Saturday, May 7, 2016

Pancho Villa’s Last Battle

It is always surprising how few Americans know anything about the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.  Those turbulent years saw more than a million Mexicans die, and roughly another quarter million seek refuge in the United States.

Let’s put that another way.  The American Civil War is the most violent war America has ever fought, creating more casualties than all its other wars, from the American Revolution to the Korean War, combined.   If we adjust for population, the Mexican Revolution produced more than six times the casualties!  And many of those battles were right on our doorstep—literally within sight of American homes.

Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso lies the city of Juarez.  In many ways, this was where the revolution really started—the capture of the city by the forces of  future President Madero collapsed the decades-old dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Eight years later, the last great battle of Pancho Villa spelled the end of the revolution and the beginning of the end for the bandit rebel.

Pancho Villa, the larger than life bandit turned Revolutionary General, at one time had amassed the most powerful army in Mexico, occupying Mexico City and most of the country.  However, by 1916, his army of fewer than 300 men had attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus and spent the next year in flight through the rugged territory of Northern Mexico as he was chased by an invading American Army.  While the Punitive Expedition led by General Blackjack Pershing never caught the elusive Villa, it had so greatly diminished Villa's army that he was desperate to make a move that would revitalize his revolution.

During 1917 and 1918, Villa had skirmished around Northern Mexico, until he finally gathered four thousand men and was ready for one last attack—And he returned to the scene of his biggest triumphs, Juarez.   Villa knew that if his revolution was to have a chance, he had to hold a border town where he would have access to supplies.

Finally, in June, 1919, General Villa began the attack on the border town.  On June 12, Villa and his troops moved into Zaragoza, a village just 12 miles east of Juarez.  There, they stopped and prepared for the attack.  The Federal forces, under General Gonzales, knew exactly where Villa was located and instead of attacking, sent a female spy to interrogate the bandit chieftain.

Most of the tall tales you hear about Pancho Villa are simply not true:  they were made up  (usually by Villa himself) to manipulate the press.  Villa (like a few Texans I know) seldom told a story the same way twice, and a good part of his reputation was a curious mixture of bullshit and bravado.  Take for example, the general view that Villa was a renowned consumer of tequila.   This was simply not true—Villa did not drink:  his secret vice was ice cream.  The photo at right shows the guerrilla general (seated on the left) and his men eating banana splits at the Elite Confectionery in El Paso.

On the other hand, almost all the stories about Villa and women are true, so  sending a woman into Villa’s camp showed cunning on the part of the Federals.  The spy was quickly captured, but she was not executed—a rarity in a war where quarter was rarely given.  Instead, she was sent back to the Federal lines with a message from Villa that the Federal troops were to surrender. 

General Gonzales wired President Carranza in Mexico City that he needed reinforcements, then abandoned Juarez and took refuge in Fort Hidalgo, located just outside the border city.  Since there was little difference between the ragtag uniforms his men were wearing and those of the Villistas, Gonzales ordered his men to tie a strip of red cloth around their hats.

Villa, atop a prancing white horse, addressed his troops with a speech that was equal parts anti-Carranza and anti-USA.  He then led his troops to the racetrack on the east side of the city.  The Federal garrison at Fort Guadalupe began firing its entire artillery battery—a single one-pounder cannon.  What the troops lacked in accuracy, they made up in enthusiasm.

Villa rode unharmed under the poorly aimed shells.  One cannonball did accidentally find its way to the racetrack as you can see from the round hole in the dome of one of the racetrack spires.

At midnight, Villa’s forces began the assault on the Federal trenches.  Federal Colonel Francisco Del Arco later reported that, at first, his machine guns stopped the advance of the Villistas.

Until, that is, Villa diverted the waters of an irrigation ditch into the Federal trench.  With water up to their hips, Del Arco’s men still struggled to repulse another charge by Villa’s men—But that was just part of Villa’s plan.

Close to the trenches was an electric trolley car line.  Villa's men cut the electric line and tossed it into the water.  As Del Arco later said, "Suddenly, I felt as if a thousand needles were sticking into my body and I saw my men doubling up as if with cramps."

Some of the federal forces died while the more fortunate fought back even as they screamed in pain.   Somehow, Del Arco is able to supervise the digging of a trench to divert the water once again.

Then, Villa launched his main assault.

The Villistas began hurling home-made bombs into the lines.  These were small leather bags filled with dynamite and an assortment of nails, cut horseshoes, bolts, and rocks and hundreds of them were thrown into the federal trenches.  After 3 hours of being shot at, flooded, electrocuted, and blown up, Del Arco's men withdrew back to the safety of Fort Hidalgo.

