General Álvaro Obregón has been trying to draw Pancho Villa into battle on his terms since March 7th. Today, the first elements of his ‘Operations Army‘ enter the rail crossroads town of Celaya, a municipality in Guanajuato state situated more than a mile above sea level, where he receives word that Villa is advancing from Torreón to meet him. The situation is exactly what Obregón wanted: his lines of supply will be shorter than Villa’s, and his enemy will be bringing the fight to him. Like the South African campaign for German Southwest Africa (Namibia), warfare in Mexico is defined by water access, roads, railroads, and horses. The country is perfect for what he has in mind.
Far away in Europe, widespread aversion to defensive strategy has generals of all armies throwing their men into the fire at alarming rates. An eager student, Obregón has kept abreast of developments in military science since the outbreak of war, so he understands the inherent advantages enjoyed by entrenched defenders with modern rifles, machine guns, and barbed wire. Obregón’s political independence, personal humility, and self-effacing humor are almost unique among his prideful contemporaries in Mexico; these same qualities render him uniquely capable of casting aside European doctrinal blinders to see the potential for a game-changing, decisive, defensive stand.
Villa’s personality stands in sharp contrast to Obregón. Impulsive, headstrong, the commander of the División del Norte is perhaps the best opponent Obregón could ever choose. He has met Villa more than once, observed his temperament, and seen his army. He knows that Villa relies on mounted riflemen when modern defensive technologies have permanently canceled his favorite tactic, the mounted cavalry charge. And whereas Obregón keeps a significant portion of his forces in reserve, he correctly believes that Villa will throw everything he has into battle.
For two days, Obregón’s men use the irrigation ditches and natural terrain to construct a death ground for attackers. Abundant barbed wire obstacles are swept by more than eighty machine guns using interlocking zones of fire, with many firing from behind the slope of the ground to strike unseen. Obregón also positions his limited artillery out of sight behind five thousand infantrymen in prepared fighting positions. Unlike other Mexican generals who keep German officers as a kind of pet, Obregón relies heavily on Maximilian Kloss, his German adviser. German defensive doctrine was the most advanced of all the combatants when the war began, so Kloss intuitively understands his commander’s intentions.
Obregón’s aggressive positioning of reserve forces almost gets him into trouble when Villa’s forces arrive on the third day. Fifteen hundred of Obregón’s horsemen occupy El Guaje hacienda in anticipation of cutting off Villa’s railroad link; this force is split off from his main cavalry force, 4,500 strong, waiting in reserve on the other side of Celaya. When Villa’s main body encounters this divided force, he briefly threatens Obregón with a cavalry defeat in detail. But Obregón has an armored train steamed up, personally riding in it as he fights to rescue his reserve. Losing nearly a thousand men in the first hour of fighting, Obregón nevertheless draws Villa into his intended embrace. Arriving at Celaya in hot pursuit, the Villistas pull up short as soon as the first wave of horses and men are dead and dying on the wire.
General Felipe Angeles objects to Villa’s decision to continue attacking into this meat-grinder. Rather than attempt any more frontal assaults, he advises the strongman to preserve his army, fall back towards Chihuahua, and force Obregón to extend his own supply lines. Rejecting sound advice as poor judgment and “crooked thinking,” the undefeated Villa boasts that he has still never lost a battle, and does not intend to surrender Celaya to El Perfumado (‘the perfumed one,’ his nickname for Obregón).
Villa throws his army at Obregón almost forty times over two days. While he has artillery, it is never a factor, for Villa never masses his guns to destroy defenses and his ammunition supply contains many duds. Over a thousand horses and at least as many men are dead when his men finally achieve what seems to be a breakthrough, claiming a field Obregón’s men have flooded. Seeing an opportunity, Obregón has his bugler sound a retreat call. Confusing the signal for one of their own, the Villistas begin to withdraw. It is the moment Obregón has waited for. He orders an immediate counterattack, simultaneously sending his redivided cavalry force at both of Villa’s flanks.
Low on ammunition, Villa’s army breaks, abandoning a camp full of supplies and ammunition along with many wounded. Obregón takes thousands of prisoners. Rather than accept defeat, Villa blames material shortages, raises supplies and reinforcements, and prepares to attack again. On April 13th, Villa tries the same tactics a second time, bombarding the town of Celaya to little military effect. Once again, Obregón — whose men have expanded their wire, flooded more fields, and added even more machine guns — waits for the right moment before launching his well-hidden reserve force on the second day of the second battle, routing Villa’s army a second time, decisively. During the battle, Obregón’s political ally José Venustiano Carranza Garza is able to resupply him with a trainload of ammunition, men, and weapons.
General Villa is forced to flee again. He has lost perhaps four thousand killed and eight thousand captured over two weeks; his mystique of invulnerability is forever dispelled like a mirage. Ignoring articles of war, Obregón executes hundreds of Villista officers and pursues his enemy into the Summer while Emiliano Zapata, Villa’s lone ally, simmers in Morelos. The División del Norte will never recover. Decisively broken, Pancho Villa will not regain his former military power or political influence despite his most ambitious scheming. And the American hemisphere will not see another land battle as big as Celaya again until 1982.