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Mexican Revolution: Battle of Celaya

Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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'Muchachos! Before it gets dark…we'll burst into Celaya in blood and fire!' So predicted General Pancho Villa as he watched his famous Division del Norte head out of Salamancha, Mexico, early on April 6, 1915. During Mexico's five-year-old revolution the division had earned a reputation of invincibility and its commander had become a folk hero. Always attacking, Villa relied on his cavalry's boldness and fury to put his enemies to flight, and that was how he planned to rout General Alvaro Obregon's Constitutionalist army from Celaya. That tactic, however, was just what Obregon was counting on. By the spring of 1915, Mexico's chaotic revolution had entered its bloodiest phase. Fighting began in 1910 as guerrilla supporters of reformer Francisco Madero battled President Porfirio Diaz's government troops. After a series of rebel victories, Diaz resigned in May 1911. Madero was appointed president that autumn, but he alienated many of the guerrilla leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata and Pascual Orozco, and fighting between the new government and various rebel bands erupted.

A new phase of the revolution began in February 1913, when Federal Army General Victoriano Huerta staged a coup d'etat and had the president murdered. Coahuila Governor Venustiano Carranza, a Madero supporter, reacted by denouncing Huerta, advocating a return to constitutional rule, and declaring himself first chief of the Constitutionalist army. He formed a loose alliance with former revolutionary leaders, such as Francisco 'Pancho' Villa, and fighting spread across the country. Hoping to hasten the fall of Huerta, the United States intervened in April 1914 by shelling and then occupying the Gulf port of Veracruz. That summer, offensives by the various revolutionary armies forced Huerta to flee the country, and Carranza's main army, commanded by General Obregon, occupied Mexico City.

The victorious coalition, however, quickly fell apart. The rural-based Villistas and Zapatistas demanded immediate radical reforms, which put them at odds with the more moderate Carranza, de facto head of the interim government. In October, the Constitutionalists walked out of a conference to resolve the factions' differences-the Convention of Aguascalientes–and Villa and Zapata formed a Conventionist government to rival Carranza's. The 'War of the Factions' soon broke out.

Villa, at thirty-seven the revolution's most charismatic leader, had found his metier in war. Despite his near-illiteracy, he rose rapidly from guerrilla leader to brigadier general of irregular cavalry to de facto warlord of north-central Mexico. 'His method of fighting is astonishingly like Napoleon's,' American journalist John Reed wrote. He summarized Villa's strengths as'secrecy, quickness of movement, the adaptation of his plans to the character of the country and of his soldiers–the value of intimate relations with the rank and file, and of building up a tradition among the enemy that his army is invincible, and that he himself bears a charmed life….' During the 1913-14 anti-Huerta campaigns, Villa commanded the biggest army–the Division del Norte–and won the crucial victories. But he was much too independent for Carranza, who declined to promote him to general de division–like Obregon.

Alvaro Obregon, a former farmer and politician, had commanded loyalist troops in his native Sonora during Pascual Orozco's 1912 uprising against the Madero government. Obregon had serious political differences with Carranza, but realized that neither Villa nor Zapata, the only leaders with the national following and political ideology to offer a possible alternative to Carranza, were competent to govern the republic. Because neither would disband his army, any Conventionist president would be their puppet. And when their tentative alliance inevitably collapsed, chaos would surely follow. Obregon decided he had to defeat Villa and Zapata, and support Carranza for a presidential term, but would build his own support network and succeed him in the presidential chair.

Initially, Conventionist forces–mainly the huge Division del Norte and Zapata's Liberation Army of the South–dominated most of the country. The Carranzistas held only coastal and border enclaves and the southeast. In mid-November Obregon withdrew from Mexico City and joined Carranza at Veracruz to organize what Carranza designated the 'Army of Operations.' Villa's and Zapata's fighters, meanwhile, swarmed into the capital.

