In thirty-five years as President of Mexico, the administration of José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori had yet to figure out the question of Presidential succession. Popular at first following his seizure of power in the coup of 1876, the Porfirian regime soon began to stagnate. Diaz’ policies benefitted ‘el jefe’ cronies and supporters, the wealthy estate-owning “haciendados”, while rural agricultural “campesinos” were unable to make a living.
Following the turn of the century, the aging President expressed support for a return to democracy and an intention to step down from office.
An unlikely opponent stepped forward in the person of UC-Berkeley educated lawyer and wealthy hacienda owner, Francisco Madero. Madero wanted a return to democratic elections, but Diaz would have none of it.
Perhaps the octogenarian President expected that his country would beg him to stay, or maybe he changed his mind, but anyone stepping into Diaz’ path, did so at his own risk. Madero fled to the United States, but later returned and faced arrest. Meanwhile, the 80-year old Porfirio Diaz won re-election to an eighth term by a margin that would make Saddam Hussein blush. Voters were outraged by what was clearly a massively corrupt election.
Madero escaped prison and produced the Plan de San Luis Potosí to nullify the elections and overthrow Díaz by force. The table was set for the Mexican Revolution.
Armed conflict ousted Diaz from office the following year, when a free and fair election put Francisco Madero into office. Opposition was quick to form, from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and land owners saw Madero as too weak, his policies too liberal. Former revolutionary fighters and the economically dispossessed saw him as too conservative. In February 1913 both Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez were run out of office and murdered by order of military officer, Victoriano Huerta.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a Mexican constitutionalist and a Madero supporter. As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North), Villa fought on behalf of Primer Jefe (“First Chief”) of the Constitutionalist army Venustiano Carranza, but later turned on his erstwhile leader.
American newspaperman and commentator Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and my favorite curmudgeon, joined Pancho Villa’s army in December 1913, as an observer. And then he vanished. Most likely the Hearst columnist faced a firing squad in Chihuahua but his story remains, unknown.
Trouble began between Villistas and the American government when the US declared its support for Villa’s former ally, providing rail transport from Texas to Arizona for 5,000 Carrancista forces.
In July 1915 the Division del Norte was badly defeated by forces loyal to Carranza, and again in November. Villa’s army ceased to exist as a military fighting force, reduced to foraging the countryside while conducting local skirmishes and cross-border raids.
A three-way fight broke out on November 26 when Villa’s forces attacked the border town of Nogales, Sonora, and fired across the border at American troops in Nogales, Arizona. On January 11, sixteen American employees of the American Smelting and Refining Company were taken from a train near Santa Isabel Chihuahua, stripped naked, and executed.
In early March, a force of some 1,500 Villistas were camped along the border three miles south of Columbus New Mexico, when Villa sent spies into Camp Columbus (later renamed Camp Furlong). Informed that Camp Columbus’ fighting strength numbered only thirty or so, a force of 600 crossed the border around midnight on March 8.
Villa divided his force into two columns, launching a two-pronged assault in the early morning darkness of March 9. Townspeople were asleep at first but soon awakened to the sounds of burning buildings, and shouts of “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!”
What began as a pre-dawn raid soon erupted into full-scale battle, as residents poured from homes with hunting rifles and shotguns. The Camp Columbus garrison was taken by surprise but recovered quickly, as barefoot soldiers scrambled into position. Four Hotchkiss M1909 machine guns fired 5,000 rounds apiece before the shooting died down, joined by another 30 troopers with M1903 Springfield rifles.
Pancho Villa proclaimed the raid a success, having captured over 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules. Strategically, the raid was a disaster. The Mexicans had lost 90 to 170 dead they could barely afford out of a raiding force, of 484 men. Official American reports indicate 8, 10 or 11 soldiers killed, plus another 7 or 8 civilians, depending on which report you choose to believe.
The United States government wasted no time in responding. That same day, the President who would win re-election in eight months on the slogan “He kept us out of war” appointed Newton Diehl Baker, Jr. to fill the previously vacant position of Secretary of War. The following day, Woodrow Wilson ordered General John Pershing to capture Pancho Villa, dead or alive.
7,000 American troops crossed into Mexico on March 13. It was the first American military expedition to employ mechanized vehicles including trucks and automobiles to carry supplies and personnel and Curtiss Jenny aircraft, used for reconnaissance.
On March 5, 1913, President William Howard Taft ordered the formation of the 1st Aero squadron, nine aircraft divided into two companies. ‘Aviation’ at that time was not what is, today. Aircraft were highly experimental, many built by the pilots themselves. Crashes were commonplace, and flight lessons all but unheard of. Frequently, general guidelines were given on the ground, and pilots were left to their own devices. One of the early pilots, Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, sent away and received written instruction from Orville Wright, by mail!
The 1st Aero Squadron arrived in New Mexico on March 15 with 8 aircraft, 11 pilots and 82 enlisted men. The first reconnaissance sortie was flown the following day, the first time that American aircraft were used in actual military operations.
Five aircraft departed on the evening of March 19 with orders to report ‘without delay’ to Pershing’s headquarters in Casas Grandes, Mexico. One made it that night, another two straggled in the next morning. One returned to Columbus and 2 others went missing. The problems, it turned out, were insurmountable. 90 HP engines were unable to bring them across 10,000 – 12,000’ mountain peaks, nor could they handle the turbulent winds of mountain passes. Dust storms wrought havoc with engines and, making things worse, the unrelenting heat of the Sonoran Desert de-laminated wooden propellers.
On May 14, a young 2nd Lieutenant in charge of a force of fifteen and three Dodge touring cars got into a running gunfight in Chihuahua, while foraging for corn,. It was the first motorized action in American military history. Three Villistas were killed and strapped to the hoods of the cars and driven back to General Pershing’s headquarters. General Pershing nicknamed that 2nd Lt. “The Bandito”. History remembers his name as George S. Patton.
During three months of active operations inside Mexico, American forces killed or captured 292 Villistas. Pancho Villa evaded capture. Pershing publicly proclaimed the operation a success, but privately complained that Wilson imposed too many restrictions, making it impossible to fulfill the mission. “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw”, Pershing complained, “we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped cur with its tail between its legs.”
American forces were withdrawn by January 1917, as the European war loomed over American politics. German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann observed political opposition to American operations inside of Mexico, and concluded that a military alliance was possible between the two countries.
The ‘Zimmermann note‘ proposing such an alliance between Germany and Mexico and promising the “restoration of its former territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona“, may be seen as the ‘last straw’ that brought the United States into WW1.