Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016 The Year of Pis Aller

Think of the French term “pis aller.” Pronounced "peace-ah-lay," it means last choice.

You run into it in business from time to time.  Usually when you’ve done all your homework and you realize your faced with two bad choices.  You then have to pick the lesser of two evils, if only because it’s the least damaging to your organization.

That pretty much sums up the current presidential election.  The Roman mob has spoken and we’re faced with two unpalatable choices- A) A shameless self-promoting mountebank, with a bad orange comb-over or B) a shameless corrupt harridan, who looks like a mini-me version of Chairman Moa in a pantsuit.

Either way, it’s not pretty, and not what our country needs after eight-years with a peevish-man-child-ideologue in office. I think that Trump supporters know this.  I don't think they see him as a solution, but rather a grenade they want to throw at a broken establishment. So with that thought, I offer you this poem which is apropos to the moment we’re in-

Waiting for the Barbarians

  By C. P. Cavafy (1898)

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

 Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s famous 1931 mural of an Aztec jaguar knight killing a Spanish invader (at the gate of Tenochtitlan?) I first saw a print of it while in elementary school and thought it was cool art.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Battle for Juarez, 1911

I've always had an interest in history, in particular military history. The following is a condensed version of a research paper I wrote on the 1911 battle for the city of Juarez. The campaign won the revolution for Madero. 

As the American West disappeared, the El Paso-Juarez area remained wooly with gunslingers and adventurers well into the turn of the century. The last hiccup of "slapping leather" was the Mexican Revolution. It called out and attracted an endlessly fascinating and diverse group of men.

The bulk of the research material came from the El Paso Public Library’s Southwest Collection, with the help of the librarian (at the time) Mary Saber.  I later used the paper as part of a military professional development talk I gave while I was assigned to Ft. Bliss as a U.S. Army officer.

President Diaz in all his splendor

Prelude to the Battle: The Context of Why and How.

The battle for the city of Juarez on May 8, 1911 was the successful culmination of the Madero Revolution; a rebellion against the thirty-year-old regime of President Porfirio Diaz.

President Diaz had done much for Mexico during the years he held power. He stabilized the finances of Mexico through the use of foreign capital and expanded various industries including mining and textiles. He also constructed the important necessary infrastructure of railroads and telegraph.

But with the good, there were problems. After thirty years, his regime had grown long in the tooth and had created many domestic enemies. The wealth of Mexico continued to be held in the hands of a relatively small number of landowners, and poverty and illiteracy were widespread.

Critics also claimed any vocal dissatisfaction was suppressed by a “decisive iron hand.”

One such critic was Francisco Madero.  Madero was educated at the University of California and came from a family of wealthy landowners. Their wealth came from land, mines, banks, and miscellaneous holdings. He favored reform, but as a member of the upper class, within boundaries.

Francisco Madero
When President Diaz called for an election in 1910 and parroted he welcomed political opposition, Francisco Madero (showing incredible naivety) actually took him seriously and ran against him.  Not surprisingly, Madero only succeeded in being thrown in jail under the charges of “fomenting a revolt.”

After President Diaz found himself safely re-elected, he released Madero from prison. Instead of moving on with his life, as Diaz had probably expected him to do, Madero instantly fled to Texas and proclaimed a revolution against Diaz.

The revolution took a life of its own, and Madero returned to Mexico to take command of several newly organized groups that had rebelled against Diaz. The hodgepodge collection of men consisted of peasants, criminals, foreign mercenaries and adventure seekers. The fact that this group of brawny hard-bitten men actually followed the banner of a soft spoken idealist like Madero was a minor miracle and a historical oddity. He was an unlikely leader for a Mexican Revolution. He was of Portuguese Jewish descent, short in stature (only 5-foot-2-inches in height), and had what was described as a "high pitched shrill voice."