At Veracruz, depleted infantry battalions that had followed Obregon from Sonora recruited locally. Workers from the Casa del Obrero Mundial labor organization were organized into 'Red Battalions.' Other forces included Yaqui Indian battalions Obregon had raised in Sonora by promising the return of tribal lands. An extraordinary source of equipment became available when the Americans pulled out of Veracruz on November 23, handing over not only the Federal Army stores impounded in the April occupation but also shipments sent by President Woodrow Wilson after his October decision to support Carranza against the radical Conventionists. It was a windfall: twelve thousand rifles and carbines, 3.4 million rounds of ammunition, artillery, machine guns, trucks, uniforms, tools, and 632 rolls of barbed wire. Nevertheless, Carranza's armies were still outnumbered by his opponents' forces.

At this crucial moment, Villa chose to ignore the advice of his most trusted adviser and general, Felipe Angeles, to attack Carranza at Veracruz. Instead, Villa turned his troops northward, capturing the major cities of Guadalajara and Monterrey, but allowing Obregon to rout Zapatistas from Puebla and reoccupy Mexico City on January 28. The Constitutionalist commander, however, soon found his nine-thousand-man force harassed by guerrillas and immobilized by administration of Mexico's large and fractious capital. Moreover, Villa's troops were threatening to capture the oil port of Tampico. Carranza reacted by ordering Obregon to evacuate La Capital and retreat closer to Veracruz, cutting the railway behind him.

Obregon was happy to leave Mexico City, but proposed advancing north to confront Villa directly in the Bajio, a 250-mile-long depression on Mexico's high central plateau. The general had studied Villa's egocentric, mercurial character during earlier negotiations with him. Obregon knew that Villa would see such an advance as a challenge to his carefully cultivated reputation. He would ignore all strategic considerations and contrary advice and concentrate his forces for a showdown.

Obregon had carefully examined Villa's military tactics as well. His opponent was dangerous, but predictable. Ultimately, he always relied on massive–usually uncoordinated–cavalry charges. Also, during battles Villa failed to maintain a reserve force of infantry or cavalry. Obregon, on the other hand, pored over accounts of the ongoing fighting on Europe's Western Front, where cavalry charges had been decimated by rifle and machine-gun fire from infantrymen deployed in trenches and behind barbed-wire entanglements and by artillery fire. Thanks to Wilson's windfall, he had plenty of barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery. He telegraphed Carranza that he would 'go on the offensive or assume a defensive posture, as the situation dictates.' With Villa defeated, the rival Conventionist government would inevitably collapse.

As a first step, Obregon occupied the ancient Toltec capital of Tula, where a branch railway skirting Mexico City offered secure communications with Veracruz. His force now numbered eleven thousand soldiers; six thousand cavalrymen, commanded by General Cesareo Castro–a Coahuilan associate of Carranza's since 1910; and thirty-five hundred infantrymen, eleven battalions from Sonora led by General Benjamin Hill–Obregon's comrade-in-arms from 1913. The artillery, which included machine-gun battalions, comprised most of the remainder. Its commander, Colonel Maximilian Kloss, was a German immigrant from Sonora who had joined Obregon in 1912. A lieutenant of reserves in his native country, Kloss was one of the few Constitutionalist officers with formal military training.

On April 4, after a brisk fight, the Constitutionalist force occupied Celaya, thirty-nine miles east of Irapuato, where Villa was concentrating his forces. Celaya was, Obregon noted, a good defensive position. Flat farmland broken by few streams, tree lines, or thickets gave clear fields of fire all around. Irrigation canals and ditches also made the location suitable for the Western Front tactics he planned for the battle. They formed ready-made obstacles to mounted attackers and trenches for his riflemen and machine gunners. The nearest hills were beyond the range of the Villista artillery.

