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The War Nerd June 29, 2006
Celaya: Machismo vs. Overlapping Fields of Fire
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO -- Every great battle has its own flavor. Just take some of the most familiar bouts from our Civil War. The First Bull Run was almost comic, with carriages full of scared DC ladies whipping the horses, trying to outrun the Federal infantry back to town. The comedy turned to pure gorefest at Antietam, an all-day stabfest, like a Scorsese film of two guys stabbing each other in an alley from sunrise to sunset. Or take the ironclads' duel in Hampton Roads; that one was like a Japanese monster flick, with the Monitor as Godzilla and the Merrimack as Mothra duking it out in Tokyo Harbor.

Celaya, the decisive battle of the Mexican Revolution, has its own flavor too, with all the gory comedy of the First Bull Run mixed up with the anti-fun, hard lessons of WW I trench warfare. Best of all, it's about a confrontation between the ultimate macho cavalry leader, our old friend Pancho Villa, and one of the most underrated generals in history, a cool-headed, very un-Mexican dude named Alvaro Obregon. It's the ultimate clash of brawn vs. brain, charisma vs. machine guns. Three guesses who won.

Both these commanders started small: Villa as a peasant thief and Obregon as a small farmer in Sonora -- Indian country, home of the Mayo and Yaqui tribes. I mentioned in my column on Villa's Arizona raids that he changed his name (you would too if your folks christened you "Doroteo"). There's also a rumor that Obregon started out as "O'Brien," that Obregon was the grandson of an Irish railroad worker. He sure looks it in the old photos -- a very un-Mexican looking dude, pale with one of those droopy moustaches that make everybody look like Stephen Stills.

Obregon didn't act like a Mexican guy, either. Most Mexican guys I've known are -- how can I say this nicely? -- not exactly shy about promoting themselves. They believe in showing muchos cajones, and after a couple of Coronas that translates into pretty much non-stop bragging.

Pancho Villa was the ultimate Mexican bragger. Although, like Muhammad Ali said, if you can back it up it ain't braggin'. By that standard, Pancho's off the hook, because up till he met Obregon at Celaya, he was the undefeated champion of Mexico's Civil War (1910-1914), which segued real smoothly into Mexico's Revolution (1915-1920).

Now if you really want -- I mean, really really want, like those annoying bigmouth Brit Spice Sluts used to yell all the time -- we could go into all the fun details of early 20th-c. Mexican politics, all those Declarations and Coalitions and Counter-Declarations and Anti-Proclamations leading up to Villa's fight with Obregon. The sorry details of betrayal after betrayal: why Huerta had Madero shot, and how Carranza got Huerta exiled, and bla bla bla.

But we both know they're all noise to cover the same ol' non-stop war for power between two kinds of creep, who keep reappearing in Mexican history under different names: the "charismatic guerrilla" leader like Villa and Zapata, who always turn into sleazy dictators once they get power, and the plain old rich landlord elite, who start out as sleazy dictators and so don't have to pretend they're anything else from the get-go. If you live anywhere in the tropics, let's face it: those are your choices, always have been and always will be. Don't blame me, I just work here.

What's kinda interesting about Obregon is that he wasn't like either type. He was modest, for one thing, which isn't common in Mexican leaders. In his memoirs, instead of bragging about his early heroics, he curses himself for not joining the fight against the Diaz dictatorship sooner, and says his excuses -- he had a family to raise, etc. -- were nothing but "cunning lies."

That's a real un-Mexican thing to do, accusing yourself like that. Instead of bragging after he beat Villa, he joked that the reason he won is that "fortunately, Villa led the attack personally."

Like most good lines, that was basically true, too. The battle of Celaya was won because Villa's macho ways, galloping around Mexico leading cavalry charges, met their match in Obregon. While Villa was swaggering around making himself a living legend, Obregon was studying. His victory was a victory for nerds everywhere. Viva los nerdos!

Obregon started studying early. Unlike most Spanish-speaking, white-looking Mexicans, he respected the Indios who lived in his part of Sonora. He learned to speak the Mayo and Yaqui languages -- and it paid off big in battle, when the Yaquis, big, tough, silent marksmen, became his best and most loyal troops.

He also listened to his German military advisor, Maximilian Kloss. Obregon put Kloss in charge of his heavy weapons, machine guns and artillery. That was also a very un-Mexican thing to do. All the big players circa 1915 -- Villa, Zapata, Carranza -- kept a few German military advisors around for show, but only Obregon bothered to listen to what his tame German had to say. So Obregon was the only commander in Mexico who understood that the era of grand cavalry charges -- Villa's trademark move, his version of Tyson's right hook -- was over, finito, or as Herr Kloss would have said, kaput.

But his best weapon was a real unglamorous one: barbed wire. People don't appreciate what a powerful device that stuff is. Not the ranchers' version, the kind I used to rip my jeans on climbing fences, but military-issue coils of razor wire. Obregon confiscated 632 rolls of the stuff from a US Expeditionary Force that briefly occupied Veracruz, and when he gave it to Herr Kloss, the German's eyes just lit up. Give a German officer that much barbed wire, some machine guns and four batteries of French field artillery, and you can pretty much sleep through the rest of the battle, tell your aides to wake you when it's time for the victory parade.

