The Memorial Day Tale of Robert J. Maxey

The Battle of Cantigny was the first.

The Battle of Cantigny, fought on May 28, 1918, was the first American offensive in a World War 1 that was going poorly for the Western Front.  Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany still held significant amounts of French territory and could see the blinking lights of Paris in the distance.  Having secured a victory in the east after the fall of Czar Nicolas II in Moscow, Germany quickly moved its forces west for a knockout blow before American forces could fully arrive.  Soon, Paris and London would capitulate to German autocracy.  According to Berlin propaganda, the Americans were a paper tiger of little concern anyway. 

American soldiers began arriving in huge numbers during the spring of 1918, with a goal of supporting their French and British allies from the rear.  Because of the urgency of the German buildup, however, Paris instead asked U.S. General John J. Pershing to go it alone and go big.  To prove their mettle in battle and turn the tide of the war, the Americans were asked to push back the German lines and recapture the town of Cantigny.  The 1st Division (so named because it was the first actual Division of the modern U.S. Army) arrived in May to prepare for the mission.

The 1st Division that would conduct the operation included some of the most famous military figures in American history:

Lt. Colonel George C. Marshall:  Tasked with planning the recapture of Cantigny, Marshall would later become one of the most celebrated men of the U.S. armed services.  Marshall was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1939 to 1945.  With perhaps the exception of Grayson County born Dwight Eisenhower, no man was more pivotal to America’s victory in World War II.  The Marshall plan to aid postwar European recovery bears his name.  Marshall was portrayed by Harve Presnell in the 1998 film classic “Saving Private Ryan.”

Major Teddy Roosevelt Jr:  The son of a president, Roosevelt Jr. led a company during the assault on Cantigny.  Later, Roosevelt rose to the ranks of commander of the 4th Infantry Division during World War II.  He led the first wave of troops ashore at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 during the D-Day Normandy landings.  Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was portrayed by Henry Fonda in the 1962 film classic “The Longest Day.”

Captain Clarence Huebner:  Huebner, just 30 years old in 1918, was second-in-command of his battalion at Cantigny.  On June 6, 1944, Huebner led the 1st Division (a.k.a. “The Big Red One” Division) onto the shores of Omaha Beach amidst significant D-Day casualties.  Huebner eventually retired with a rank of Lieutenant General; he is portrayed by Charles Macaulay in the 1980 film classic “The Big Red One.”

But none of these three Americans were the highest-ranking soldier to participate in the Battle of Cantigny.  That honor belongs to an Austin College Kangaroo.

Austin College, barely a decade removed from its move from Huntsville to Sherman, adopted a compulsory military program for its students in the late 1880s.  AC during this era looked very much like its all-male military cousin of Texas A&M.  Long before they were called the Roos, students at the all-male Austin College were known as the “cadets.”  The student newspaper was called the “Reveille.”  Military training was just as much a part of student life as scholarly pursuits.  Because of his strong desire to become a soldier, an education at Austin College was an attractive option for Robert J. Maxey.

Maxey enrolled at AC in 1888.  During his time in Sherman, Maxey established himself as a leader among his soldier classmates.  AC cadets at that time studied in Old Main (near the Admin building), drilled just west of Old Main (near Baker Hall), and lived in barracks just north of Old Main (near Dean Hall).  By the time of his 1891 graduation, Maxey had been named lieutenant of AC cadets. 

After Sherman, Maxey headed to the U.S. Military Academy.  His 1898 graduation from West Point could not have come at a more auspicious time, as America went to war that same year.  From “A Sesquicentennial History,” by Dr. Light Cummins: “[Maxey] fought with Theodore Roosevelt [Sr.] in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, where he earned the Medal of Bravery for his valor at San Juan Hill.”

For the next 20 years, Robert J. Maxey made the U.S. army his career.  Most of those two decades were spent at Fort Leavenworth (KS), where he became an instructor in military tactics.  His contributions to students at Leavenworth were so significant that a barracks was named for him.  Maxey Hall, located on Pope Ave., still stands at Fort Leavenworth.

War arrived again in 1917, and a 44-year-old Maxey was sent to Europe to train young American troops.  The sudden urgency of the German offensive, however, led to his quick promotion to Lieutenant Colonel within America’s 1st Division in France.  In May of 1918, Maxey led his battalion to the outskirts of a town called Cantigny.  There, he consulted with George Marshall and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. as they awaited word for the 1st Division to retake the town.  Maxey’s right-hand man, Captain Clarence Huebner, was there to carry out the Roo’s every order.