General Angeles had urged Villa to harass Obregon's advance and then retreat northward, thereby shortening his own lines of supply and communications while stretching his enemy's, which Zapata could then cut. It was sound advice, but Villa believed himself a prisoner of his reputation. He always attacked and always won; men joined his Division del Norte because it was considered invincible. Although he had on hand only about eight thousand men of the famous division, and Obregon reportedly had some twelve thousand at Celaya, Villa nevertheless believed he had no choice but to 'throw myself on Obregon and rout him, even if my troops are few and his are many….' He must 'pegarle al perfumado' ('whack the dandy.')

Villa's troops marched on Celaya in three columns: Agustin Estrada with his own cavalry brigade as well as two others rode along the north side of the Central Mexicano Railroad; Abel Serratos, with two cavalry brigades, rode south of the line. Between the two columns of horsemen, four infantry brigades, followed by six artillery batteries, marched along a dirt road next to the tracks.

On the morning of April 6, the Division del Norte slammed into General Fortunato Maycotte's eighteen-hundred-man advance cavalry outpost at Guaje Station, ten miles west of Celaya. Upon learning of the assault, Obregon realized he had committed a serious tactical blunder by earlier dispatching two mounted columns totaling twenty-five hundred men to screen some thirty miles to the north and south. He telegraphed the columns to return immediately, and then he quickly organized a rescue force, alerting Martin Triana's brigade–his last seven hundred cavalrymen–and ordering a train to get up steam and the 1st Brigade's fifteen hundred riflemen to get aboard. Obregon climbed into the locomotive and took personal command of the operation. The train pulled out at noon, flatcars carrying sandbagged machine guns, gondolas bristling with rifles, and Triana's troopers galloping alongside. Halfway to Guaje Station, they passed clusters of Constitutionalist cavalry in headlong flight, with Villista horsemen trying to overtake them. Nearing the station, the engineer repeatedly blew the train's whistle and the troops opened fire, diverting the Villistas' attention and enabling Maycotte's troopers to escape. As the train reversed, hundreds of Villa's cavalrymen gave chase.

The train backed into Celaya at about 4 p.m. Riflemen and machine-gunners raced to their positions along the five-thousand-yard-long defense line General Hill had organized with the remaining infantry and the artillery, while Triana's cavalry fought a delaying action at Crespo Station three miles west of town. Then, without waiting for their artillery or infantry, the pursuing cavalrymen charged straight into the Constitutionalist line. The defenders' fire cut down many of the Villistas. The rest fell back, regrouped, and continued making wild, uncoordinated frontal attacks.

Obregon had General Castro extend and refuse the defensive line's flanks with the dismounted survivors of Maycotte's and Triana's brigades, perhaps six hundred men, plus his own escort–another six hundred. Around 5 p.m. Estrada's brigade threatened to overrun the Constitutionalists' right, and Obregon sent his last reserve to counterattack. The desperate charge bought time to rebuild the defensive line.

By 6 p.m. Villa's infantry and artillery were in action–the latter wasting ammunition, as it was too dark to correct the fire. Seeing a stalemate developing and his casualties mounting, Villa ordered a stand-down to prepare for a pre-dawn, coordinated general assault. However his men's blood was still up from the wild train chase and swirling horseback fights at Guaje and Crespo, and they kept charging, thrown back each time with yet more losses.

At about 8 p.m. Obregon assessed the situation. He estimated his total losses in what would be merely the prelude to the battles of Celaya at fifteen hundred to two thousand. Three miles to the west, pillars of smoke marked Villista troop trains unloading reinforcements. Carranza had ordered the 1st Division of the East to reinforce Obregon, but its troops were scattered and not quickly available. Staff officers suggested retreating to Queretaro, but Obregon believed that Villa's cavalry would rapidly move cross-country, cut off their retreat, and finish them off in the open. Their chances were better where they were.

