Battle of Celaya
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|Battle of Celaya|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Alvaro Obregon||Pancho Villa|
|Casualties and losses|
|600-1,000 killed||4,000 killed
8,000+ captured (120 Villista Officers executed)
The Battle of Celaya was a series of military engagements fought between 6–15 April 1915, near Celaya in present-day Guanajuato, Mexico during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. An army under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa was defeated by elements of the Constitutionalist Army commanded by Álvaro Obregón, who were supporters of President Venustiano Carranza. Villa’s defeat was the result of multiple tactical miscalculations and over confidence in his army's’ ability to defeat Obregon’s army under any circumstances . The battle is also important as it incorporated many tactical innovations from the Western Front in the First World War, namely the utilization of trenches in the defense. Also, new logistical and troop movement techniques such as the use of trains were seen. The defeat at Celaya was a critical defeat to Villa and his army, the División del Norte. As a result of his first major military defeat, Villa and his forces were severely weakened. The battle is considered a watershed event in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and helped determine the military course of the revolution.
The commander of the Constitutionalist forces was Alvaro Obregon, the future President of Mexico. Obregon, like Villa, had no formal military education but had served in a professional army. His military career began when he joined pro-Madero forces in 1912. His military service was extremely distinguished and he initially left the Army as a Colonel. Obregon deftly navigated the shifting political alliances that marked the early days of the Mexican Revolution. Eventually, he was appointed to be the senior General in the Carranza administration. Obregon often enlisted the help of military advisors and was a student of the latest military technological and tactical advancements. One of his most respected military advisors was Colonel Maximilian Kloss, a German immigrant turned Army Officer. Kloss’s military advice and remarkable insight into the nature of Villa’s style of war would prove decisive at Celaya. Obregon himself was known to be an urbane, intellectual person. General Villa in contrast, was nearly illiterate and had never served in a professional army. However, Villa complemented his staff with General Felipe Angeles, a capable career military officer. After defecting to the División del Norte in March 1914, General Angeles became one of Villa’s most trusted military advisers. In contrast to Villa, Angeles was more careful and calculating. Privately, Angeles thought that Villa was often too rash in his decision making. Angeles' initial absence due to an injury while riding his horse would prove critical at the beginning of the Battle of Celaya.
The army of Pancho Villa, the División del Norte, was not an army in the modern, industrialized sense. In addition to their military component, Pancho Villa’s Army also included a large component of camp followers who would march behind the main military force. These camp followers were often refugees, soldiers’ wives and family, and support personnel. This often slowed down Villa’s military forces that were consisted of cavalry, artillery, and infantry. Villa himself was an excellent horseman from his early days as a bandit, and he tended to favor his cavalry and rely upon its speed to quickly maneuver around an enemy force. Before the Battle of Celaya, Villa’s forces had never been defeated in a major battle against the constitutionalist forces. General Obregón was a skilled military commander and understood that if Villa could be lured into a decisive battle, his forces could be completely destroyed. Villa had consulted with his chief military adviser General Felipe Angeles who attempted to convince Villa to avoid a major set piece battle. History would vindicate Angeles’s military expertise, as Villa’s forces and tactics were not suited to Obregon’s use of modern weaponry and tactics. Reportedly, Villa’s rationale for insisting on engaging Obregon’s forces was that he did not want to appear weak or inhibit the fighting spirit of his men. However, his actual words to General Angeles cannot be completely verified as no actual record of their conversation exists. To counter this threat, Obregon’s men had made excellent use of barbed wire and field expedient obstacles to slow, disrupt, and channelize Villa’s forces into their prepared fields of fire. As a fighting force, the cavalry and infantry elements of the Villistas were highly mobile in early 20th Century terms. Logistically, Villa had pioneered the use of the nation’s rail system to maneuver his troops quickly.
Villa, in contrast was known to be a rash and sometimes overconfident commander who would not refuse a battle with Obregón’s forces. This weakness would prove to be Villa’s undoing at Celaya. Also, Villa and Obregón intensely disliked each other which led to a war of words before the battle. Publically, Villa referred to Obregon as “El Perfumado” or “the one who wears perfume”, referring to Obregon’s perceived more refined qualities. While Villa was often rash and inflammatory, he was sometimes shrewd and cunning. At some level, Villa understood the power of Obregon’s forces and often tried to outmaneuver them with his cavalry. However, Obregón understood Villa’s true character and often tried to infuriate Villa. Immediately before the Battle of Celaya, Obregón often boasted of his eventual defeat of Villa and even offered to dedicate his inevitable victory to his friends (Hall, 124). As the war of words between the two commanders heated, Villa gave the following statement to the newspaper Vida Nueva on the night before the battle began: “This time Obregon will not escape me. I know that he will attempt to withdraw as he always does, but I shall force him to fight in order to destroy the forces that constitute an obstacle to military operations without being of any great use to the enemy.” (Katz 491) As both sides sought a decisive battle, the stage was set for the single largest military engagement in the Western Hemisphere until the 1982 Falklands War.