The rebel army formed under Madero was also an interesting opposite of the federal army against which it fought. Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian mercenary and adventurer who fought for Madero, expressed the following:

“The rank and file of the federal army was…different from ours. They were drawn mainly from the peon class in the south, and lacked the independence and initiative of our mountaineers and plainsmen from the north. They were accustomed to the authority of the Church and the hacendados on whose land they worked.”

Garibaldi, the namesake and grandson of the famous Italian Red-Shirt General Garibaldi, also noted a fatal flaw in the federal army:

“The federal officers, though ordinarily brave, were recruited from the wealthy classes and had been given only the most cursory military training and that not of the sort to help them cope with the problems of guerrilla warfare. Family influence and political preferment accounted for their commissions. Being cientificos they felt themselves far above the common soldier, with the result that they could not hold their men in a crisis. Neither the officer nor the soldier had confidence in each other.”

It was these two different kinds of men, these two different types of armies that met at Juarez.
Italian Adventurer Garibaldi, 3rd from left. His 1935 autobiography, "A Toast to Rebellion is a good read.

II. Skirmish at Bauche: Setting the Stage, and  a Bank Robber Redeems himself.

Madero wanted to take Juarez for tactical reasons. He recognized Juarez was a treasure house in logistics, weapons, ammunition, as well as an excellent base for operations.

Meanwhile, the federal government found itself spread thin, and in a difficult situation. Rebels were making gains everywhere, and the federal government was having difficulty maintaining, much less expanding, the army it already had in the field. President Diaz decided to concentrate his northern forces in the city of Chihuahua, not Juarez. He ordered the Eighteen Infantry Battalion from Casas Grandes, General Rabago from Juarez, and some battery and cannon from Mexico City to Chihuahua City in order to reinforce it against rebel attack.

Upon hearing of these orders, Madero’s spies gleefully rushed the news to their patron. Juarez was now open to attack.

In March of 1911, Madero and Orozco broke camp at Bastillo and began their movement to Juarez. The plan of movement went as follows. An advance party under the command of Garibaldi moved out by rail and horse mounts. The main body of the rebel army would remain under the command of Madero and Orozco and move out at a tactical speed awaiting the report of the advance party. The rear column would be followed by a force of seven-hundred men under the command of Pancho Villa. Villa’s job was to discourage pursuit by federal forces either force or misleading.

Commanding the advance guard, Garibaldi proceeded along the Northwestern Railway to Juarez. The advance group consisted of five-hundred men on train, and five-hundred men on horseback. In addition, the group carried extra horses for the men riding the train. Under Captain Creighton, an American mercenary and former bank robber, fifty men on horseback preceded the train by several miles. Captain Creighton, in turn, was followed by two flanking units.

When nearing Juarez, Garibaldi reversed order and had the train advance ahead of the mounted troops. At Bauche, a small watering hole some ten miles south of Juarez, federals under the command of Colonel Tamborel engaged Garibaldi’s forces with light artillery and what Garibaldi described as a “strong party” of men. This was at nine a.m. on April 14th. Garibaldi sent out flanking parties hoping to capture the entire federal force. The federals, however, held their ground stubbornly, disabled Garibaldi’s train, then retreated quickly abandoning their dead and wounded. By eleven a.m. the first clash ended.

By noon, reinforcements for both the rebels and the federals arrived. At two p.m. rifle fire and federal artillery began again. This time, it was the federals who launched frontal attacks and rebels who held ground.

An interesting anecdote occurred at this time, which should be recorded for posterity. During the heaviest part of the fighting, an American adventure seeker on foot went up to Garibaldi and asked for a rifle so that he could join the battle on the rebel side. Garibaldi, busy with the battle, quickly and succinctly told him to grab a rifle from the first dead man he found. Garibaldi’s words finish the story:

“A few minutes later he returned with both hands smashed by federal bullets. Many Americans persisted in believing that it was a comic opera war we were fighting south of the Rio Grande.”

