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Subject: Celaya 1915 -- Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution rss

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Pete Belli
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The series of engagements known as the Battle of Celaya provided a dramatic turning point in the Mexican Revolution and destroyed the military reputation of Pancho Villa. This session report will portray what is commonly referred to as the First Battle of Celaya which was fought on April 6th and 7th in 1915. Francisco "Pancho" Villa was allied with Emiliano Zapata against the Carranza regime. The Conventionist forces commanded by Villa maneuvered north of Ciudad de Mexico as the Constitutionalist forces led by Alvaro Obregon attempted to lure the impetuous cavalryman into a battle of attrition. For the sake of convenience the two armies will be called Villistas and Federales in this article.





General Villa was at the high point of his career in 1915. He was recognized as one of the great leaders of the Mexican Revolution. A movie studio from the United States had recently created a feature film depicting his exploits... interested Geeks can watch the 2004 Antonio Banderas movie about this fascinating media event. The charismatic Villa had risen to dizzying heights from his humble beginnings and his innate talent for leadership had not yet been overshadowed by his personality flaws.

His opponent was the cerebral and coldly calculating Obregon. Although he and Villa were both military amateurs Obregon had studied reports from Europe about the fighting on the Western Front in WWI. Obregon realized that the era of reckless cavalry charges was over; he planned to use trenches, barbed wire, and machineguns to wreck Villa's army. Obregon's task was made easier when President Wilson allowed a huge stockpile of modern weapons and equipment to fall into the hands of the Carranza regime when a US expedition withdrew from the port of Veracruz.





Villa's legendary Division del Norte was a combination of a modern army and biblical host. His troops moved by railroad and Villa had a hospital train supplied with the finest medical equipment. His troops were armed with machineguns and the same types of artillery pieces being used in the European conflict. The majority of Villa's men fought as cavalry but the soldiers carried modern rifles like the Mauser.

His army was also accompanied by swarms of women and children. Many of the women were soldier's wives or lovers. Since the peasant soldiers of Mexico were often reluctant to leave their villages or local districts these women (and a number of children) were allowed to follow the army. A similar pattern was followed by the Federales. Some of these soldaderas fought alongside their men; other women prepared food and nursed wounded soldiers. Teenage boys were deliberately recruited by the Villistas because the young men had not yet married and started a family... these kids were more likely to follow Villa on his campaigns across northern Mexico.





The battle was fought on the plain near Celaya, an important hub in the Mexican railroad system. Obregon had accepted the risk of offering battle to Villa at this logistically vulnerable location because the network of irrigation ditches and small farms encircling the city provided excellent defensive positions. The cultivated tiles represent these natural strongpoints while the other tiles represent low ridges, woods, and the town. Units attacking into anything other than clear terrain suffer a one battle dice penalty. The crucial railroad lines are marked on the map. While the map is not precisely to scale each hex is intended to represent approximately 1500 or 2000 yards.





Obregon knew Villa and had observed his mercurial nature. Obregon believed that Villa could not resist an opportunity to launch an attack with his cavalry. The Federales dug in along the irrigation ditches and used the barbed wire left behind by President Wilson to create a formidable stronghold. Obregon then committed a critical error by mishandling his mounted formations.

Strength estimates for both armies vary wildly. Researching the order of battle for each army was a major challenge. Obregon probably had 11000 soldiers including 6000 cavalry and 3500 infantry. Villa probably had 8000 soldiers available at this stage of the campaign with perhaps 25% of his force composed of infantry and artillery. Obregon divided his available cavalry, a nearly fatal mistake in the face of a general who could move as rapidly as Villa. Obregon sent 1800 cavalrymen to create a blocking position at Guaje Station, an exposed location several miles outside Celaya. Obregon then detached two brigades with a total of 2500 cavalrymen to serve as flank guards miles away from Celaya. Villa's cavalry was already near Guaje Station, so Obregon personally led a rescue force along the railroad to save the endangered brigade.

Villa saw a golden opportunity to defeat Obregon in detail and the Villistas quickly gained the initiative. This highly mobile phase of the battle provides the perfect starting point for a Battle Cry scenario.





This illustration depicts the setup positions for each player. The gray Federales have sent an infantry brigade and a cavalry brigade beyond the trenches at Celaya to cover the withdrawal of the vulnerable cavalry retreating from Guaje Station. Three brigades of Villa's cavalry are operating north of the railroad while two cavalry brigades are advancing to the south. The Villista infantry and artillery are lagging behind.

Like his bold opponent Pancho Villa, the commander of the Federales was absolutely fearless on the battlefield. Obregon personally led the relief force, so the Federales get the first move. Each player receives five command cards but the Villistas may not activate any infantry or artillery units during the first turn. The Federales positioned along the edge of the board represent the detached cavalry brigades guarding Obregon's flanks. They will arrive at dawn on the second day of the battle.

The Villistas must attempt to demoralize the Federales and force a withdrawal from Celaya. The victory conditions are relatively simple: the Villistas can break the morale of the Federales by severing any three railroad lines or occupying a Celaya town hex or inflicting heavy losses on the Federales. If none of those three goals are achieved the Federales win.





This image provides a view of the various unit types. Each miniature represents approximately 125 soldiers but this number varies with the quality of the unit. Although I feel quite reluctant to bog down the narrative of this Session Report with my special rules for this scenario I will offer a quick summary.

Infantry rolls a 3-2 pattern on the battle dice and can move one or two hexes. If an infantry unit moves it can only roll one battle dice against an adjacent enemy formation. This reflects the power of defensive fire in 1915 because attacking units are not permitted to rush an opposing formation and discharge a full volley into the face of the enemy.

