V is for Villa, Most specifically how Villa started a war with the US – Is Pancho Villa a Mexican bandit or patriotic revolutionary? The best answer may be “Yes!” This is the tale of how Pancho Villa started a war.
January 11, 1916 Villa’s men (Villista) removed 16 Americans from a train in Chihauhau, stripped, executed and mutilated them. His most likely motive was Woodrow Wilson’s official recognition of Villa’s political enemy President Carranza. This marked the height of his hostile activity against US nationals in Mexico, but he was by no means finished. On March 9 Villa crossed the border and attacked the town and cavalry post near Columbus, New Mexico. Villa burned several buildings, captured both arms and military equipment, and stole over 100 horses and mules. But the town suffered less than the Villistas themselves in the raid. Eighteen Americans were killed while perhaps as many as 100 Mexicans died from a hail of machine gun fire the US army unleashed. The Villista retreated back to the Chihuahuan desert.
The previously timid Wilson ordered General Black Jack Pershing with 12,000 troops across the border in pursuit. For the first time ever US forces were accompanied by motor transport and combat aircraft, this in a force that also contained mounted cavalry, Apache Scouts and Buffalo Soldiers. It was truly the turning point between the Old West and the Modern Era. The famed tank commander then lieutenant, George Patton, conducted the US Army’s first ever mechanized attack at San Miguelito Ranch, using three Dodge touring cars. Nearly the entire US Army became involved and most of the National Guard was placed in federal control (for the first time). US forces penetrated 400 miles into Mexico and war was about to be declared.
But all this effort proved futile as Villa eluded his pursuers completely right into the new year, 1917. In fact it was this incompetence, combined with the mobilization of US forces, that started the war with the US, but not a war in Mexico. The war Villa caused would happen in Europe, where the First World War was already raging.
Germans had sunk the Lusitania two years earlier and, under threat from the US, stopped their unrestricted sub war. They were desperate to start again, but knew America, despite public opposition, would fight. The failure of Pershing’s Mexican Expedition emboldened the Kaiser. January 16, 1917 the Germans proposed an arrangement with Mexico in the following telegram which the British intercepted and publicized.
“We intend to begin … submarine warfare. We shall endeavor … to keep the USA neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”
The Germans were sure Mexico would keep the Americans too busy to send troops to Europe. For her part Mexico was not interested, but Americans recoiled. America’s soldiers were now experienced in modern warfare. The US and Mexico worked out their differences and Wilson, no longer shy about military action, ordered Pershing to return from south of the border. He asked the Congress for a declaration of war which they provided in April, largely due to popular support drummed up by the telegram.
And thus America’s domestic adventures in the Old West came to a close as she stepped out on the world stage to wield her muscle.
It’s enough to make you long for the good old days — or maybe not.
Geronimo in Top Hat & Seated in Automobile