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The Warm-up for World War I: John J. Pershing and the Mexican Punitive Expedition


Before the United States sent her sons to fight on the bloody battlefields of the First World War, a threat much closer to home required military action.

By early 1916, the Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his followers had committed a series of heinous killings and crimes against American citizens. These actions were largely motivated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s recognition of Villa’s former revolutionary ally, Venustiano Carranza, as the president of Mexico. Hell-bent on retaliation, Villa went on to orchestrate a deadly raid against Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. The attack left the border town in flames and claimed the lives of 18 Americans, ten of whom were U.S. soldiers. For President Wilson and the American public, this brutal act was the final straw. In response, Wilson ordered a punitive military expedition into Mexico to capture Villa and bring his reign of terror to an end.

After President Carranza reluctantly agreed to allow U.S. forces across the border, the hunt for “Pancho” Villa began on Thursday, March 16, 1916. Over the next eleven months, nearly 11,000 regular army soldiers under the command of Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing advanced some 400 miles into Mexican territory in pursuit of Villa. Although many Americans were on horseback, automobiles and airplanes were also utilized by Pershing’s forces during the campaign, making it the first operation in American military history to employ mechanized vehicles. Maximizing the potential of this new technology, however, proved difficult in the harsh Mexican terrain.

American aircraft on the ground in Mexico during the hunt for "Pancho" Villa. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In a campaign that featured many challenges, perhaps the greatest faced by Pershing and the Americans was the elusiveness of Villa and his soldiers. Although there were many bloody skirmishes throughout the expedition, Villa’s men relied heavily on hit-and-run tactics rather than facing U.S. forces in direct combat. As a promising young lieutenant on Pershing’s staff, George S. Patton Jr. put it, “They can't beat us, but they will kill a lot of us.” Patton himself went on to inflict a great deal of punishment on the enemy. During one raid in particular, the future World War I and II hero led the first motorized attack in the history of American warfare, which resulted in the death of Villa’s top lieutenant, General Julio Cárdenas.

Although the American expedition was focused on capturing Villa, the continued intrusion of U.S. troops into Mexican territory was deeply resented by President Carranza’s government. The uneasy tensions led to bloodshed when troops from the Mexican National Army attacked elements of the 10th U.S. Cavalry on June 21, 1916. Approximately 30 Mexicans were killed in the firefight and the Americans suffered around 22 casualties. This incident nearly ignited an all-out war between the United States and Mexico. Due in large part to the Great War raging in Europe, however, conflict between America and Mexico was ultimately avoided. Pershing also agreed to stop sending out long-range patrols, hoping this move would help prevent further incidents with Mexican national troops.

U.S. troops in an emergency trench during operations in Mexico. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With continued pressure from Carranza’s government and the ever-elusive "Pancho" Villa still nowhere to be found, Pershing’s forces were finally ordered home in early 1917. Through his intimate knowledge of Mexico’s vast canyons and mountains, Villa had evaded capture, but in the eyes of U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker, that did not make the Mexican Punitive Expedition a failure. As Baker put it, Pershing and his men had “displayed the power of the United States,” and their pursuit of Villa’s bandits had prevented attacks on U.S. soil and brought stability back to America’s border with Mexico.

Not long after the conclusion of the campaign in Mexico, the United States formally entered the First World War on behalf of the Allies on April 6, 1917. General Pershing was chosen to lead the American Expeditionary Force and eventually commanded more than two million U.S. soldiers along the bloody battlefields of Europe’s Western Front. George S. Patton and many of the other soldiers who helped hunt "Pancho" Villa in Mexico also went on to fight in World War One and played a major role in propelling the Allies to victory in November 1918.

General Pershing at Chaumont, France in October 1918. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Mexican Punitive Expedition ultimately proved to be a valuable training ground for General Pershing and the U.S. Army once America entered the Great War. Villa might have evaded Pershing’s grasp back in Mexico, but his days proved to be numbered. Although pardoned by Mexican President Adolfo de la Huerta in 1920, Villa was unable to quietly live out his days on his ranch. On July 30, 1923, the famed revolutionary leader was assassinated in the town of Parral, Mexico.

Photo Header Credit: On the Border by Donna Neary.


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