Cavalry rolls 3 battle dice and may only attack adjacent enemy units. The same movement/fire restrictions mentioned previously apply to cavalry. Since the Villista cavalry was superior these formations receive an extra battle dice. Cavalry can move up to four hexes but entering a cultivated hex, ridge hex, woods hex, or town hex counts as two spaces.

Artillery rolls a 4-3-2-2 pattern on the battle dice. Artillery units can move one or two hexes or fire. Artillery fire does not require a line of sight. Since the Villistas were using substandard ammunition these artillery units suffer a one battle dice penalty. Artillery always rolls an extra dice when firing against cavalry.

Machineguns roll a 4-2 pattern on the battle dice. Machinegun units can move one or two hexes or fire. Machineguns require a line of sight. Machineguns always roll an extra dice when firing against cavalry.

The barbed wire rules are taken directly from Memoir '44 with units forced to stop moving and paying a one dice penalty during combat. In this scenario barbed wire obstacles may not be removed.

Several other special rules apply... all formations pay a one movement point penalty when advancing into a hex adjacent to an enemy unit, crossed-sword results only cause losses to adjacent units, formations may retreat though friendly units at the cost of an additional withdrawal, etc.





This image shows General Obregon (in slouch hat and armed with a pistol) rallying his troops during the retreat from Guaje Station. The two leader miniatures (Villa and Obregon) can activate all adjacent formations with no command card required. Attacking units accompanied by a leader add one battle dice. A defending formation with a leader present can avoid a flag result. Either leader can be removed from play... Obregon was severely wounded and lost an arm during a battle fought later in 1915. If a formation with a leader in the same hex takes a casualty two additional battle dice are rolled with a twin crossed-sword result wounding the general.





General Villa was a superb horseman and is depicted by a mounted officer miniature. The cavalry figures on gray horses are the elite dorados, a personal escort unit intensely loyal to Villa. This formation rolls an extra battle dice and never requires an order to move or fire.

The scenario uses my special "hot" deck with many of the superfluous cards removed. Several random events are depicted by modifying certain cards. For example, the Counterattack card becomes a random event affecting the Villistas. When that card appears (it has been marked with a special reminder label) the Villista commander immediately draws the top command card in the deck and performs the action indicated. This extra move reflects the high level of initiative displayed by General Villa at Celaya. Other random event cards offer a leadership bonus to each player or provide for the early arrival of the Federales cavalry reinforcements.

The special Rally card signals the arrival of the night game turn. This card is randomly buried in the middle of the deck and obviously will be appear at an unexpected moment. In 1915 both commanders received additional troops during the night (Villa's soldiers were mostly new arrivals; Obregon's soldiers were mostly stragglers from the cavalry brigades which had been scattered earlier in the battle.) so multiple battle dice are rolled to determine what types of miniatures will be replaced.





This photograph from the second day of battle depicts a typical Villista cavalry charge against the fortifications of Celaya. The Villistas always have the opening move on the second day, regardless of the random endpoint of the fighting on April 6th. In 1915 Villa would not wait for his infantry and artillery to move forward and support the attack on the first day; in this scenario General Villa will probably have to turn his attention away from the assault if he plans to concentrate on bringing the slower units forward. However, the session has a time limit and Obregon's cavalry reinforcements will arrive by dawn of April 7th at the latest. The dilemma faced by General Villa -- who is often criticized for even considering an attack at Celaya -- is clear. Of course, in 1915 the general's tactical errors were numerous and cost his army hundreds of casualties. Pushing an assault column through that wire is tough using the Battle Cry system, and the General Villa miniature can't be everywhere at once.





Here is an image from the final turn on April 7th. Once again the modified Rally card has been randomly inserted into the remainder of the deck to serve as a kind of "sudden death" buzzer to end the game. This is as close as the Villistas ever came to a breakthrough after turning the southern flank of the Federales with a powerful Assault command card... a desperate infantry assault near sunset on April 6th penetrated to within one hex of Celaya but the intrepid Villistas were cut to pieces by the Maxim guns.

In this session the Federales did not become demoralized. The railroad lines were not severed and no Villista formation entered Celaya. Losses were heavy on both sides but the casualty ratio was 5-3 in favor of Obregon. Brave men riding into machinegun fire shouting Viva Villa! Viva Mexico! can't win a battle, and the dice favored the Federales at crucial moments. The session was a rollercoaster ride which opened with fluid maneuver then settled into brutal trench warfare followed by a powerful counterattack when reinforcements arrived.

I didn't even cover the decisive second Battle of Celaya in this Session Report. The entire action at Celaya deserves a full-scale simulation with traditional wargame elements and innovative command rules. I might attempt it in time for the 1915-2015 centennial if I had any local playtesters and I could read Spanish fluently.



A special "Thank you!" goes out to BGG's expert on the Mexican Revolution...

Thomas Heaney
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Quincy
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...for providing helpful comments and suggestions. His obvious passion for the subject is an inspiration to other wargame designers.
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Kyle Perryman
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Brilliant! I really enjoyed reading this session report.
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StevenE Smooth Sailing...
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Great, now we need more scenarios.
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Mayor Jim
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Wonderful...great pics and a good read...thanks!
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Robert Wesley
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Re: Celaya 1915 -- Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution
blush While 'moi' possessed some 'Villa' 'poncho' from a locale nearby to there, if that 'counted' for something? robot
 
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William Collins
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Wonderful job, as usual, Pete!
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