George Marshall would later write about the Battle of Cantigny:

“The heights of Cantigny were of small tactical value. The issue was a moral one. This was our first offensive, which had been ordered primarily for the purpose of its effect on the morale of the English and French armies. For the First Division to lose its first objective was unthinkable and would have had a most depressing effect on the morale of our entire Army as well as on those of our Allies. For similar reasons, the Germans were determined to overthrow our first success and demonstrate to the world that the American soldier was of poorer stuff.”

After hours of artillery barrage, the Battle of Cantigny began in the dark on the morning of May 28th, 1918.  Lt. Colonel Maxey, the highest-ranking officer to participate in the assault, led his battalion directly into the city.  German defenses were significant but were soon overwhelmed by the relentlessness of American will.  Within hours, the city had fallen to Maxey and the 1st Division.  Many Germans were taken prisoner in the process.  From “First Over There:  America’s First Battle of World War I,” by Matthew Davenport:

“Overwhelmed, two dozen Germans stood, dropped their weapons, and raised their hands in surrender.  Angry doughboys swarmed, shooting them until Maxey ran over and put a stop to [it].  As [Private] Suchocki would recall, ‘[Maxey] raised his hand and said, ‘boys, spare them, take prisoners.’’”

The stated aim of the assault, however, was more than just the recapture of Cantigny.  The goal was to push German lines eastward towards the nearby forests.  As the fight moved into the rural orchards east of town, the gunfire intensified.  That escalation would take the life of Robert J. Maxey.  Again, from Davenport:

“Captain Huebner noticed two men carrying a tall figure on a stretcher past his position, attended by more commotion than typically accompanied the evacuation of a casualty.  The bearers laid down the stretcher on the dirt, and one of them ran to retrieve Huebner, who rushed over to discover that the wounded man was Lieutenant Colonel Maxey.  His neck had been flayed open by a shell fragment, and though losing blood rapidly, he had insisted on being taken to Huebner to pass on detailed plans for the battalion’s mission.”

“’All this time we were under heavy machine-gun fire with an occasional artillery shot,’ Huebner noted, adding that the bleeding Maxey ‘showed utter disregard for his own wound and thought of nothing but the success of the operation.’”  Captain Huebner reported the events to George Marshall and his superiors at headquarters: “Maxey seriously wounded.  I have assumed command.”  As Maxey lost consciousness, all attempts to revive him failed; he died as the last Americans in his battalion routed the remaining Germans east of Cantigny.

The Battle of Cantigny was the first American offensive in World War 1.  It was also the beginning of the end for the Kaiser.  Less than six months later, the war was over.

From “A Sesquicentennial History,” by Dr. Light Cummins:

“Lt. Col. Robert Maxey enjoyed the distinction of being Austin College’s most decorated alumnus of World War I.  The United States posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, while the French gave him the Croix de Guerre.”

Over 100 years later, a monument to the 1st Division still stands in Cantigny.  The monument includes the names of all Americans who perished in the battle.  The names are listed in order by rank; the first name on the list is the highest-ranking member to lose his life liberating the town:  Robert J. Maxey.  At his earlier request, Robert J. Maxey was laid to rest at West Point Cemetery on the banks of Hudson river.  His grave is one among many American military officers stretching back to the revolutionary war.

While reflecting on the Battle of Cantigny in his memoirs, General George C. Marshall wrote the following:

“This little village marks a cycle in the history of America. Quitting the soil of Europe to escape oppression and the loss of personal liberties, the early settlers in America laid the foundations of a government based on [the aspirational and still unfinished principles of] equality, personal liberty, and justice. Three hundred years later their descendants returned to Europe and on May 28, 1918, launched their first attack on the remaining forces of autocracy to secure the same principles for the peoples of the Old World.”

12 Oaks stand between Dean and Baker Halls on the campus of Austin College, memorializing the 12 Kangaroos lost during World War I.  One of those 12 Oaks was planted to honor the life of Austin College Kangaroo Robert J. Maxey.  The Oaks are located between the site of the old AC cadet barracks, where Maxey called home, and the site of the old AC drill field, where Maxey first learned to be a soldier. 

Every time I visit campus now, I make sure to budget just a few minutes to walk by the 12 Oaks. 

A reflective Memorial Day to all of you.  Go Roos.

Austin College Cadet barrack just north of Old Main in the 1890s

Austin College Cadets just west of Old Main in the 1890s

Maxey of Sherman falls in battle

1st Division Memorial in Cantigny

Charles Macaulay as Clarence Huebner in “The Big Red One”

Henry Fonda as Teddy Roosevelt Jr. in “The Longest Day”

Harve Presnell as George C. Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan.”  Marshall reads from Lincoln and tells his subordinates to find Ryan and “get him the hell…..outta there.”

Austin College Kangaroo Robert J. Maxey

The 12 Oaks between Dean and Baker