This left the city open to the Villista forces, who stormed into the town…and took a break.  While Prohibition in the US started in 1920, in El Paso and the rest of Texas, Prohibition started in 1918.  As the saloons had closed in El Paso, they opened up in Juarez.  And as the bars reopened just across the bridge in Juarez, they brought the slot machines, roulette and Keno tables that Texas lawmen had begun to frown on.

As soon as the Villistas discovered such gambling dens as The Trivas, Bagdad, Big Kid, the Palace, Central, and the Mint…well...fighting is dry work and a man could build up a powerful thirst.  The fact that a few of these establishments offered entertainment of a personal and feminine nature was also noted.  Every good battle needs a recess. 

Meanwhile, General Gonzales discovered that the Villistas were trying to infiltrate Federal lines, so he ordered his troops to change from a red to a blue hatband.  (Get your program!  You can’t tell the soldiers without a program!)

Finally, the Federals were ready to counter attack.  Colonel Escobar gathered his men together and rode back and forth on his black horse in front of them, urging them to follow him as they surged forward on their mission to sweep the Villista scum out of Jauarez…

Naturally, as soon as this attack started, Escobar was shot in the chest.  A hundred years earlier, you could have led men on horseback while waving a sword.  But, even in Mexico, this was the 20th century. 

Escobar’s furious troopers ran off the last of the Villistas who weren't otherwise occupied in the various bars and other assorted playhouses and  the Villistas retreated, they opened the cells of the city jail, releasing hundreds of criminals.

The Federal troops put the wounded Escobar back on his horse and led him to the international bridge where the waiting American army ambulance took him to a hospital.

By now, the Villistas—many of them rested and thoroughly relaxed (sated might be a better word)—were returning back to the fight in the center of the city.  As the sun set, the fighting was getting worse, and a lot of the firing seemed to be directed toward El Paso.

American Brigadier General James Erwin had established a headquarters on the tenth floor of the Mills Building in downtown El Paso, from which vantage point he had an excellent view.  For over a month, he had held orders to protect El Paso, even giving him the option of crossing over into Mexico at his discretion—and those orders specifically mentioned the option of driving Villa away.

General Erwin had more than enough troops to accomplish this mission and this was not the same army that had ineffectually chased Villa across Northern Mexico:  the veteran army had just returned home from France.

Erwin placed his men along the border, with machine guns in place to guard the bridges.  Four batteries of artillery were set up at the Union stock yards, which were rapid-firing 75-mm cannon that could fire a 3-inch explosive shell anywhere in Juarez city.  A searchlight battery was also set up on top of the El Paso High School.  With all these preparations, General Erwin was ready for anything.

Reports of casualties on the American side of the border soon started to flow in:  stray  rounds were hitting civilians, including at least one child in her own home.  A few American soldiers had been wounded—perhaps intentionally—along the border, as well

General Erwin sent his chief of staff to the stockyards to see if the sniper fire that had just killed two soldiers was coming from Villa’s men or the Federal troops.  There was only one way to find out, so he climbed to the roof of a building just opposite the rebel forces and he was shot at:  the forces of General Pancho Villa were firing at Americans.

Note.  To be fair, many of the Americans deserved it.  Hundreds of spectators ran to the border and climbed on top of boxcars to watch the spectacle.  Pretend you are a Mexican soldier fighting for your life and as you take cover behind a brick wall and reload your rifle, you notice just to the east,  pendejo gringos (Spanish for nice guys) watching you like you were in a bullring.  Wouldn't you shoot at them?

General Erwin immediately decided to invade Mexico again, and sent a messenger over to tell Gonzales to get out of the way.  (The US has invaded Mexico so often that it is amazing they don’t move further away.  This could be the real reason Trump might be able to get them to pay for that wall.)

The 24th Infantry Regiment gathered behind two armored cars and began the assault across the bridge.  At the same time, the Second Cavalry Brigade prepared to swim the river 12 miles south of Juarez. 

Trumpets sounded Boots and Saddles, the troopers drew three days rations and ammo and then they gathered at the border under the command of Colonel Selah H.R. “Tommy” Tompkins, the senior colonel of the 7th cavalry (George Armstrong Custer's old unit)

Colonel Tompkins had been at Wounded Knee in 1890, he had battled the Apache in Arizona, had been to Cuba with Roosevelt, had fought in the Philippines with General MacArthur, and had chased Villa through Mexico with Pershing.  The man was legendary for his fighting, his drinking, and (above all else) his language.