Later that night Villa issued his attack orders. His troops would be reorganized into four assault groups, each composed of an infantry and a cavalry brigade, with two artillery batteries in direct support. All twenty-two guns would open fire at 4 a.m., then the four groups would make a frontal assault, infantry leading, cavalryfollowing to exploit breakthroughs. According to Mexican military historian Francisco Grajales, Villa's plan 'implicitly carries the germ of his defeat. In his distribution of forces no idea of maneuver, no intent to obtain superiority in one sector or direction, not even the desire to form a general reserve is evident. The action will be uniform and simultaneous across the entire front.'

Even after his cavalry's failure to break Obregon's line that afternoon, Villa continued to underestimate his opponent. When Villa's generals expressed concern about running short of ammunition, he responded that a supply train two and a half miles behind their line had ammunition (probably .30-30 caliber for the cavalry's Winchester and Remington carbines). Besides, Villa added: 'The ammunition expended tomorrow won't be much, because the city will fall under the fury of our first assault, and if not, the second. Our boldness will provide most of the ammunition [we need] tomorrow.'

Obregon, assuming he would be surrounded during the night and the telegraph line cut, sent Carranza a last message: 'Combat continuing. The cavalry has been finished. As of this hour, 11 p.m., we must have taken two thousand casualties. Enemy assaults extremely harsh. Be assured that, as long as one soldier and one cartridge remain, I will know how to do my duty and will count myself fortunate if death overtakes me striking the criminals.' As most of the cavalrymen scattered in the morning's wild fighting straggled in, his depression lightened. It evaporated completely when the northern screening column rode in at dawn with fifteen hundred men.

By then, the battle had begun. At 4 a.m. on April 7, Villa's artillery opened fire along a front nearly four miles long. When Obregon's thirteen artillery pieces returned fire, the Villistas' more numerous guns tried to suppress them. But many of the shells made in Villa's Chihuahua workshops were duds or fell short of their targets. Because of shorts, Villa recalled, his guns had to move'so close that during the first hours of the morning the enemy machine-gun bullets rang on our gun shields.' As the sky lightened, Villista infantry moved forward in skirmish lines, but 'those hundred machine guns of Alvaro Obregon and those Yaqui Indians were firing on them from the cover of their holes,' Villa remembered, 'and…my men could hardly advance….I ordered that the lines of infantry advance…only when the fire of our cannons was great, and that the cavalry…let them ride double to…where they could be effective, because it was sad to see how those men would fall as they took their first steps out of their positions.'

Around 8 a.m. Villa noticed Constitutionalist fire from north of the railway slackening and Constitutionalist soldiers in the area retreating. Lacking a reserve to throw at the weak point, he ordered a general assault to be launched at 9. During that attack, Agustin Estrada led his brigade against the right flank, only to discover that intervening fields had been somehow flooded the previous night. Wallowing in mud and water, the Villista horsemen made easy targets. Estrada was killed, and his attack collapsed in disorder.

Obregon, meanwhile, learned that four or five of his hard-pressed battalions were running out of ammunition. Knowing that any retreat under fire can spread panic, he ordered the 15th Infantry Battalion and 1st Cavalry Regiment, both on his refused right flank, to wheel to their left, across the ground where Estrata's attack had collapsed. Then he dispatched staff officers to hurry forward ammunition from the reserve dump and also to bring him a bugler.

A puzzled officer brought Obregon the first bugler he could find, ten-year-old Jess Martinez of the 9th Infantry Battalion of Sonora. Obregon ordered the boy to sound retreat, hoping the attacking troops would mistake the call as coming from their own headquarters. The ploy worked. 'Confused, the Villistas…halted their advance and assumed defensive positions,' Obregon recalled. While young Jess continued to sound the bugle call, Obregon ran through nearby positions, repositioning soldiers to cover gaps. At last the ammunition arrived; waiting riflemen refilled their cartridge belts and ran back to their positions.