As the federal forces continued their attack, Captain Creighton noticed a rebel defense line wavering on the crest of a small hill. Rushing up to steady his men, and refusing to take cover, he stood fully erect on the crest, “with his poncho blowing in the wind,” and maintained a steady stream of fire at the federals with his Winchester Rifle. One of the rebels described him at that moment as a “brave and beautiful sight." He kept this heroic, if not somewhat foolish, stance until a federal bullet struck his heart, instantly mortally wounding him. This enraged his men who then sprang up from the hill and charged the federal troops. Other rebel lines followed their example; and under charge, the federal troops began a hasty retreat to the Juarez Garrison. The rebels chased the federal troops to the outskirts of Juarez before their officers finally brought them back under control. For his military service on this day, Captain Oscar Creighton (real name Oscar Wheelock) was awarded the Legion of Honor by the Mexican Government on November 5, 1951.
Captain Creighton, on left.
After the initial Bauche battle, Garibaldi advanced his forces to the U.S. border and secured his forces directly across from the El Paso Smelter and just west of Juarez. He also rushed a report to Madero.

On April eighteenth, Madero’s main army column arrived at the smelter encampment and immediately began to take positions around Juarez. Madero formed his headquarters in an adobe hut at Rancho Flores across from the El Paso Smelter and sent message to General Navarro, the commanding general of the Juarez Garrison. In the message Madero asked the General to surrender the city. General Navarro replied via messenger that he was “not authorized to take such action.”

General Navarro was a crusty old man who had served under the Benito Juarez Revolutionary Legions against the French puppet dictator Maximilian. At eighty years of age, General Navarro had the hard determined character of most senior army officers the world over.

Upon being joined by Villa’s rear guard, and thus completing his army, Madero wavered. Instead of attacking Juarez as the majority of his troops wished, he called a five-day armistice on April 24th. Armistice meetings were held in Madero’s headquarters, an adobe hut which was “jocularly referred to as the Grey House.”
Madero extended the armistice talks, and his men including his three main military officers, Orozco, Villa and Garibaldi, grew resentful. The rebel foot soldiers in particular resented the presence of politicians in their camp, and the general feeling that ran across the lines was that valuable time was being lost, thus allowing the federals to better barricade the city.

Amid all this displeasure, an incident made things worse. Colonel Tamborel, the ranking artillery officer and second in command under Navarro, voiced his opinion of his recent battle against the rebels at Bauche. In an open letter to the English language newspaper on Juarez, he accused the rebels of being cowards.

Upon hearing of this, Villa, Orozco, and Captain Blanco (an American mercenary) grew furious. They quickly responded with their own letter to the El Paso Norte Newspaper, the Spanish language newspaper in El Paso.
Madero's Advisors at Juarez

On May 7th, exasperated at last by the lack of progress from the armistice and perhaps catching the general mood of his men, Madero finally called an end to the talks. The men rejoiced, believing Madero meant to finally attack Juarez. They were wrong. Under the urgings of Dr. Vasquez Gomez, one of his senior political advisors, Madero held off an attack because of fear of U.S. intervention. Madero knew his army could engage the Juarez Garrison, but he had no false hopes about his ability to engage the U.S. Cavalry from Fort Bliss. Nor did he wish to anger the American Administration who he already knew to be concerned about American holdings in Mexico. Instead he prepared to move his forces south away from the border.
For his military leaders, the situation had become intolerable. Unknown to Madero, Orozco, Villa, and Garibaldi plotted to attack Juarez without his permission. On the night of May 7th, rebel military officers and sergeants began moving their troops gradually tightening their enclosure of Juarez. Under the pretext of southern troop movement the next day, the battle for the City of Juarez would begin.

III. The Battle Begins.

Madero’s wavering on the obvious made the situation intolerable for his military commanders. Unknown to Madero- Orozco, Villa, and Garibaldi plotted to attack Juarez without his permission. On the night of May 7th, rebel military officers and sergeants began moving their troops gradually tightening their enclosure of Juarez. Under the pretext of southern troop movement the next day, the battle for the City of Juarez would begin.

The plan of attack consisted as follows.

