Saturday, May 13, 2017
William J. Cumming:
First to Go, First to Die
Bill Cumming was the first man from Ridgefield to enlist in World War I and was the first in the conflict. An ambulance driver, he was “a soldier to the end,” said the headline in the Feb. 5, 1918 Ridgefield Press.
Son of James and Margaret Cumming, William James Cumming was born in 1895 in South Salem, N.Y. His parents, natives of Scotland, moved between 1906 and 1909 to Ridgefield where his father worked as a gardener on local estates.
Cumming enlisted on April 3, 1917 — three days before Congress declared war on Germany. He died in less than a year, on Jan. 5, 1918, in a hospital in Vitel, France, where he was being treated for “a serious illness” (which may have been the result of an influenza virus that was soon to cause one of the deadliest pandemics in history).
“I do not think we have a member that was thought more of than Private William J. Cumming and a better boy could not be found,” Private W.E. West wrote to the Rev. John M. Deyo, Cumming’s pastor here. “He was the first one in our company to be taken from us…Even in the end he did not give up and died a brave American.”
In his sermon at the funeral in the Methodist church, Mr. Deyo used St. George and the Dragon as his theme. “For over three years,” he said, “the foulest dragon of all time has gone forth in his slime and devoured the flower of youth on a gigantic scale. Private Cumming answered the call and went forth to give battle to the foul dragon. Private Cumming has now answered his final summons. Though no longer with us, he conveys to us a message: ‘Carry on.’”
Cumming had been a private first class in the 102nd Ambulance Company and is buried in the American Cemetery, Romagne sur Montfacon, Meuse, France. There is also a monument to him
The Cumming family lived on Catoonah Street in a green-shingled, 19th-Century house just west of today’s post office. James and Margaret, Bill’s parents, were known as Jim and Ma. Their son, Henry, also served in World War I, and they themselves were very active on the home front, even after the death of Bill. Jim Cumming was Ridgefield director of the efforts of local farmers to grow food for the war effort. He also served on the school board.
Ma Cumming “was some kind of a little dynamo,” said town historian Dick Venus. “She was a detachment commandant in the local Red Cross and she and her group performed yeoman’s service. When the local Home Guard was organized, Ma presented the platoon with a flag that she had made.”
After the war, she became the first president of the American Legion Auxiliary and spent countless hours selling poppies to benefit the veterans, Venus said.
“One of our fondest memories is of Jim and Ma, sitting side by side, in their rocking chairs, on the front porch, after their duties for the day were completed,” Venus said. “It kind of gave you the feeling that everything would be all right.”
The Cumming homestead became vacant in 2003 after the death of their daughter in law, Helen Cumming, widow of their son, Donald. In December 2016, the house was torn down and today is an empty lot.
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