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Cummings, Clement James (1908–1991)

by Garth Pratten

This article was published online in 2015

Clement James Cummings (1908–1991), soldier, accountant, and sportsman, was born on 25 May 1908 at Atherton, Queensland, eighth child of Queensland-born Albert John Askew Cummings, butcher, and his German-born wife Emma Ernestine, née Hoffmann. Educated at Cairns Boys’ and Cairns High schools, Clem joined Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd as an office boy and trainee bookkeeper in 1922. He became office manager for North Queensland Airways Pty Ltd in 1937 and was Cairns branch manager for Melrose & Fenwick Pty Ltd, monumental masons, when World War II began. A well-known local sportsman, he excelled at rugby league and cricket. On 27 December 1933 at the Methodist church, Tolga, he married Mary Adell Robinson, a nurse.

Cummings had joined the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) in 1927. Having risen to the rank of major, he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force in that rank on 13 October 1939. From June 1940 he was a company commander with the 2/12th Battalion in Britain, then second-in-command of the 2/33rd Battalion in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. On 27 December 1941 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 2/9th Battalion, which returned to Australia in February 1942. He led it through hard-fought operations in Papua at Milne Bay (September), and Buna, where he was wounded (December), and in New Guinea at Shaggy Ridge (January–February 1944). In August 1944 he was promoted to temporary colonel and placed in command of the 1st Australian Beach Group, which facilitated the landing on Labuan Island, Borneo, on 10 June 1945.

As commanding officer of the 2/9th, Cummings built a reputation for calm, professional resolve. He was neither flamboyant nor gung-ho, but he radiated confidence right down to the lowest ranks: as Warrant Officer Vince Donnelly recalled, ‘If Clem said it was on—it was on—and (his troops) made it happen’ (Brune 2003, 378). Cummings’s superiors shared this confidence and, although he repeatedly clashed with Brigadier (Sir) George Wootten about hastily mounted attacks at Buna, Wootten still nominated him for the Distinguished Service Order, citing his leadership, command and tactical ability; the recommendation resulted in Cummings being mentioned in despatches. Wootten had also recommended his appointment as OBE (1943) for his actions at Milne Bay. Brigadier (Sir) Frederick Chilton, Cummings’s commander in the Ramu Valley, considered him `a mighty soldier’ and `one of the best infantry commanders’ he had met (Baker and Knight 2000, 255). Chilton successfully recommended him for the DSO (1945).

On 24 November 1945 Cummings transferred to the Reserve of Officers as an honorary colonel. Resuming his job with Melrose & Fenwick, he became an energetic member of the Cairns community, umpiring rugby league matches, serving as a justice of the peace, and filling leadership positions in several community organisations including the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), Legacy, Boy Scouts’ Association, Cairns Life Saving Club and the Cairns AIF Memorial Masonic Lodge.

At the 1946 Federal election he stood as a Country Party candidate for the seat of Kennedy, but was unable to defeat the sitting Labor member, William Riordan. His attempt to enter the Queensland parliament in 1956 was also unsuccessful. In December 1949 Cummings was appointed to re-form the 51st Battalion as part of the CMF; he commanded it until 1952.

Clem and Mary moved to Canberra in 1962, for him to take up a job as accountant for Buttercup Bakeries. He then worked for the timber merchants Ern Smith Ltd. Known as ‘The Colonel’ or ‘Colonel Clem,’ he became a stalwart of the Woden Valley Returned Services League Sub-Branch, being awarded the RSL’s Meritorious Service Medal (1990). Survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter, Cummings died on 6 January 1991 at his home at Yarralumla and was cremated. His ashes are interred in the Martyn Street cemetery in Cairns, a city he continued to refer to as ‘home.’

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Baker, Clive, and Greg Knight. Milne Bay 1942. Loftus, New South Wales: Australian Military History Publications, 2000
  • Brune, Peter. A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2003
  • Dickens, Gordon. Never Late: The 2/9th Australian Infantry Battalion, 1939–1945. Loftus: Australian Military History Publications, 2005
  • McCarthy, Dudley. South-West Pacific Area—First Year: Kokoda to Wau. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX6011
  • Pratten, Garth M. Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Garth Pratten, 'Cummings, Clement James (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cummings-clement-james-17344/text29099, published online 2015, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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