as from 17/1/1918.

It’s believed that Bill and Andrew’s previous employers, Messrs John Sloan & Sons, a prominent farming family in the district, had helped the Cumming family purchase their house, and after Bill’s death they waived any debt his mother still owed.  The home, which she also called ‘Sorbie’, became her centre of strength in a world devoid of sense.

 

My Great Uncle – by Heather ‘Frev’ Ford, 2006

 

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