Viva Mexico! Neil Smith takes an extended look at a new book – ideal for wargaming the Mexican Revolution.
Did you know that sincronicidad is Spanish for synchronicity? Neither did I until very recently when looking for a new project and Mike Blake’s Armies of the Mexican Revolution (Partizan Press, 2020) arrived on my stack of books to review. It caught my eye because it is significantly bigger than the usual Armies of… style books, which was strange given all I thought I knew about the Mexican Revolution was that it involved a rabble of banditos getting chased around by US cavalry in the middle of nowhere. I was wrong – thank you Hollywood! Mike Blake has set me right on that score and set me off in a new wargaming direction. Viva!
Let me tell you about the book and then we can explore what to do with it. Blake makes it clear that he is only interested in describing the uniforms, equipment, and weapons of the men who fought from 1910 to 1920 in a surprisingly modern war, involving much of the paraphernalia more common in World War I: machine guns, motorized transport, barbed wire, and warplanes among others. He begins with the weapons used on all sides: 30 makes of handguns and revolvers; 19 rifles and carbines; 10 machine guns; lots of artillery; and grenades, rockets, and assorted oddities. Blake moves onto the forces involved, starting with the Mexican Federal Forces (Federales) at different stages of the fighting: their organization, strength, and unit details. He goes into similar detail on Federal uniforms, equipment, and weapons, which is where we hit the first of many excellent colour plates, some of them by the gifted Bruno Mugnai. The Mexican Navy and Marines are next to get Blake’s treatment, then air power, still in its infancy, receives a brief overview.
The chapters on the Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary armies are given the same space as the Federales. Blake has a number of factions to contend with here but works his way through them with his now expected attention to detail. Revolutionaries were almost by definition irregular troops who wore captured equipment and often carried several weapons and ammunition, again much of it taken from the Federales. But they also wore civilian or working clothes, such as those worn by cowboys (vaquero), small farmers, Indians, or ordinary townsmen. Some made attempts at uniforms with varying degrees of actual uniformity. Much of this was regional, depending on who was fighting and where. Blake surveys the more important armies: Madero’s Army of Liberation; the Colorados; The Constitutionalist Army; the Villistas, including their tactics and Pancho Villa’s use of trains; the Zapatistas dressed mostly in their simple, white peasant clothes and ponchos; and then women soldiers, the Soldaderas. Perhaps anachronistically, many units still carried flags into combat, usually some form of the Mexican tricolour but sometimes with religious or revolutionary motifs. Blake also adds a chapter on Soldiers of Fortune, a fascinating cast of usually American mercenaries but some from further afield. The rest of Blake’s descriptions are saved for the United States of America’s forces that occupied Vera Cruz in 1914. He rounds all that off with a very useful eight-page annotated bibliography.
Above: A unit of nattily uniformed Rurales armed with Remington Rolling Block carbines.
Below: The “Soldaderas”, Mexican women soldiers.
Wargaming the Mexican Revolution
Blake does not give much details on actions fought in this war, which is not his remit, but to his credit he makes sure you know which books to read for the essentials and beyond – for this article I read Philip Jowett’s excellent Liberty or Death Latin American Conflicts, 1900-70 (Osprey, 2019). If you want to dabble your toes in the water rather than go all-in then a search on the Googles will serve up some useful appetizer information to get you started. But before you tiptoe into that, here is a brief overview of some of the fighting out there that works for the table-top.
Above: Mural by Siqueiros, “From Porfirismo to the Revolution at Chapultepec Castle”.
As with any irregular warfare, raids are very common. This was particularly the case along the Mexican American border. Inside Mexico, town garrisons came under frequent attack because not only were some towns strategically important, they held valuable logistical resources and, of course, money. Attacking a garrison was also a useful means of resupplying your forces with weapons and equipment. Raids and garrison attacks involved different sizes of forces, from a few dozen to a few thousand. Pitched battles tended towards larger numbers and were fought in a more regular fashion, particularly when US armed forces became involved. All this is demonstrated by a sampling of some of the more significant engagements.
In March 1911, General Francisco Madero’s 600 rebels attacked the 500 strong Federal garrison at Casas Grandes. When another similar sized Federal column turned up with two mortars, rebel defeat was assured. Word to the wise: Madero hanged all his scouts! Undaunted, Madero pressed on to take Ciudad Juárez in May with 2,500 men against the 700 soldiers in the Federal garrison, though Madero’s two generals did the work, ignoring Madero’s restraint. Elsewhere, Emiliano Zapata led a rebellion in the state of Morelos. He attacked an entrenched Federal elite force at Cuautla in May. Though outnumbered, the 500 Federales had artillery and sweeping fields of fire, which decimated the rebel frontal cavalry attacks over six days of merciless fighting. Zapata’s men resorted to burning the Federales out of their positions – I could not find a rule that covers that.
Left to right: General Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata.