Villa's general assault stalled. 'The fields where the enemy was making his charges were literally sown with corpses,' Obregon wrote, 'and…the dead horses already were an obstacle to continuing their charges.' Still, isolated charges continued, but they were weak and lacked tactical cohesion. By 11 a.m., some Villista infantrymen began to run out of ammunition. Sensing that the moment to counterattack was at hand, Obregon told Castro to ready the cavalry division. At noon Maycotte's brigade of one thousand charged south from Celaya, then swept west, behind Villa's right wing. Jess Novoa's brigade followed, sweeping wider to penetrate the Division del Norte's rear. Panic spread, and Villa's right flank folded in on the center brigades, which began to abandon their positions.

As Villa watched, trying to discern what was happening, he was stunned to spot a Constitutionalist column, the recently returned two-thousand-man southern screening force, enveloping his left flank. Obregon had managed a double envelopment–Villa's favorite maneuver. The Villista left wing fell back, then orderly retreat turned to rout. At 2:30 p.m. Obregon reported the progress of the fight to Carranza, sarcastically concluding, 'Fortunately, Villa is directing the battle personally.'

Villa later claimed that during the rout he heard 'the voice of duty demanding not that I restore my lines with fire and blood… but [that I] save my troops….' Rallying his Dorados (Golden Ones), a hand-picked, four-hundred-man escort, Villa organized a fighting retreat and managed to rescue his artillery and get the wounded aboard his Servicio Sanitario trains. Constitutionalist cavalry pursued the demoralized Villistas for nine miles in swirling, small-unit fights before finally breaking off the chase at dark. Obregon estimated Villa's losses at eighteen hundred men killed, about five hundred taken prisoner, and more than three thousand wounded. Pancho Villa's Division del Norte had suffered its first defeat.

Obregon wanted to pursue and destroy Villa, but his own force was too battered; 557 men of all ranks, including two infantry battalion commanders, were dead, and 365 were wounded. A huge amount of ammunition had been expended, and every man and beast was exhausted. Then, on April 10, an astonishing letter arrived from Villa, making pursuit unnecessary.

Immediately after the battle, the Division del Norte commander had announced his retreat was a humanitarian gesture to spare Celaya's colonial churches and thirty-five thousand inhabitants. In his letter, which was pure propaganda sent also to the French, British, German, and American consuls, he challenged Obregon to leave Celaya and fight in any rural territory he chose, but referred to 'the general assault which I shall make on the city of Celaya within three days if you fortify yourself there.' Relieved that Villa remained predictable, Obregon baited him by telling the consuls that Villa, as the party in retreat, would choose where to fight.

Meanwhile, detachments from the Tula and Queretaro garrisons and reinforcements from Carranza were arriving at Celaya. The 1st Division of the East sent three cavalry regiments and an infantry battalion. Juan Jose Rios, leader of the 1906 Cananea mine strike, brought the 3rd and 4th Red Battalions. Joaquin Amaro's cavalry brigade–'los Rayados (the Striped Ones) de Celaya'–arrived wearing prison garb from the ancient fortress of San Juan de Ula, the only uniforms available in Veracruz. With white-collar workers recruited by the Empleados de Comercio of Orizaba, and the La Favorita railway workers' battalion, Obregon had fifteen thousand effectives, including eight thousand cavalrymen.

The Constitutionalist troops spent the three days improving their entrenchments and stringing barbed wire. Obregon believed the coming battle would be like the first, but as Villa would have enough troops to surround Celaya, the defenses would have to encircle the town.

Because the western defenses, facing Salamanca, had so far borne the severest assaults, Obregon assigned it to his most dependable troops, the Sonoran infantry. Several battalions were composed of taciturn Yaquis. Tall and broad-shouldered, wearing two bandoleers around their waists and two more across their chests, they were born warriors, inured to hardship, frugal with ammunition, and excellent marksmen. They were also devoted to Obregon.

