The Battle of Celaya (April 6-15, 1915) was a decisive turning point in the Mexican Revolution. The Revolution had been raging for five years, ever since Francisco I. Madero had challenged the decades-old rule of Porfirio Díaz. By 1915, Madero was gone, as was the drunken general who had replaced him, Victoriano Huerta. The rebel warlords who had defeated Huerta - Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón - had turned on one another. Zapata was holed up in the state of Morelos and rarely ventured out, so the uneasy alliance of Carranza and Obregón turned their attention north, where Pancho Villa still commanded the mighty Division of the North. Obregón took a massive force from Mexico City to find Villa and settle once and for all who would own Northern Mexico.
Prelude to the Battle of Celaya
Villa commanded a formidable force, but his armies were spread out. His men were divided among several different generals, fighting Carranza's forces wherever they could find them. He himself commanded the largest force, several thousand strong, including his legendary cavalry. On April 4, 1915, Obregón moved his force from Querétaro to the small town of Celaya, which was built on a flat plain alongside a river. Obregón dug in, placing his machine guns and building trenches, daring Villa to attack.
Villa was accompanied by his best general, Felipe Angeles, who begged him to leave Obregón alone at Celaya and meet him in battle elsewhere where he could not bring his mighty machine guns to bear on Villa's forces. Villa ignored Angeles, claiming that he did not want his men to think he was afraid to fight. He prepared a frontal assault.
The First Battle of Celaya
During the early days of the Mexican Revolution, Villa had enjoyed great success with devastating cavalry charges. Villa's cavalry was probably the best in the world: an elite force of skilled horsemen who could ride and shoot to devastating effect. Up until this point, no enemy had succeeded in resisting one of his deadly cavalry charges and Villa saw no point in changing his tactics.
Obregón was ready, however. He suspected that Villa would send in wave after wave of veteran cavalrymen, and he positioned his barbed wire, trenches and machine guns in anticipation of horsemen instead of infantry.
At dawn on April 6, the battle began. Obregón made the first move: he sent a large force of 15,000 men to occupy the strategic El Guaje Ranch. This was a mistake, as Villa had already set up troops there. Obregón's men were met with blistering rifle fire and he was forced to send out small diversionary squads to attack other parts of Villa's forces to distract him. He managed to pull his men back, but not before sustaining serious losses.
Obregón was able to turn his mistake into a brilliant strategic move. He ordered his men to fall back to behind the machine guns. Villa, sensing the chance to crush Obregón, sent his cavalry in pursuit. The horses became caught in the barbed wire and were cut to pieces by machine guns and riflemen. Rather than retreat, Villa sent several waves of cavalry to attack, and each time they were repulsed, although their sheer numbers and skill almost broke Obregón's line on several occasions. As night fell on April 6, Villa relented.
As dawn broke on the 7th, however, Villa sent his cavalry in again. He ordered no less than 30 cavalry charges, each of which was beaten back. With each charge, it became more difficult for the horsemen: the ground was slippery with blood and littered with the dead bodies of men and horses. Late in the day, the Villistas began running low on ammunition and Obregón, sensing this, sent his own cavalry against Villa. Villa had kept no forces in reserve and his army was routed: the mighty Division of the North retreated to Irapuato to lick its wounds. Villa had lost some 2,000 men in two days, most of them valuable cavalrymen.
The Second Battle of Celaya
Both sides received reinforcements and prepared for another battle. Villa tried to lure his opponent out onto a plain, but Obregón was far too clever to abandon his defenses. Meanwhile, Villa had convinced himself that the previous rout had been due to a lack of ammunition and bad luck. On April 13, he attacked again.
Villa had not learned from his mistakes. He again sent in wave after wave of cavalry. He attempted to soften up Obregón's line with artillery, but most of the shells missed Obregón's soldiers and trenches and fell into nearby Celaya. Once again, Obregón's machine guns and riflemen cut Villa's cavalry to pieces. Villa's elite cavalry sorely tested Obregón's defenses, but they were driven back every time. They managed to make part of Obregón's line retreat, but could not hold it. The fighting continued on the 14th, until the evening when a heavy rain made Villa pull his forces back.
Villa was still deciding how to proceed on the morning of the 15th when Obregón counterattacked. He had once again kept his cavalry in reserve, and he turned them loose as dawn broke. The Division of the North, low on ammunition and exhausted after two straight days of fighting, crumbled. Villa's men scattered, leaving behind weapons, ammunition and supplies. The battle of Celaya was officially a huge win for Obregón.
Villa's losses were devastating. At the second battle of Celaya, he lost 3,000 men, 1,000 horses, 5,000 rifles and 32 cannons. In addition, some 6,000 of his men had been taken prisoner in the ensuing rout. The number of his men who were wounded is not known, but must have been considerable. Many of his men defected to the other side during and after the battle. The badly wounded Division of the North retreated to the town of Trinidad, where they would once again face Obregón's army later that same month.
Obregón had scored a resounding victory. His reputation grew mightily, as Villa had rarely lost any battles and never one of such magnitude. He sullied his victory with an act of underhanded evil, however. Among the prisoners were several officers of Villa's army, who had cast aside their uniforms and were indistinguishable from the common soldiers. Obregón informed the prisoners that there would be an amnesty for officers: they should simply declare themselves and they would be set free. 120 men admitted that they were Villa's officers, and Obregón ordered them all sent to the firing squad.
Historical Importance of the Battle of Celaya
The Battle of Celaya marked the beginning of the end for Villa. It proved to Mexico that the mighty Division of the North was not invulnerable and that Pancho Villa was not a master tactician. Obregón pursued Villa, winning more battles and whittling away at Villa's army and support. By the end of 1915 Villa was severely weakened and had to flee to Sonora with the tattered remains of his once-proud army. Villa would remain important in the Revolution and Mexican politics until his assassination in 1923 (most likely on the orders of Obregón), but never again would control entire regions like he did before Celaya.
By defeating Villa, Obregón accomplished two things at once: he removed a powerful, charismatic rival and increased his own prestige enormously. Obregón found his path to the Presidency of Mexico much clearer. Zapata was assassinated in 1919 on orders from Carranza, who was in turn assassinated by those loyal to Obregón in 1920. Obregón reached the presidency in 1920 based on the fact that he was the last one still standing, and it all started with his 1915 rout of Villa at Celaya.
Source: McLynn, Frank… New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.