Garrison attacks continued in the next phase of the Revolution. At the Battle of Naco in April 1913, General Obregon’s Constitutionalists attacked the town held by only 300 Federales, many of their Yaquis Indian allies having deserted them. The rebels launched only piecemeal attacks, however, and were initially repulsed. An assault with overwhelming numbers ended the fighting. Naco saw more intense combat the following year when Obregon’s men came under siege from the Villistas. This was the longest engagement of the Revolution, lasting 119 days. Pancho Villa fought some of the biggest battles in the Revolution too. At Torreon, a strategic rail junction, in September 1913, Villa brought 8,000 men and two field guns to attack the 3,000 strong Federal garrison backed by the Colorados and Spanish volunteers with machine guns and 11 field guns. Villa overwhelmed the defenders, capturing 40 locomotives that he would use to his advantage for future mobility. Villa came unstuck, however, at the Battle of Leon from April to June 1915 in a World War I style battle, involving thousands of troops, that blunted his cavalry superiority. He lost 10,000 casualties in what became a rout, and though he fought on, his days were numbered as a major player in the Revolution. He was reminded again at the Second Battle of Agua Prieta in November 1915 that cavalry and machine guns do not mix.
Above: Pancho Villa at the Battle of Columbus.
Villa’s most famous attack was his cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916. The Mexican revolutionary led about 500 men in a night attack, expecting just 30 defenders. He was wrong: the US Cavalry of 350 troopers occupied the town and its environs. A fierce fight followed that repulsed Villa back across the border under US pursuit. The significance of that battle was a miffed President Wilson sending a punitive expedition led by General John J. Pershing into Mexico after Villa. This lasted almost a year from March 1916 to February 1917 but took a wrong turning after a month when the Constitutionalists led by Venustiano Carranza opposed the Americans. That culminated in the Battle of Carrizal in June 1916 when an American detachment attacked a Mexican force of equal size and was easily beaten back. The Expedition was all over bar the shouting, though Pershing hung around in case full-scale war broke out.
Border fighting was not over, however, and a significant engagement took place at Ambos Nogales in August 1918 with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US 10th Cavalry taking part. The result was a tactical Mexican defeat. Villa was not tweaking the American nose either. In June 1919 he had regrouped to attack Ciudad Juárez in what became the second largest battle of the Revolution. The Mexican government forces defended the town well; although outnumbered 4:3 they had some artillery against none brought by Villa. He attacked anyway, but when his snipers hit targets across the border in El Paso, the Americans sent 3,600 men into Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican government forces withdrew into a fortress and left the fighting to the other two. The Americans drove Villa out of the town with a concerted artillery and ground attack at 12:30am that continued most of the night. Villa next assaulted Durango, but with a depleted force, and Mexican government forces defeated him again. And that was just about that for the Mexican Revolution.
Above: Mexican Revolution insurrectionists, Juarez 1911.
Below: U.S. soldiers at the Mexican border, May 24th, 1916.
Rules and Figures
The Mexican Revolution is not as well catered for as it should be given the multiple factions and variety of combat styles on display. But there are rules, and there are figures, so let’s see what we have got.
Rules falls into two main camps. Chris Peers’ WW1 rules Contemptible Little Armies work well for the Revolution. CLA scales well from small skirmishes to Brigade actions and above with a wee bit of tweaking, and you might want to double-check the army lists for accuracy. But if you are looking for a straightforward, clean fight then these should work nicely. The second set is Crush the Kaiser: Achtung Gringo! Written to go with the Early War Miniatures range of figures, these are for battalion to regimental sized games and are a dedicated ruleset for the Revolution. They cover all the different aspects of warfare for the period and there are special rules for trains, planes, and Yaquis Indians. The biggest drawback on an otherwise tidy set of playable rules is the number of modifiers you need to go through for combat and morale. For the bigger battles, playing around with Black Powder should achieve the desired effect, but you might need to get your pencil working to make certain aspects of those rules work.
Above (left to right): Soldadera and Villista (standing firing). 28mm figures by Gringo 40’s.
Below (left to right): General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing and U.S. Soldier (kneeling). 28mm figures by Gringo 40’s.
For 28mm figures, we have Old Glory for bulk, particularly for the Americans but they also cover Mexican Federal and Irregular forces. But, although they do a nice set of Mexican civilians, they do not do Yaquis Indians, a major omission. Gringo 40s do a small but attractive range for Federales and US, and especially the Villistas, including must-have soldaderas! Pulp Figures also produce a neat range of figures for mixing and matching with other ranges and they do a wonderful vulture set for scenic purposes. Gaming the Revolution in 20mm is limited too but Early War Miniatures and Shellhole Scenics have you covered for just about every eventuality with some comprehensive ranges of quality figures. Irregular Miniatures also have some Mexicans to add variety.
28mm Pulp Figures. Above: Federale riders. Below: Villista Banditos.