He had once occupied a reviewing stand with President Taft as his cavalry paraded past.  When Taft made an innocent remark that the troops were “Fine men”, the cavalry officer had replied, “You bet your ass they are.”

Tommy Tompkins had flair—part of which was his long, bushy, forked, and pink beard—but  most of it was in his attitude.

General Erwin planned to crush Villa in a giant pincer movement as his 3600 troops sprang into action.  The infantry was to cross the bridges, clear out the downtown area, then wheel east toward the race track, thus driving the Villistas in front of them.  Ten miles south, Colonel Tommy Tompkins and his cavalry, having already crossed the border, would head west and wait in ambush.

As Erwin ordered start of the pre-dawn attack, battery A fired high explosive shells while battery B fired shrapnel rounds.  Both batteries fired 30 rounds each into the racetrack, which was the assembly point of Villa's army.

This was far different from the ineffective federal artillery.  Almost immediately, The racetrack began to look like a slaughterhouse.  One of the first rounds spectacularly blew up the water tower.  It took Villa about a minute to size up the new situation, and then he rode away and was not seen again on the battlefield.

Behind the two machine-gun-equipped armored cars, the infantry with fixed bayonets spread into Juarez.  These units were followed by motorized heavy machine-gun companies.  As the troops advanced, the signal corps strung communication wire, keeping the men in telephone contact with General Erwin.  Every officer carried a flare gun, and progress of the American forces could clearly be seen as they spread through the Mexican city by the glow of the green aerial flares.

At this point, a Federal officer joined the US troops informing them that the Federal army, in addition to the blue hatband, had now rolled up the left trouser leg and both shirt sleeves.  Anyone else who was armed was fair game.

As the Americans moved up, exhausted Federal troops who had been fighting for 36 hours retreated, their positions being taken by American troops.  And just as steadily, the Villistas fled the city.

Meanwhile, twelve miles south of the city, Tompkins had crossed the river and was approaching the town from the south.  Finally, Tompkins learned that the Villistas were gathered in the Zaragoza Church, just 5 miles ahead of his forces.

Before the Americans crossed the Rio Grande, a superior office had cautioned Tompkins that this was no time for him to be creative—that this attack should be done “by the book.”  As his forces gathered in the predawn darkness waiting word that Villa’s forces were coming, one junior officer reminded Tompkins that “the book” specified that before an attack, there should be a map briefing for the officers.  Unfortunately, no one had a map of Mexico—actually, they hadn’t brought a map of anything

Finally, one of the officers located a map in his saddle bag—an old map he was using to write an article about the Civil War.  Eager to comply with “the book”, Tompkins gathered his officers around a map of Gettysburg and talked at length about the positions of Union Artillery the morning of July 3, 1863.

The formalities attended to, Colonel Tompkins positioned the 5th Cavalry to the right flank and the 7th to the center and left.  Along a three mile front, Tompkins addressed his troops in the dim predawn light, then he raised his hand high, and for one of the last times in the history of the United States Cavalry, screamed, "Charge!"

Tommy really should have gotten a better map.  In the dark, the whole bunch galloped into a series of parallel irrigation canals, so the whole attack was a fiasco of falling and crashing horses.  Tompkins then ordered his men to fight on foot, and using their Springfield rifles, the soldiers all but destroyed the fleeing Villistas.

Eventually, elements of the 5th Cavalry found a bridge across the ditches and chased the remnants of Villas army for fifteen miles.

The cavalry losses were mostly minor wounds.  Altogether, the US had two dead, eight wounded, and had lost forty horses.  The Federals claimed to have lost fifty men, and estimates for Villa’s losses ranged from 500 to a thousand.  Tompkins noted that the path of his army’s retreat was littered with hundreds of bodies.

More important, Villa had lost any hope of seizing power in Mexico.  While he attempted one more small attack against a Mexican town, even Pancho Villa knew he was defeated.  Within months, he accepted a pardon and spent the rest of his life on his hacienda in Parral.

Juarez was angry at the US for a while:  On Monday, when the repair crew from El Paso's electric railroad company went to Juarez to fix the broken electric cable, they were stoned by the Juarez citizens until they fled.  By Tuesday, the bars were open again and the trolley system the two towns shared was bringing Americans looking for a good time across the border in a steady stream.

1 comment:

  1. You kind of wonder how much the American enthusiasm for running off Villa had to do with reopening Juarez's bordellos, taverns and gambling halls.