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Just as there couldn’t have been a Mexican Revolution without railroads to carry the troops from one battlefield to the next, it is hard to imagine the outcome of the Mexican Revolution without the battles and new tactics that came out of World War I. Yet, each leader’s outlook also played a part in the outcome. Villa felt most at home in Chihuahua, and even fighting in the central part of the country proved difficult. Obregón’s ability, by contrast, to learn from the European experience enabled him to decimate Villa’s army at the battles of Celaya and Agua Prieta.

The Revolutionary Leaders Struggle for Power and Villa’s Downfall

The ideological divide among revolutionary military leaders Carranza and Eulalio Gutiérrez, became clear once Huerta went into exile. While Villa favored reform including labor rights and land redistribution, his counterparts had other social policies in mind. Emiliano Zapata, for example, sided with Villa. With Zapata’s troops and land, Villa quickly became the most powerful player in the Revolution. However, the combined power of Villa and Zapata never amounted to a national agenda. The two rebel leaders thought only in terms of their area, which made functioning as one unit impossible. Villa also could not supply his allies with needed materials. Thus the unification of the Conventionist powers didn’t last long.

The Carrancistas were generally better educated, but fairly conservative in their view of social reform. The Carrancista lands were far more profitable than those the Zapatistas controlled. Carranza controlled land in the southeast of Mexico that continued to produce large quantities of henequen and other goods that escaped the rebellion’s effects. For a short period of time, Villa and Zapata united against their common foe Carranza. Before arriving at Mexico City, the two regional revolutionaries met at Xochimilco. At this meeting, Villa and Zapata, while not entirely united, expressed their mutual support for the destruction of Carranza.

After arriving in Mexico City and partaking in festivities, Villa and Zapata’s forces executed over 100 men during a three-week period, sending a clear message to the public that the revolutionaries would not submit to Gutiérrez. Some of the men killed had benefited under Huerta, others had served in the federal army or were viewed as traitors by the generals. These executions became fairly common in the latter stages of the Revolution. Additionally, Villa and Zapata also kidnapped wealthy people for ransom, a practice that further lowered elite and international opinions of them. Villa lost favor with Gutiérrez, and the combined propaganda effort of both the Gutiérrez administration and the Carrancistas created public distrust of the revolutionaries among the upper classes, while the lower classes remained strongly behind Villa.

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Villa’s Military Mishaps and the Rise of Obregón

Villa’s tactics reflected his focus on regional issues and his loyalty to northern Mexico in general and Chihuahua in particular. Yet many of the strategic areas where Villa needed to defeat the Carrancistas were far removed from the north. Villa’s failure to attack the eastern coastal states of Veracruz and Tampico, to defend the central states of Puebla and Mexico City, and to maintain a legitimate Conventionist system of government contributed to his defeat in January 1915.

Before then, Villa had made Roque González Garza president following Gutiérrez’s failed attempt to start a government of his own. González Garza could not establish a legitimate presidency, however, and helped disintegrate Villa’s political power. At this point during the Revolution, Villa became overconfident owing to his successes and immense popularity with the poor. He came to believe that he could do more than he could realistically accomplish. This attitude had disastrous results at the Battle of Celaya, where Villa and his troops faced Obregón directly. Obregón had more ammunition, more men, the benefit of defending a difficult terrain, and sufficient time to prepare.

Evening Public Ledger [Philadelphia], 27 March, 1916, Night Extra, Image 18 (photo of Carranza and Obregón at Celaya after battle). Newspaper and Current Periodical Division, Library of Congress

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Obregón and Villa Fight for Supremacy at Celaya (April 1915)

