In 1916 WWI was ravaging Europe. Neutral countries were on edge, striving to stay out of the conflict. Then the southern border of the United States was suddenly attacked, not by a major power, but by one man and his militia. He was Francisco Pancho Villa.
Very little is known about Villa’s early life. He was most likely born in 1878, to a poor family in Chihuahua, north central Mexico. As a young boy, he attended a local church school, but never took to education. When his father died, he began working as a sharecropper to support his mother. Then, after a wide variety of careers, from a butcher to mule herder, to railway foreman, he found his true calling: a bandit.
In 1910, at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, and subsequent civil war, Villa discovered that banditry and revolution went hand in hand. As a staunch supporter of the Madero Government, which took control during the civil war, Villa acted as a cavalry general, winning key victories for the still young government. In 1912, another General, Victoriano Huerta accused him of theft, calling him a bandit. He was ordered to be executed, but a telegram from President Madero saved Villa’s neck, just in the nick of time. He was instead imprisoned.
In prison, his education was completed by fellow disgraced revolutionaries, Gildardo Magaña and Bernardo Reyes who tutored him. After escaping on Christmas day, 1912, he fled to El Paso, Texas, to plot his revenge. Over the next three years, he went from outlaw to guerilla leader, to governor, to winner of the revolution. However, his success was short-lived.
The capital, Mexico City, was taken by his ally, Venustiano Carranza, who immediately consolidated power and began fighting against his former fellow revolutionary.
By the end of 1915, Villa was on the run, and the US under President Woodrow Wilson recognized Carranza as the rightful leader of Mexico. Villa was cut off, and in need of supplies and weapons to continue his fight against Carranza. He had been betrayed for the last time and would do anything to get back at his former ally.
On March 9, 1916, he ordered his troops to attack the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. It lay adjacent to Camp Furlong, and the 13th Cavalry Regiment, which had an armory full of weapons, and stables full of horses and mules. Villa’s men were driven back across the border, with almost 50 percent casualties but they captured large supplies of ammunition, rifles, horses and mules.
In response, US President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Punitive expedition to capture Villa and bring him to justice. General John J. Pershing was given the task. He quickly assembled his force and prepared to move across the border.
Under his command was a provisional division, mostly made up of cavalry, with M1909 machine guns, M1903 Springfield rifles, and M1911 automatic pistols. In addition to ground troops, he was supplied with trucks and 8 Curtiss JN3 airplanes, to perform reconnaissance. Totaling 6,600 men, it was the first modern military unit in US history and the first time aircraft were used for such a task.
On March 15, the division marched out from Columbus, in two columns, heading south to Mexico.
Two weeks later, they made contact with Villa’s men. After a 55 mile march, Colonel George A. Dodd and 370 cavalry troops approached the town of Guerrero. 360 Villistas, as the Mexican guerrillas were known, scattered, fleeing south. Dodd sent half his troops to skirt round the other side of the town, to cut off their escape, while the rest of his troops attempted a charge at the front.
However, their horses were too fatigued to charge, and the brief battle turned into a pursuit. Over the next five hours, 75 of the Villistas were killed with only five wounded Americans. Villa’s men were outmatched, and the Americans hoped it would be a short and easy campaign.
Unfortunately, foul weather, excessive snow, and increasing opposition by Carranza, Mexico’s recognized leader, forced Pershing into adopting new strategies. When forces loyal to Carranza attacked his troops, he halted the flying column operations. Instead, he undertook to patrol a series of districts near the border. His troops were ordered to avoid any conflict with Carranza’s men.
On May 5, American troops achieved their greatest victory against the Villistas, killing 44 with no American wounded. Meanwhile, Villistas attacked the border town of Glenn Springs, Texas. It was exactly what the expedition was intended to prevent, but they were unable to stop it. While casualties were light, and hostages and property were recovered, the attack was an embarrassment for Pershing and his troops.
By May 9, the political backlash had reached its height, and Carranza’s Secretary of War and the Navy, Álvaro Obregón, met with American delegates in Texas. He stated that if the American troops did not leave northern Mexico, the Mexican government would have no choice but to attack their supply lines, and destroy their force. Pershing was ordered to withdraw, but on May 11 the order was rescinded. The US troops pulled back to just south of the border, waiting to see what would happen.
Mexican forces then harassed the American troops, and the US prepped for war. Luckily diplomacy won the day, and the crisis was averted. Pershing’s troops were kept in Mexico as encouragement for the Carranza Government to put more effort into finding Villa, but to no avail. In January 1917, the expedition withdrew.
While the expedition failed in its goal of capturing and putting Villa on trial, it did prevent him from gaining any further support. 169 Villistas were killed, approximately 115 were wounded, and 19 were captured. It severely weakened the Guerrilla leader’s ability to operate freely, and by 1919 he had retired from the raiding life.
Just as important was the fact that the expedition had given the US vital experience in military actions, combining aircraft, trains, cavalry, and trucks for the first time. Of those involved in the event two famous generals arose. John J. Pershing led the US Military in WWI (which they entered only a few months later) and George S. Patton, a general famous for his skill with armor and quick troop movements during WWII.
Pancho Villa was assassinated in 1923, after getting involved in Mexican Politics for the final time.