He divided the defended area into three sectors, assigned three liaison officers from his staff to each, and linked them by telephone to his command post on the western outskirts of town at the San Antonio Church. The south side of town and the western defenses south of the railroad made up Sector One, the northern portion of the western front Sector Two, and the northern and eastern fronts Sector Three. As well as infantrymen, dismounted cavalrymen manned the defenses after hiding their horses in town. Of his eighty-six machine guns–M1895 Colts and M1908 Maxims–Obregon allocated thirty-two to the western front, divided thirty-two among the other three fronts, and retained the remainder in reserve. Colonel Kloss deployed his thirteen 75mm Schneider-Canet and St. Chamond-Mondragon fieldpieces behind the infantry positions along the western front, as in the previous battle. For the coming fight, however, each battery commander sketched a battlefield map that included terrain references and probable target areas, especially the likely locations of enemy artillery.

Obregon held Castro's cavalry division, which was 40 percent of his force, in general reserve. As before, it would conduct the counterattack. This time, however, the troopers would remain well outside of Celaya during the defensive phase of the battle. They were concealed in a large wooded area six miles to the east, along the railway to Queretaro, but would use semaphore, heliograph, and telegraph to stay in communication with headquarters in Celaya. Obregon recognized the risk of deploying so many of his troopers outside of town but believed Villa would become so engrossed in his assault that he would not reconnoiter beyond the immediate battlefield.

Villa, meanwhile, was also receiving reinforcements. Some two thousand cavalrymen arrived from Michoacan. Infantry, cavalry, and artillery units came from Jalisco. Abel Serratos brought in more local contingents, and other regional leaders arrived with their men. Estimates of the size of Villa's force run between twenty-two and thirty-two thousand soldiers. The Division del Norte commander, who paid little attention to logistics, was probably least likely to know the actual number. Much-needed ammunition arrived from the border town of Ciudad Juarez. In high spirits, Villa was several times heard to say, 'Now that perfumed Yaqui [Obregon] is going to find out who Francisco Villa is!'

The commander, however, had some qualms as he reviewed his troops on April 12. Many seemed not yet fully recovered from the earlier battle, and Villa overestimated the Constitutionalists' strength while underestimating his own. He also disregarded the warnings of former Federal Army generals on his staff that Obregon had a strong position and that Villa should develop a better plan and review his resources. He retorted that the longer he delayed, the stronger Obregon would become, saying: 'Can I lose this battle? Yes, and many more, but with only one victory I can salvage the people's cause. But I'll never win if I wait to prevail by superiority of my resources, rather than by the valor and fury of my men, fighting for justice.'

Early on April 13, Constitutionalist lookouts spotted to the west two mile-wide clouds towering thousands of feet in the still morning air–dust from thousands of Villista cavalry horses. Black smoke in the center revealed trains carrying Division del Norte infantry to Crespo Station, where the Constitutionalists had pulled up the rails. General Obregon circulated among the Sonorans and Yaquis standing to arms along the western front. Instead of his customary khaki field uniform, he wore the broad sombrero, silver-studded trousers, and chamois goatskin jacket of a charro, or Mexican cowboy. Asked later about this eccentricity, he said, 'Villa gave me the not-very-manly nickname of `el perfumado,' and to prove him wrong, I had to smell like a goat.'

By midday Villista cavalry could be seen to the north and south. At Crespo Station, the infantry detrained and advanced along the rail line in columns, lead battalions deployed as skirmishers. The artillery, following the cavalry, set up in a wood forty-four hundred yards west of Celaya. By 3 p.m. all units had deployed in lines facing the Constitutionalist western front, with four infantry brigades and a cavalry brigade forming the center.

At 4 p.m. Villa passed among his troops, exuding high-spirited confidence. An hour later, scattered rifle fire broke out when the Division del Norte's right wing probed the Constitutionalists' western front below the railroad, which was held by the 2nd Infantry Brigade. By 6 p.m., the fighting became general along the western front, but the Villistas were slowed down by barbed-wire entanglements and machine-gun fire. Then Kloss' guns opened fire on Villa's batteries, provoking an artillery duel that continued until dark. By 8 p.m. small-arms fire had become heavy on all fronts except the eastern, with the Constitutionalist machine guns firing steadily. Around 10 p.m., taking advantage of darkness, Villista infantry advanced to within about five hundred yards of the Constitutionalist trenches, and by midnight the Division del Norte's right and left wings had extended eastward and linked up at the railway bridge over the usually shallow Rio de la Laja. Celaya was surrounded; Villa's stretched lines, however, were twelve miles long.