Ever since the first Scythian got his leather-pants ass up on a horse and realized he could tear around the steppes sticking pedestrians like frogs, infantry commanders have been improvising ways of coping with the striking power of cavalry charges. Along the way, they've invented some nasty, effective devices. My favorite is the caltrops, which looks like a big, sharp-tipped version of the Jumping Jacks girls used to play with. (Do girls still play with those? Dunno. For some reason kids tend to shy away from me.)

Caltrops were carried in sacks and sown like landmines in front of infantry positions likely to be charged by cavalry. When those tank-like warhorses thundered toward the shield wall, they'd step on a few caltrops and be instantly transformed from Hellbeasts to whinnying ponies, rearing up and throwing their riders, like mechanical bulls during a power surge. It must have just made your average man-at-arms's day, seeing those knights in their expensive armor suddenly grounded, ripe for a throat-slitting.

But caltrops, and the jumbo versions of them made of sharpened logs, were hard to lug around, heavy, and labor-intensive. Barbed wire was light, expandable -- think of a Slinky that would disembowel the kids enjoying its progress downstairs -- and lethal to the sort of mass cavalry charge that had made Pancho Villa a legend. Pancho's men were cowboys, see, real Nortenos.

A lot of people don't get how different the different parts of Mexico are. Zapata, for instance, came from the far south, where the Indio peasants were submissive, basically plantation slaves. Other Indios, like Obregon's Yaquis, were a foot taller and nobody's slaves, sooner die than kneel down. Then there are the Northern desert provinces, Villa's country, where it's like a Mex-Tex world, as full of macho bullshit as the West Wing crew in Crawford.

That macho crap won Pancho a lot of battles, because let's be honest here, a lot of the regular Mexican troops he faced were skittish Indio draftees who barely spoke Spanish and didn't exactly burn with morale. A few hundred bold riders, galloping at them full speed, with a mile-high dust cloud behind them, were usually more than enough to make that sort of cannon fodder toss their rifles and hide in the nearest arroyo.

That was the only lesson Villa had learned. The big lesson he hadn't learned is why good commanders keep a big part of their forces in reserve. I admit, when I was a kid I never got this "reserve" thing either. Why wouldn't you commit everything to battle? Why keep part of your strength back there, those rectangles with a diagonal line and "R" for reserves marking them on battle maps?

The answer's simple: without a reserve, a commander can't exploit enemy weaknesses that develop in the course of a battle, or bolster his own weak points. Pancho found that out the hard way at Celaya.

To be fair, Villa wasn't the only military mind with an "Everybody charge! fixation. Every major army, circa 1914, was convinced that defense was for pussies and pure elan would win out every time. The French motto was "l'Audace, toujours l'audace," meaning basically, "Charge those Kraut machine-guns till your intestines are draped across the barbed wire like Christmas tinsel!"

But by 1915, some commanders -- not, unfortunately, the ones leading the Brits or French or German armies -- had figured out that wire and automatic weapons meant "l'audace" translated into "l'idiotisme!" and accepted that military tech had undergone another flip-flop, now favoring defense over attack. Obregon, who read everything he could about the Western Front, had figured this out. Villa, who could barely sign his name, hadn't. Uh-oh, spaghettii-O's, if you happened to be one of Pancho's cowboys, riding "Andale, andale, arriba, arriba!" into the machine-guns.

Obregon chose defense right off, occupying and fortifying the town of Celaya, near Veracruz. The country was perfect for a defender with plenty of ammunition and barbed wire: flat farming country with few trees, but lots of ditches and irrigation canals, ready-made trenches for the sort of WW I-style fighting Obregon had in mind.

Just as Obregon hoped, Villa decided he had to attack. His smarter aides begged him not to. They pointed out that Obregon had 12,000 defenders to Villa's 8,000 attackers, a far cry from the textbook 3:1 advantage attackers hope to have. For Villa, macho to the last, it was a matter of pride. He said he had to "pegarle el perfumado." "El perfumado" was his term for Obregon, sort of like "wuss," with a hint of "faggot."

Obregon was happy to be underestimated like that. He was counting on it.

Even so, Villa's cavalry won the first round. Obregon had made a big mistake, staking a 2000-man force too far outside his lines. Villa's Division del Norte smashed it so hard Obregon had to personally lead an armored train, accompanied by his remaining cavalry, in a rescue mission. The train distracted Villa's men from hunting down Obregon's surviving outpost garrison, but at the end of the first day of battle, April 6, 1915, Obregon sent a gloomy message to HQ, saying his cavalry screen was totally gone.

Villa's troopers drove Obregon's men into their own lines and followed them in, shooting everything that moved. Obregon had to commit his reserves and his own escort to the lines before Villa's horsemen were pushed back. The tide started to turn as Villa's hotheads kept charging the wire, meeting Kloss's carefully plotted overlapping fields of machine-gun fire.