The First Battle
While Villa planned to use his artillery assets to weaken Obregon’s defensive position, his overall plan was simply a full frontal assault by his cavalry and infantry at dawn on April 6, 1915. Before the Battle of Celaya began, Obregon’s forces occupied the field first. This was critical to the primarily defensive strategy of Obregon. In a broad stroke, he planned to goad Villa in to an all-out frontal assault on his well-prepared defensive position. As a student of modern warfare, Obregon and his military advisers were acutely aware that machine guns, barb wire, and dug in artillery gave a marked advantage to a defender. The terrain at Celaya was described as being excellent for a defending force with modern armaments. Prior to the battle, Villa had not personally surveyed the battlefield and was confident that his forces would assault through any defenses or his cavalry would outmaneuver them. The Constitutionalists had prepared cleared, overlapping fields of fire for their machine guns. Additionally, there were many ditches and small irrigation canals that, when improved, would serve as trenches to provide excellent cover and concealment to Obregon’s forces. Critically, both Villa’s División del Norte and Obregon’s forces suffered chronic shortages of munitions. This was due in large part to the demand for ammunition created by the First World War and also to the increasing cost of the ammunition that remained for sale. This lack of ammunition resupply would prove to be a pivotal issue in the Battle of Celaya. Allegedly, some of the ammunition that Villa had purchased before the battle from private vendors from the United States was faulty and failed to perform under the conditions of the battle. Whether or not this was deceit on the part of the United States is difficult if not impossible to discern. Further, Villa’s forces were at a marked disadvantage with their artillery. According to Robert L. Scheina’s book Villa: Soldier of the Mexican Revolution, not only did Obregon’s forces possess fifteen more artillery pieces than Villa, their scarce European sourced ammunition was vastly more lethal, reliable, and had a further effective range. Before the battle began, Villa was acutely aware of his force’s shortage of ammunition and communicated this in a message to Emiliano Zapata. Additionally, Villas forces did not attempt to disrupt the resupply of Obregon’s forces from the port city of Veracruz.
After they occupied the battlefield on April 4, 1915, the Constitutionalists and their commanders knew that the Villistas were close. As Obregon’s forces fortified their defensive positions and waited for the Villista main attack, Pancho Villa’s forces began to move towards Celaya on April 5. In order to disrupt the movement of Villa’s forces, Obregon ordered a 1,500 man element to occupy an hacienda called “El Guaje” near Celaya to serve as a base to attack the railways that Villa relied upon for movement of his troops. This was a tactical miscalculation as the majority of the Villista forces were nearby and immediately attacked the comparatively small force. As soon as Obregon heard of the engagement, he quickly boarded a troop train to personally reinforce his men at the hacienda. A competent military mind, Obregon immediately realized that this initial tactical error could be the perfect ruse to lure the bulk of Villa’s forces in to his defensive positions. Ordering his forces to retreat, the Villistas took the bait and began to pursue the Constitutionalists back towards their positions at Celaya. As Villa’s forces attacked the enemy defenses, their movement was halted by enemy machine guns and artillery. Instead of using his cavalry to outmaneuver the enemy defenses, Villa ordered his troops to launch wave after wave of frontal assaults against Obregon’s men. After the battle, Obregon recalled that the Villistas launched nearly forty assaults with only a single penetration of his own defensive lines. Even this minor success was thwarted by a quick thinking Obregon. As the Villistas occupied the defensive positions they captured, Obregon ordered his bugler to sound general retreat. The Villistas, believing the order to have come from their own bugler, retreated and surrendered the only ground they had gained during the fighting. As Villa’s men retreated, Obregon seized upon the opportunity and ordered a devastating counter-attack. In addition to his battle weary forces, Obregon also called in his reserve that pushed the Villistas back to their own lines. In a stroke of good fortune for Obregon, the Villistas’ supply of ammunition for their small arms had run low after the day’s fighting. In the middle of the retreat, one of Villa’s commanders defected to the Constitutionalists and opened fire on Villa’s troops. In a series of good tactical decisions and some luck, Obregon had won the first battle of Celaya.
The results of the first battle were not catastrophic or conclusive for either side.However, Villa was dealt his first major military failure as a commander. However, morale amongst the Villistas was still high and they were prepared to re-engage the Constitutionalists. Also, Villa was quick to place the blame for the day’s defeat on his lack of ammunition and resupply. This fact, combined with Villa’s lack of maintaining a reserve force and his playing into the hand of Obregon are a more realistic appraisal of the defeat. Villa consulted his staff who understood that they would need to attempt to either outmaneuver Obregon or force him out of his defensive position. According to Mexican Revolution scholar Friedrich Katz, Villa sent a letter to Obregon asking him to abandon Celaya in the hope that civilian casualties could be avoided. Naturally, Obregon declined Villa’s invitation, clearly understanding Villa’s real intention to deceive him into abandoning his advantageous defense position (Katz 492). Villa’s appeal proved popular with foreign diplomats in Celaya who feared the damage the Villista artillery would wreak on the city. As Obregon refused to abandon his position and Villa fumed over his defeat at the hands of a man he genuinely hated, the stage was set for a second Battle of Celaya.