Garibaldi would attack from the west following the Rio Grande. He would break through the federal trenches, then meet up with Orozco’s men at the Customs House. Eventually their combined forces would make contact with Villa’s troops.

Pancho Villa would attack from the south following the main road up to the Cathedral in the center of Juarez, and then link up with Orozco’s men on his right.
The infamous Pancho Villa. I think this photo captures his essence better than most.
Orozco, with the largest body of men, would attack from the east following the Rio Grande, reach the international bridge, and then push towards his objective the Plaza de Torros (Bullfight Ring).

The signal for the attack would be the engagement of Garibaldi’s forces. This was perhaps because Orozco hoped that, once engaged from the west, federal troops would over defend their western trenches and leave their eastern defenses in a weakened state for his attack.

Garibaldi, worried about a well fortified machine gun position in his line of attack, committed an act which no doubt would have greatly disheartened his conspiracy partners. Disregarding, or perhaps not fully appreciating the dangers of U.S. intervention, Garibaldi sent a small number of men across the Rio Grande to the U.S. side. Armed with short Winchester Carbines, which they had hidden in their trouser legs in order to avoid U.S. detection, these men were tasked with attacking the federal machine gun position from the U.S. side (the Rio Grande). This small number of men was meant to be more of a distraction than an actual attacking force.

The distraction worked. Garibaldi’s men running across the shallow Rio Grande and firing their Winchesters, caught the machine gun position by surprise. Turning their fire into the Rio Grande, the machine gunners left their position open to attack from their gun’s western flank. Garibaldi’s main force attacked and quickly subdued the position. While taking the machine gun position, Garibaldi heard firing from a distance indicating the Orozco and Villa attacks had begun as well.

Although Garibaldi’s force was to initiate the attack, it is highly doubtful that his group fired the first shots. Pancho Villa’s men had been especially angered by Colonel Tamborel’s newspaper letter calling them cowards. Villa, shrewdly for he did not wish to disobey Madero’s orders directly, sent a trusted sergeant by the name of Salacas Vaca to incite his men in the trenches by reminding them of Tamborel’s letter. His plan worked.

Once Villa’s men had begun firing into the federal trenches, Villa called his sergeants together and explained his plan for taking the first federal trench. Under protective fire from his infantrymen, Villa and his sergeants ran halfway towards the federal trenches and then threw TNT with six-second-fuzes. Some TNT charges fell short of their objectives, others long. Regardless, immediately upon TNT detonation, Villa’s infantry charged the federal trenches and succeeded in securing them.

Hearing the firing of weapons, and knowing that the city was under attack from both west and south, Orozco launched a frontal attack on the weak eastern side of the city.

The first shots were heard at 10:30am on May 8th, 1911; by 10:50am it was a full fledge battle.

Madero fearing U.S. intervention, frantically sent messages to his military commanders ordering them to call off the attack and restrain their forces. He also sent a messenger under a white flag of truce to General Navarro advising him that the attack was “unauthorized,” that he was trying to restrain his forces, and requesting that General Navarro do the same.

Understandably, all military men concerned ignored his messages.
Rebel Officers, Right to Left- Orozco, Unknown, Villa, Garibaldi

General Navarro, being an experienced military man, had not wasted the time granted to him by Madero’s armistice. He had indeed reinforced the city’s defenses, as the rebel troops had feared he would. Originally, the city’s defenses had consisted mostly of rough trenches and some barbwire. All this had changed when General Navarro realized that an attack was imminent. During the armistice, General Navarro turned the roofs of the more massive city buildings into machine gun nests with overlapping fields of fire on all major intersections. Because the city houses were built wall-to-wall, General Navarro’s defense was described as, “like a ship with plentiful bulkheads.”

The rebels, no fools either, used the fact that the houses were built wall to wall to their advantage. Upon penetrating the first federal trenches, they would enter the houses and dynamite the inside connecting walls; hence, minimizing their exposure to federal fire by boring through the adobe houses. They would in this manner, dynamite passed federal barricades then simply attack them from behind.