The Battles of Celaya were the first decisive conflicts of the 1915 - 1916 civil war and the beginning of the end for Pancho Villa and the Conventionist Alliance. Each combatant wanted control over the northwest corridor of the Tampico oil fields at El Ébano. Carranza dominated the region and the revenues that came from exporting the oil to the U.S. and World War I belligerents (Central Powers and Allies alike). Villa wanted it too. Obregón and Carranza disagreed on how to fight Villa. Obregón wanted to attack Villa directly, but Carranza argued for waiting. Obregón used Villa’s famous cavalry charges against him by stringing barbed wire, trench warfare, and machine guns to decimate Villa’s forces. Obregón chose Celaya, Mexico’s grain growing region with many irrigation trenches suitable for trenches. Villa underestimated Obregón and the Constitutionalist army in his attacks on Celaya and Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City. Villa did no scouting and once Villa got to Celaya, Obregón lured the Villistas to where his forces were waiting. Villa charged with 25,000 men. According to legend, Villa charged Obregón’s forces 40 times, and was repelled all but once. Obregón tricked Villa’s troops by playing the cavalry retreat, indicating that they had lost. At that moment, when Villa’s troops were exhausted and demoralized, Obregón ordered his reserves to attack. Obregón won and Villa’s army was forced to pull back. Since Villa had a reputation for being invincible, the international community proclaimed him the winner.

On 13 April, Villa led a second charge. But, Obregón placed troops in trenches surrounded by barbed wire and hid 6,000 cavalry reserves in the forests surrounding the field. Villa again ordered a full frontal assault; Obregón mowed down Villa’s troops with machine gun fire. It was the biggest loss of the entire war. Obregón took 1,000 horses and 5,000 rifles from Villa who lost approximately 10,000 men to death, injury, capture, and desertion. In contrast, the Constitutionalists suffered far fewer casualties and approximately 922 dead. Villa lost his image of invincibility, but was not fully defeated and prepared to attack again. For his exploits in battle, the people of Celaya gave Obregón a medal and declared him a hero.

When Villa retreated to an indefensible position after Celaya, Obregón launched a battle lasting for fifty days, culminating in Villa’s attack on Obregón’s base in Santa Ana and the Constitutionalists’ retaliation. On 1-2 June 1915, Villa attacked Obregón’s base by surprise. Although Obregón lost his right arm, Villa’s forces were defeated and driven back. On 5 June 1915, Obregón’s troops finally won the battle. Villa changed tactics and cut off Obregón’s communication with Carranza. He sent one of his top generals, Rodolfo Fierro, to out-flank Obregón. In response, Obregón divided his forces to fight a two-front battle against Villa and General Fierro. Obregón next set about destroying Fierro first. After Fierro was eliminated, Obregón next set about destroying Villa, who had retreated to Agua Prieta. At Agua Prieta, Obregón was able to catch Villa off guard. Obregón’s scouts discovered that Villa was planning to hit the Constitutionalist position at night. So, when Villa’s army attacked, Obregón simply illuminated the battlefield with searchlights and mowed down his troops with heavy machinegun fire. By the end of September 1915, Obregón and the rest of the Carrancista generals had decimated the armies of Villa and Zapata, forcing the rebels into hiding, making them guerrillas, not revolutionaries.

After Celaya, Obregón was seen as a conquering hero. This photograph shows civilian women from Celaya decorating the General and presenting him with a medal from the town. The photo was taken by Underwood and Underwood Photography, a U.S. photographic company traveling through Mexico with U.S. troops, on 10 June 1916. It is a part of Bain’s Collection on the U.S. Army Punitive Expedition

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Villa’s Defeat at León and Santa Ana (June 1915)

Villa’s loss at Celaya was the first of a string of defeats. Rather than retreating to Chihuahua to regroup and rearm after losing Celaya, Villa pushed on to Guanajuato. General Angeles recommended that Villa take a defensive position in a secure place, but Villa instead chose an indefensible locale between León and Trinidad where he bunked in a 20km trench and commanded his troops.

Obregón could not lead a full assault with his limited forces, so he ordered several lightning strikes against the bunker. The battle dragged on for 50 days, the longest in the Revolution with little territorial gain for anyone. Zapata sent a large contingent to cut off Obregón’s lines of communication, but Obregón reestablished his contacts and won a decisive victory.

