mexico-expedition

29 March 1916 – Counterinsurgency

Two weeks have passed since US forces entered Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa after his disastrous raid on the US border town of Columbus. Deploying the storied 10th and 7th Cavalry regiments along the Mexico Northwestern Railway to cover Villa’s vast territory, General John Pershing hopes to flush his former security partner out of the Sierra Madre.

Meanwhile, two days ago the rebel Villa divided his much-reduced forces to attack the government-held towns of San Ysidro, Minaca, and Guerrero all at once. While the latter garrisons were easily overwhelmed, the attack on San Ysidro failed and Villa was wounded in the knee. Holed up in Guerrero afterwards, news of his position has reached Pershing, who sent Colonel George Dodd and a column of the 7th Cavalry (see above) to attack the bandit leader.

Covering more than fifty miles in a seventeen-hour forced march after traveling overland from the US border, 370 men of the cavalry troop arrive exhausted this morning to discover as many as 500 Villistas in the town. Using up two hours by studying the situation, and maneuvering his inferior force in an attempt to surround the town, when Dodd finally orders the assault to begin at 8 AM, he has lost the element of surprise — and the best chance American forces will ever have to capture or kill Villa.

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General Pershing crossing the Rio Grande at the beginning of the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa

Villa appears to have left at the first sign of Americans while an entire company of Villistas prepared to march out under a Carranzista flag, deceiving or deterring Dodd from challenging their retreat. As Dodd’s attack meets resistance, most of the insurgents ride away from the Americans on fresher horses, eluding pursuit. American cavalrymen also dismount to use fire and movement against those willing to fight, killing 56 of Villa’s men and wounding at least 35 more, including General Elicio Hernandez, one of Villa’s dorados. Pershing later reports:

Villa, who is suffering from a broken leg and lame hip, was not present.  Number Villa’s dead known to be thirty, probably others carried away dead.  Dodd captured two machine guns, large number horses, saddles, and arms.  Our casualties, four enlisted men wounded, none seriously.

Attack was surprise, the Villa troops being driven in a ten-mile running fight and retreated to mountains northeast of railroad, where they separated into small bands.

Large number Carranzista prisoners, who were being held for execution, were liberated during the fight.

In order to reach Guerrero, Dodd marched fifty-five miles in seventeen hours and carried on fight for five hours.

Eliseo Hernandez, who commanded Villa’s troops, was killed in fight.  With Villa permanently disabled, Lopez wounded, and Hernandez dead, the blow administered is a serious one to Villa’s band.

Though Pershing has missed his main objective after the wily bandito’s narrow escape, the day is a success for his strategy of finding and hitting Villa’s band. Like other recent cavalry operations this year in foreign theaters of conflict, ‘success’ has pushed men and horses to their limits. It is a counter-intuitive reality of horse war that an infantry unit can outmarch an equivalent cavalry element over five days due to the inertia of rest and care and feeding and provender for the animals. Experiences like today show that motor transport an urgent issue in modern warfare; after all, engines can keep going when men are tired, and eat only cans of fuel. If Pershing is to be faulted, it is because Dodd’s force has not been larger, and has struck at the end of a very long march.

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The 7th Cavalry attacks today after traveling the entire distance from Culberson’s Ranch in new Mexico to Guerrero in the center

And while Pershing has motor pools, his vehicles have limited off-road capability, and most tracks in Chihuahua are mere wagon traces — single lanes that limit mobility and logistics. Even the best infrastructure in these parts of Mexico has been left in a state of disrepair for years. While the Army inside Mexico is dependent on communications with the United States, the logistical highways along the southwestern US border are not much better, for there is no centralized effort to make America road-worthy in 1916. The US Army will not fully reckon with this issue until after the Great War, when a young lieutenant currently based in San Antonio named Dwight Eisenhower conducts a cross-country mission to study the military impact of the American road system; Lieutenant Eisenhower will eventually become the political architect of an Interstate highway network named in his memory.

And politics will soon complicate Pershing’s mission. The Mexico North Western Railroad is a key navigation and mobility corridor, and out of jealousy for their bruised sovereignty, the Carranza government prohibits its use by American forces. Federal soldiers soon begin confronting the US Army, with exchanges of fire. Adding to these woes are the usual elements of guerrilla warfare: the line between Villista and civilian is an easily-discarded pair of bandoliers, allowing Villa’s formations to melt away into the population. His war is much older than Pershing’s — and he is better at it.