The boring of the inside walls was no easy task. Too little dynamite and heavy adobe walls would remain intact. Too much TNT, and the rebels would blow themselves up in the process or bring the house down upon themselves. Fortunately the rebels had excellent engineers that did the work quickly and effectively.

By 3pm, four hours into the battle, rebel forces had captured the federal front lines defense trenches and had driven the federals back to their secondary positions. At 4pm, Madero resigned himself to the situation and committed the rest of his forces. Fighting continued into the night and by 11pm on May 8th, the rebels had captured four blocks in northern Juarez. The federals had consolidated their forces and formed a “quadrangle defense” bounded roughly by the Custom House, the bull ring, the Cathedral, and the main federal troop barracks.

On the morning of the 9th, the rebel army again prepared for an all out attack. In El Paso, El Pasoans stood on rooftops and hills to watch the revolution. A “carnival type” atmosphere prevailed.

As the day progressed, the rebels began consolidating their positions. The Fort Bliss U.S. Army Cavalry Commander, Colonel Stevens, offered to let both federal and rebel forces send their seriously wounded to El Paso for medical attention. Unfortunately, the ferocity of firing gave medical personnel from both armies as well as the American Red Cross little opportunity to retrieve and care for the wounded. Many men, who might have otherwise survived, died from lack of proper medical attention.

American rebel mercenaries led by Orozco succeeded in capturing the bullring, which turned out to be General Navarro’s Jefatura de Armas (Headquarter’s Arms Room). After the loss, Colonel Tamborel ran from federal defense point to defense point trying to re-establish a federal defense perimeter. Major portions of Juarez were on fire.

Concerned about the deaths of five El Pasoans by stray bullets and the wounding of fifteen others, El Paso Mayor C.E. Kelley ordered roofs and buildings cleared of sightseers and established a line in south El Paso off limits to Americans.
El Paso sightseers during the battle. A "carnival atmosphere."
Colonel Stevens, the U.S. Cavalry Commander, sent warning to the rebels and threatened to send his troopers across the border if stray bullets continued to enter El Paso. Concerned about U.S. intervention, the rebels began an all out push to take the Customs House. The rebels were fighting with their backs towards the U.S.  and Rio Grande, hence any stray bullets entering El Paso would be from the federals.

The right flank of the rebels tried unsuccessfully to cut off communications between various federal defense points and the troops barracks.

By nightfall of the second day, the Custom House had fallen and the rebels began concentrating on the Cathedral. At one point the rebels set a nearby building on fire in a vain attempt to drive the federals out of the Cathedral. At midnight of the 9th, a three-man rebel commission was sent to demand the surrender of the Cathedral Plaza. Not surprisingly, General Navarro refused. He was determined to hold his ground.

IV. Battle’s End.

The morning of the third day, May 10th, was the bloodiest. The central plaza in front of the Cathedral was taken at last by the rebel troops. Federal machine gun nests were turned against their former owners.

At city hall, federal soldiers were barraged by continuous machine gun fire and point blank cannon fire.

Realizing his men would be defeated in pocket groups, General Navarro ordered his men to retreat into the federal barracks. The federal barracks was also the ammunition supply point and had a blocked water well, from which the General hoped to get some water.

Despite the logical reasons for the order, the retreat was a disaster for the federal army. Federal troops ran in a panicked, unorganized manner to the barracks. Rebel sharpshooters shot them as they ran, and most federal deaths occurred at this time.

During this retreat fiasco, another reckoning of sorts occurred.
Artillery from the time period
Colonel Tamborel, who had angered the rebel soldiers with his open letter to the newspaper in which he had called them cowards, was driven and cut off from his artillery. He made his last stand inside a small privately owned adobe house. When the rebel troops realized whom they had trapped inside the house, they brought in rebel artillery and leveled the house with the officer inside.

Editor Tamborin, the man who published the letter, met a similar fate along with his print shop.