Obregón planned to attack Villa on 5 June, hoping to capitalize on his victory over Zapata’s troops. Yet, on 2 June, Villa used all his reserves and took the city of Silao, but failed to conquer Obregón’s strategic headquarters at Santa Ana. On 5 June, General Benjamin Hill led Obregón’s troops because Obregón lost his right arm during the battle. He won with minimal losses in contrast to Villa’s over 3,000 casualties.

General Villa and his troops circa 1914 before he was beaten by Obregón in 1915. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ggbain-15719

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The Constitutionalists’ Victory at Aguascalientes

Villa’s challenge to the Constitutionalists stopped at Aguascalientes. Pushed back after Guanajuato, Villa sent two units to cut off Obregón’s communications with Carranza. The maneuver was successful and Obregón had to divide his forces to fight a two-front war. While Villa stayed with the main body of his troops, he named General Rodolfo Fierro to command the smaller force.

Fierro, a brilliant and vicious guerrilla, recaptured León and even took Pachuca for Villa. There, Fierro was joined by Zapata’s forces that held the city as he pushed into Obregón’s territory. Obregón quickly realized he couldn’t fight a two-front war and that Fierro was the greater threat. So, he rallied his forces and routed Fierro allowing him to focus his entire force on Villa in Aguascalientes. Obregón’s attack was short and brutal, and it decimated Villa’s forces. Villa would never again command the international authority he once had.

The photograph shows Generals Pancho Villa (right) and Rodolfo Fierro (left) riding in an open car. General Fierro orchestrated Villa’s most successful attack on Obregón’s position, cutting off supply lines and recapturing two cities that Villa previously lost. He was renowned for his brutality and vicious temperament. At the battle of Aguascalientes, General Obregón lost his arm fending off Fierro’s attack. The image, taken shortly before Villa’s series of losses, was shot by Mutual Film Company which was doing a documentary on Villa called “The Life of General Villa.”

(Man accused of killing Benton) Maj. Rodolfo Fierro & Villa. Bain News Service, publisher. [1914]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-ggbain-15627

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Agua Prieta: The Final Blow

After the loss at Aguascalientes, Villa only commanded a few thousand demoralized, tired, and defeated men in his División del Norte, 50,000 strong at its height. Villa forcefully held them together for one final attempt to defeat Carranza.

Villa chose Agua Prieta, a garrison on the border of Chihuahua and Sonora. The garrison was designed to hold 1,200 men, but 3,000 Carrancista troops were stationed there. Without railroad access, Villa led his men across the Chihuahua desert, dragging their provisions, artillery and munitions with them. When Villa finally reached the border a month later, he discovered that Maytorena had been dislodged, disbanded his army and fled to the U.S. Villa had no choice but to attack the garrison.

Carranza sent additional troops to guard the garrison, some crossing from the Pacific, others passing through the U.S. For only one time, the U.S. allowed the passage of non-U.S. armed and uniformed soldiers through its territory. Villa did not know about the additional 3,000 men Carranza had sent, nor that Obregón commanded the Constitutionalist forces. The battle was a slaughter. Villa planned a nighttime cavalry charge but their opponents spent the night in Obregón’s trenches. When the Villistas attacked, Obregón simply lit the night with searchlights and ordered his men to open fire with their machine guns. They mowed Villa’s troops down. The battle was over in less than three hours and Villa was defeated.

The winning team at Aguascalientes: First Chief Venustiano Carranza and Generals Álvaro Obregón and Francisco Cos who led the three-pronged attack on Villa’s men. The image here is a group photograph of the three Carrancista leaders and their highest-ranking officers responsible for their victory. Carranza is the man with the white beard in the light colored uniform standing in the center of the image. The shorter man at Carranza’s right hand (your left) is Obregón. Francisco Cos stands at Carranza’s left.

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