The Second Battle
Both sides resupplied to their best ability for the ensuing battle they knew would come as both sides refused to retreat. However, ammunition was running low on both sides of the battlefield. Obregon wisely calculated that Villa would not attempt to bypass his defenses. In preparation, Obregon ordered his men to emplace much more barb wire along potential Villista avenues of approach and cover the obstacles with additional machine gun fire. Understanding the critical impact his reserve force had had earlier, Obregon ordered General Cesareo Castro to lead a nearly 6,000 man cavalry force to conceal themselves in a nearby wooded area. The Villistas did not observe the force being positioned and were again allowing themselves to be surprised by a reserve element. In addition to their military advantages, Obregon’s men were emboldened by their resounding defeat of the Villista forces who were dealt their first major defeat. Villa himself was a victim of his earlier successes. He knew that his own prestige and the prestige of his army was at stake and they had to attack Obregon wherever they found him. Low on ammunition, with questionable morale, and at a tactical disadvantage, Villa’s forces prepared to attack.
The second battle of Celaya began on April 13, 1915 with a massive frontal assault by the Villista cavalry on the Constitutionalist defensive lines. Similar to the first battle, the Villista cavalry was driven back again and again by the overwhelming machine gun fire from Obregon’s trenches. The Villistas continued this tactic for nearly two days as their cavalry and infantry conducted assault after assault on the trenches, each time meeting defeat. Even after the Villista artillery attempted to weaken their enemy’s defenses with artillery barrages, the defenses continued to repulse every Villista attack. However, all was not well with Obregon’s forces. After days of fighting and limited resupply, their ammunition supply was running dangerously low. So precarious was their logistical situation, Obregon wrote an urgent telegram to President Carranza on the second day of fighting on April 14. According to research conducted by historian Friedrich Katz, Obregon wrote the following message to the Carranza: “I have the honor of telling you that the fighting has become desperate. We have no reserves of ammunition and we only have sufficient bullets to fight for a few hours more. We will undertake every effort to save the situation.” (Katz 493) After receiving the message, President Carranza immediately dispatched a train loaded with munitions to Obregon at Celaya. This resupply was critical to continue the fight against Villa’s massive numbers of soldiers. As Villa’s troops were exhausted after nearly forty-eight hours of combat, Obregon sprung his reserve cavalry force from the North counter-attacked as he had done in the previous battle. With a larger, more mobile reserve force, the attack was completely devastating to the Villistas and a full retreat ensued. Obregon sealed his victory at Celaya by ordering his forces to completely drive the Villistas from the field.
While General Villa and his senior staff had escaped, Obregon had won a nearly total victory for the Constitutionalists. Many of the Villista junior officers were not a fortunate as their senior commanders and were captured or surrendered to Obregon’s forces. Shockingly, Obregon ordered all of the one hundred and twenty officers his men had captured to be executed. In addition to capturing many of the Villista’s experienced officers, the Constitutionalists also managed to capture thousands of small arms and ammunition, hundreds of horses, and dozens of almost irreplaceable artillery pieces.
Aftermath of the Battle of Celaya
Following the battle, Obregón sent a telegram to President Venustiano Carranza claiming, “Fortunately, Villa led the attack personally” explaining his victory against Villa (Hall 125). Estimates of casualties on both sides vary widely as Villa attempted to soften the blow of his defeat after the battle. The Battle of Celaya is referred to by some historians of the period as Pancho Villa’s Battle of Waterloo in the sense that he was dealt a crippling military defeat. Irreparable damage was done to both Villa’s military power and his critical aura of invincibility. Further, a number of domestic and foreign observers of the revolution came to the conclusion that the Villistas were not capable of defeating the government’s army. Militarily, the Villistas were never again as strong as they were before taking the field at Celaya in April 1915. As a result of the disastrous battle, Villa himself was forced to go on the defensive in an attempt to reorganize his forces and procure arms lost at Celaya. His faithful advisor General Felipe Angeles argued that Villa should return to Northern Mexico, where he had allies and could reconstruct his army. Villa, displaying his supreme confidence in his military judgement, decided to conduct a defensive battle similar to what Obregon had done at Celaya at Leon. Obregon himself continued his duel with Villa in the ensuing battles of the revolution. At the battle of Leon, Obregon lost his right arm in the fighting. The war continued until 1920 when Obregon negotiated a conditional surrender of Villa that allowed Villa to exit the war and retire until Villa’s assassination in 1923. The location of the battle of Celaya is in the immediate vicinity of the present-day city of Celaya, in the State of Guanajuato, Mexico. The site of the battlefield is currently not commemorated by any official major monument or museum.
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