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.
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.