By dawn on April 14, Villista infantry had crept within four hundred yards of the enemy's lines, which they soon began charging. But from their trenches, the defenders had such clear fields of fire across the flat, open terrain, that Villa's infantry could advance only at the cost of heavy losses, and cavalry assaults were suicidal. Nevertheless, by 5 a.m. pressure along the northern front was threatening to dislodge the 3rd Red Battalion, and Obregon had to commit his and General Hill's escorts to maintain the line.

Villa kept up intense but uncoordinated local attacks all day. Obregon, meanwhile, formulated a bold counterattack–double envelopments by both his cavalry and his infantry. Castro's cavalrymen would swing north of town and circle to the west. The two cavalry brigades manning the eastern and southern fronts would then go on the offensive, wheeling far to the west. Both envelopments would extend to penetrate the enemy rear. To prevent the troops facing Obregon's western front from disengaging to face the charging enemy columns to the north and south, the 2nd Infantry Brigade would make a frontal attack, while the 1st Infantry, to its south, and 3rd Infantry Brigade, along the northern front, wheeled inward to envelope the Villista center. The outer flanks of the pivoting brigades would support the inner flanks of the cavalry columns. As the perimeter units advanced, the sector reserves would fill the vacated trenches.

In preparation for the counterattack, Castro's division–temporarily commanded by Maycotte–crossed the Rio de la Laja after dark and at about 11 arrived at the La Favorita factory, at the northeast corner of the Constitutionalists' defensive perimeter. Meanwhile, intense fighting, especially along the western front, continued during the night. Two freight cars of ammunition had arrived on April 12, but so many rounds had been expended that Obregon was worried that his soldiers might run out before he could launch the counterattack. He telegraphed Carranza, urging immediate resupply. At midnight he again wired. Carranza replied that a train would start out within two hours. Then a fortuitous torrential rain began, damping the intensity of combat.

Finally recognizing a stalemate on the western front, Villa ordered a dawn attack against the Constitutionalists' weaker southeast front. By 6 a.m. on April 15, Villa's right wing had regained the northwest bank of the Rio de la Laja, abandoned during the rainy night when the rain-swollen stream's water level rose. The dismounted cavalry defending the southeastern corner of Obregon's de-fenses began to fall back. Villa perceived the opening he had been waiting for, but again he had no reserve with which to exploit it. Instead he ordered intensified attacks against the opposite, or northwest, corner of the Constitutionalists' defenses. There, the Sonorans and soldiers of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades were soon hard pressed. They fell back and re-formed behind the nearby railroad embankment.

Although Villa must have been satisfied by his troops' progress, he later said that he was concerned at not knowing the disposition of Obregon's cavalry. Was it all fighting as infantry along the long defensive perimeter? That question was soon answered. 'I made out those very columns of cavalry my eyes had been searching for–already enveloping my extreme left!' he recalled. Villa immediately ordered the left-flank brigades to fight to the death, while he organized a counterattack: 'I gathered about me a few of my officers, plus my escort and some other people, and with me at the head we rode out at full speed….'

Villa's precipitous counterattack took Maycotte's charging troopers by surprise. As they hesitated, Obregon, at the head of the 2nd Brigade, ordered his infantry to advance. Villa recalled:

The bulk of the infantry of their right flank, plus the center, came in to support the cavalry. And…that infantry and that cavalry, with a total of no less than ten thousand men, overwhelmed us with their weight, and I had no…reserve….That whole flank fell apart, and part of my center…fell back, and my artillery supports retreated, and my guns were enveloped such that not I nor anyone could do anything to save them.