Despite the inexorable rebel gains everywhere, rebel troop command and organization remained sloppy. Villa had not followed instructions to advance on foot occupying houses. Instead, he had tried a mounted attack only to be met by federal machine gun fire. At no time during the fighting did Villa’s men form a usable link with the other rebel forces. This was typical of the hotheaded Villa whose defining characteristics were always impulsiveness and recklessness.
General Navarro's Juarez Troops
Shortly after twelve noon, General Navarro decided he had enough; and he sent a white flag of surrender up the federal barrack’s flagpole. Rebel troops in anger continued firing and cut the flag pole rope sending the white flag down.

After a short delay, Garibaldi brought rebel troops under control. At 1:30pm, on May 10th, 1911, Garibaldi sent a hastily written note to General Navarro. It read, “General Navarro, I am giving you ten minutes to surrender. G. Garibaldi.” The note was written on the first thing he could find, grocery store wrapping paper.

General Navarro and his officers walked out unarmed and formally surrendered to Garibaldi. They were promptly taken back into the barracks under rebel guard. The rest of the rebel troops began disarming the remaining federal troops.

Because of disordered troop advance, neither Orozco nor Villa was present at the surrender. Later this would greatly rankle both leaders, as they felt it cost them prestige.

The atmosphere immediately after the surrender was ugly and some of the rebel soldiers wanted to execute federal prisoners on the spot. Garibaldi quickly posted guards, and sent for Madero.

All around the city, rebel soldiers went around kicking bodies to determine whether they were dead or not. Some of the dead were buried, others simply burned.

Madero, after safely securing General Navarro and his staff in the Jufatura Politica (Political Headquarters), ordered his military commanders to establish civil control of the city. Orozco and subordinate officers quickly posted guards at every drinking place and established patrols at street intersections to prevent looting. The quick establishment of law and order was praised by Juarez businessmen who had assets to safeguard. One day after the battle, the international bridge between El Paso and Juarez was reopened, and curious El Pasoans flocked to Juarez to see the damage first hand.

V. Post Battle Drama: Navarro Flees North

On the first night after the battle, a newsman by the name of Timothy G. Turner heard a drunken group of Orozco’s men yelling, “Moura Navarro!” (Death to Navarro!)

Mr. Turner wrote, “I figured that to be in at the kill, if there was to be one, I had better find Navarro first and wait where he was.”

The enterprising young journalist quickly barrowed an automobile and driver from an El Paso woman and learned where General Navarro was. He went up to an expensive looking residence on 16th of September Street (also known as “Mansions Row” in Juarez) and explained to the rebel officer at the gate what he had heard. The rebel officer quickly went into the residence and returned with Madero. Madero, upon hearing the journalist’s story, brought out General Navarro and instructed the journalist and driver to take Navarro to the Rio Grande and insure his safe crossing to the U.S. side. The battle had taught Madero that his men were not always controllable, and he wisely feared for Navarro’s life.
Gen. Navarro and his key officers during better days.

Upon safely crossing into El Paso, General Navarro was hidden in the Popular Dry Goods Store. From there, he was moved to Hotel Dieu Hospital and was admitted under an assumed name. Plenty of revolutionaries were still looking for him.

When Orozco and Villa heard about Madero’s part in allowing Navarro to escape, they were furious and burst into a meeting of Madero’s provincial cabinet. After a dressing down by Garibaldi, and a soothing speech on justice by Madero, both angry men were promoted. Orozco was promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General, and Villa was promoted from Captain to Colonel. Madero’s promotions apparently satisfied both men, and they left without further incident.

A week after the battle, the Treaty of the City of Juarez was signed in front of the Aduana Building (Customs Building) by the headlights of a car filled with journalist.

The Treaty of Juarez established the resignation of President Diaz and his vice president, the interim Presidency of Francisco Leon de la Barra, a call for general elections, and the disbanding of revolutionary forces thereby ending hostilities.

Madero had succeeded. He had toppled Diaz.

The revolutionaries enter Juarez. The building with the dome on the right is the Custom Building by which the Treaty of Juarez was signed. It still stands today.