That night Villa got the boys together and announced the plan. It was dead simple, way too simple: at dawn, everybody attacks. That was it. When some cooler heads mentioned that their ammunition trains still hadn't arrived, Villa said some crap to the effect that "our courage will be our ammunition." Here's a helpful hint: if you ever find yourself under a commander who talks like that, flee. The night doesn't belong to Michelob, it belongs to deserters. Just wait till it's nice and dark and head for the hills, because anyone who says courage is your ammo is just going to get you killed.

Villa's men had guts, though. At dawn they charged the machine-guns, got mowed down, and came back for more. When you imagine the battlefield, remember that horses make huge targets, and after an hour there were so many dead and dying horses in front of Obregon's lines that Villa's men found it hard to pick their way over the mounds of bleeding, shitting, screaming shot horses. I always feel sorry for the horses. I mean, we deserve it, people deserve everything they get, but the horses don't. One thing you have to say for mechanized warfare, it saved a lot of horses from horrible deaths.

After a few hours, Villa's charges started to weaken Obregon's lines near the railway line. This is exactly where a reserve could have won the battle for Villa. Except the fool didn't have any. Villa saw the weakness, screamed at his men to go for it -- but they were busy attacking all along four miles of defensive perimeter, and there was no way they could concentrate their forces on the weak point. Obregon was able to plug the gap with his reserves. As Villa focused on the attack, he was stunned to see Obregon's cavalry enveloping his right flank, followed by an infantry advance crushing his left.

By mid-afternoon, Villa had no choice but to retreat. He'd lost 3,000 men in two days of fighting. Obregon's losses were much smaller, about 600 dead. Villa's legend of invincibility was gone.

That should have been the end of the Battle of Celaya. But it was just getting started, thanks to Villa's incredibly swollen ego. He couldn't admit that he'd lost to "el Perfumado," so he went back to bragging.

This idiot sent a letter to all the papers, all the foreign ambassadors, everybody on his Xmas card list, announcing in all-caps rant style that he, Francisco Villa, would fall upon the town of Celaya in three days, sweeping all before him. Obregon must have danced an Irish jig when he got the note. Villa had not only committed his army to more human-wave slaughter, but he'd actually been considerate enough to tell the enemy when he was coming. Obregon and Kloss had three whole days to go over the field, adjust their fields of fire, tinker with ways of flooding the fields and otherwise making advance impossible. Obregon even had telephone lines installed, connecting all his sub-commands with his HQ.

If you're getting the idea that a 20th-c. army was about to meet a 19th-c. one, you're right.

Both sides used to time to reinforce, so by the time battle resumed on April 13, each had about 30,000 men. Obregon's lines now encircled the whole town of Celaya. His perimeter was 12 miles around. That afternoon Villa attacked the western sector, with the usual results: his men were slaughtered, but their pressure did tell on the defenders after a couple of hours. But once again, Obregon had the reserves to plug the gaps. In fact, this time Obregon kept a full 40% of his force in reserve. Villa, as usual, was unclear on the whole concept and had no reserves at all.

The second day, April 14, was another bloody stalemate, a lot bloodier for Pancho's troopers than Obregon's defenders, ending with heavy rain that delayed the counterattack Obregon was planning.

Next day, April 15, Villa's tactical imagination really extended itself: instead of renewing the attack on Obregon's western perimeter, he decided to hit the SE lines. As usual, his guys were brave, and then dead, in that order. And as usual, their courage gained them some ground, which was plugged by Obregon's reserves. And as before, while Villa was leading the cheers for his halfwitted cavalry charges, the rest of Obregon's huge reserve, led by his cavalry, was enveloping Villa's left flank. Apparently this macho fool never thought of that, even though it had just happened to him a week ago.

Seeing themselves surrounded again, Villa's men finally figured out that their leader was a conceited fool and took the smart option: drop your rifle and run. Villa's elite bodyguards, the Dorados, turned their machine-guns on the fleeing troops, but when a rout really takes hold, men will be braver fleeing than they ever were advancing. Villa's men ran through the Dorados' fire just to get away from Obregon's cavalry.

What was left of Villa's army just watched, stunned, as Obregon's men surrounded them. The Villistas surrendered by the thousand -- 8,000 prisoners were taken in one day, along with 30 artillery pieces (more than twice what Obregon had). Villa was broken as a contender for power, and had to resort to small-scale guerrilla raids along the US border, blaming the Yanquis for all his problems, naturally.

The truth is much simpler. Celaya is one of the classic decisive battles of history, and what it shows holds for every country: the best commanders aren't blowhards who bet their men's lives on an ego trip. The best commanders are us, the nerds, the nervous nail-biting bookish guys who realize stuff can go wrong, make fun of ourselves, prefer to play defense and keep a good third of our forces in reserve. We rule, sort of. Just don't say that too loud -- that way you end up a nerd version of Villa, el estupido Jocko.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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