Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The 1916 War Between “Pancho” Villa and the U.S. Army: The Military Legacy of the US/Mexican Border

By Jeffrey LaMonica
The Edwin Mellen Press, 2021
David F. Beer, Reviewer

This short volume (75 pages plus end notes, bibliography, and index) researches the nature of the United States Army’s 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico and the part General Pershing played in the operation. The author also considers the extent to which the expedition was successful and whether it was an effective "practice run" or dress rehearsal for America’s involvement in World War One.

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There is little question that Pershing learned important lessons in his campaign against Villa and soon took them with him to the Great War. How successful the expedition was, however, remains open to debate. A lot of research has been done on the reasons for the expedition, how it was carried out, its shortcomings, political fallout, and conclusion, and the author cites well over 40 of these sources.

We learn a lot about the Punitive Expedition in this book which reads somewhat like an extended research paper. The expedition into Mexico is “one of the lesser known and more misunderstood military campaigns in US history” (p. 1). Villa and his army of Villistas attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, resulting in General Pershing leading 10,000 U.S. soldiers into the state of Chihuahua in search of Villa. The U.S. government sent an additional 150,000 National Guardsmen to patrol and protect the border.

The adventures, skirmishes, activities, and quality of the U.S. forces involved in this operation to capture Villa forms the central content of LaMonica’s work. Attention is also paid to Mexican forces, and it’s interesting to learn that the General Staff of the British War Office had in 1906 published an extensive handbook of the Mexican Army which was hardly flattering. Although regular American army troops were better trained and equipped, the same could not be said of troops of the National Guard. A 1916 War Department report on mobilizing the National Guard

…assessed eighty-nine percent of the National Guard units on the border as either ‘fair, poor, unfitted, not ready, or wholly unprepared.’ One Regular Army officer states ‘It will be nothing short of murder to send these troops into any sort of active service…they have absolutely no conception of even the elements of military tactics.’ Another exclaimed, ‘It is pitiful to watch their incompetency’’ (pp. 44-45).

Aiding in the search for Villa and his men, U.S. Army engineers built and repaired 350 miles of roads and constructed two bridges. The Signal Corps did their best with elementary telegraph and telephone equipment, including wire that easily broke and large cumbersome devices that might communicate wirelessly between ten and 200 miles, depending on weather conditions. These required mules and wagons for transportation (p. 51).

A JN-3 "Jenny" of the First Aero Squadron in Mexico

On 15 March the First Aero Squadron arrived on the border and joined General Pershing in Mexico a few days later. The squadron consisted of 11 officers who were pilots, 84 support personnel, and eight Curtiss JN-3 aircraft. These flew hundreds of reconnaissance flights but also faced serious challenges. The aircraft had problems with their controls and landing mechanism, causing numerous crashes. Since their maximum altitude was 10,000 feet they couldn’t fly over the Sierra Madre mountains—a favorite hiding place for the Villistas (p. 53).

Muddled orders, inconsistent governmental directives, and pressure from the Mexican government also conspired to make Pershing’s task difficult and uncertain. In the end, American troops withdrew, never successfully eliminating the Villistas. The border between the United States and Mexico was to remain unsettled and troublesome—even as it is today. Some of the officers who led troop formations during the Punitive Expedition were to lead thousands of troops during the Great War (p. 65), including George S. Patton. General Villa was to live out a comfortable retirement in Chihuahua until his assassination in 1923.

This book is a work of solid scholarly research containing a myriad of details that help us understand how the expedition was carried out, the obstacles it faced, and the varying opinions of its success. I highly recommend it to those interested in the history of the United States Army and of U.S./Mexican relations in the period immediately prior to America’s entry into World War One.

David F. Beer


  1. David, this sounds good.
    What did Pershing learn? The western front was such a different setting.

    1. I believe Pershing learned about logistics and military transport, and maybe also the importance of modern communications. He also began to search the regular army for men who were, in his mind- competent.

  2. One of my areas of interest. I appreciate the in-depth scope of your review. Cheers