Obregon's cavalry brigades manning the southeastern front, including los Rayados, swept down on the startled Villistas who had crossed the stream. 'My men on the right flank could not resist, though they tried,' Villa admitted, 'but only after many fell dead or wounded were they forced out of their positions on the river bank and…retreated to the far side.' Cut off, they retreated southward. The Constitutionalist cavalry brigades, meanwhile, rode hard for the Division del Norte's rear.

As thousands of Villistas realized the cavalry envelopments were cutting them off, a panicked rout developed that Villa's personal intervention failed to quell. 'Not his reputation for invincibility, his soldiers' blind faith in him, nor even the threat of the famous and terrible dorados to machine-gun those whose faced about could halt their flight,' Carranza's chief of staff later wrote. 'At the cry of `salvese el que pueda' [`every man for himself'], the veterans of the old Division del Norte fled the battlefield.' One Villista artillery officer who had escaped the envelopment and scrambled to the top of a hill later wrote: 'I shall never forget what I saw from there…whole battalions which seemed poised to attack Celaya again, but in reality they were prisoners. On top of the hill, artillery pieces had ben abandoned, and in front of them a torrent of people passed without stopping, without thinking of anything. What they wanted was to flee, to flee as far as possible.'

Obregon summarized the battle in a long telegram to Crrranza: 'Doroteo Arango (alias Francisco Villa), with forty-two of his so-called generals and more than thirty thousand men of the three arms…opened fire at six P.M. of the 13th…More than thirty guns have been collected on the battlefield, in perfect condition, with ammunition and draft animals; around five thousand Mausers, about eight thousand prisoners, a great number of horses with saddles, and other equipment.' The following day, the commander reported that his troops had counted four thousand Villistas dead on the battlefield, including three ex-Federal generals; Constitutionalist casualties were 138 killed and 276 wounded.

There were other battle casualties. The Conventionalist government, revealed as a tragic farce by Zapita's failure to support Villa, was dead. Villa's reputation of invicibility was shattered, and his commanders began to change sides and his troops to desert. Villa's credibility was another casualty, as Villista pesos, worth fifth U.S. cents before Celaya, rapidly dwindled to five cents, and American munitions suppliers raised prices and demanded cash. By rising to Obregon's challenge and fighting at Celaya, Villa also failed to capture the Tampico oil region, as Felipe Angeles had advised, and he was running out of exports as well as cash. Now, defeat would follow defeat. By 1916 Pancho Villa would be leading only a few hundred guerrillas. An outlaw hunted by mexican and American forces, he was more a nuisance than a serious threat to the Constitutionalist government.

The winners of Celaya were the Constitutionalist government, which would survive as the foundation of Mexico's political system — for better or for worse — until December 2000, and Alvaro Obregon, who became the pre-eminent hero of the revolution. His political plans succeeded, like his business and military plans, and he occupied the presidential chair from 1920 to '24, but in 1928 he was assassinated, as had been Zapata (1919), Carranza (1920), and Villa (1923).

It remained, ironically, for Villa's longtime henchman, the sinister Roberto Fierro, to make perhaps the most perceptive — certainly the pithiest — assessment of the Celaya commanders. Pancho Villa, he said, was 'the greatested warrior in the world,' but Alvaro Obregon was 'the greatest Mexican general.'


This article was written by Ronald R. Gilliam and originally published in the Spring 2003 edition of MHQ.

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4 Responses to “Mexican Revolution: Battle of Celaya”


  1. 1
    Ronald R. Gilliam says:

    Clumsy editing and a lack of opportunity for the author to review the galleys before printing resulted in a couple of mistakes and many typographical errors; e.g., the double envelopement was Obregon's favorite tactic, of course, not Villa's (whose was the frontal cavalry charge). Sorry.

  2. 2
    Hunter Phillips says:

    Would you be willing to provide a bibliography or works cited page for this article? That would be great. Thanks



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