Kirkus Reviews

A debut book provides the first comprehensive account of military operations during the Mexican Revolution to appear in English.

For reasons both practical and ideological, history scholars have long neglected to rigorously study the Mexican Revolution as a uniquely interesting military event. Instead, it has been interpreted as little more than the stage for unsophisticated guerrilla actions. In this work, Janssens dismantles that long-held prejudice, arguing that the full spectrum of conventional warfare was on display, including genuinely masterly strategy. The book subdivides into three sections, or “volumes,” that neatly correspond to the three successive phases of the war: the initial rebellion spearheaded by Francisco I. Madero, the grand-scale mutiny against the Huertista regime, and the final year, in which the revolution devolved into civil war. The author also challenges the prevailing view regarding the role the U.S. played in the revolution, acknowledging its significance as a source of influence but debunking the theory that it determined Mexico’s fate like a puppet master. This requires a searching examination of American policies and interests, which shift in various ways over the course of two presidential administrations. Finally, Janssens analyzes the fluid contours of what he refers to as the “Defense Establishment,” an investigation that hinges upon a historical understanding of modern warfare in general. The author was granted access to Mexico’s official defense archives—a rare coup—and the breadth of literature on the Mexican Revolution he considered is dizzying. Janssens, clearly intent on breaking new scholarly ground, spiritedly attacks the conventional theories regarding the genesis of the revolution; of particular interest is his discussion of the limitations of a reductively Marxist interpretation. The author openhandedly acknowledges that such a mountain of minutiae might exhaust the reader’s patience; it often seems as if the goal of comprehensiveness comes at the expense of readability. This is certainly not for the casual reader looking for a breezy introduction. The monograph, ambitiously designed to be both encyclopedic and iconoclastic, succeeds on both grounds. It is hard to imagine a study more sweeping in scope, more liberated from the regnant ideologies, or more scrupulously researched. It is unfortunate that its length (698 pages) and obsessive details will likely prove prohibitive to all but the most tenacious professionals.

A remarkable examination of the Mexican Revolution that should be regarded as a watershed contribution to the field. - Kirkus Reviews

This is an encyclopedic examination of the military operations during the first three years of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 through 1913. It is an unprecedented treatment of these aspects of the upheaval. The author provides us with a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, description of every engagement between the various warring factions. Janssens seems to have consulted every possible source, ranging from the Mexican national defense archives through the memoirs (however untrustworthy) of the combatants.

We learn who fought, how many fought, who led each side, how much and what artillery was present, how many rounds soldiers fired, the participants’ movements, what tactics the commanders employed, and who won and lost and why. The information proffered is comprehensive, to say the least. Interspersed in the vast detail are pithy, sharp critiques of the strategies and tactics of the competing armies. There are also occasional snippets of insights into the lives of the soldiers. The battle maps are informative. The author devotes over 600 pages of text and notes to just these three years, even before the major and most brutal battles of 1914 and 1915. He projects two more volumes.

Janssens divides the five years of the revolution consisting of maneuver warfare (1910–1915) into three stages: the rebellion of Francisco I. Madero, who overthrew long-term dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911, lasting from 1910 to 1913; the mass mobilization against General Victoriano Huerta, who ousted and assassinated Madero in 1913, during 1913 and 1914; and, finally, the civil war in 1914 and 1915, which pitted the forces led by Venustiano Carranza against those headed by Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The tome under review covers only the first stage.

Maneuver and Battle divides into three sections. The first describes the Madero outbreak during which Orozco and Villa defeated the federal army. Madero then disbanded (or tried to disband) rebel forces, meeting strong resistance both from Orozco in the north and Zapata in the south. Zapata immediately took to arms. The second section explores the defeat of Orozco by the federal army led by Victoriano Huerta. The last section examines the counterrevolution, beginning with the uprising of Félix Díaz, the nephew of the former dictator, and continuing through Huerta’s coup against Madero and the rise of opposition to Huerta in the north.

The first stage of the conflict began with ambushes and small unit skirmishes, expanding to battles of a few thousand men involving little planning. The Madero revolt culminated with the defeat of the federal army at Ciudad Juárez in May 1911. Warfare then resumed and escalated in 1912, when disgruntled rebel Pascual Orozco, who had won the decisive battle of Ciudad Juárez, opposed Madero. Mass mobilization ensued and fighting spread across the northern tier of states. Zapata in the south also rose in rebellion, he, too, having split with Madero. The negative outcomes of the various individual battles and overall conflicts, as in all wars, resulted from incompetent leadership, faulty strategy and tactics, and inadequate logistics. In every case, whether the armies were federal, Maderista (followers of Madero), Carrancista (followers of Carranza), Zapatista, or Villista, disorganization, personal rivalries, and politics hindered military operations.

The question that arises immediately is why the seemingly unbeatable army of the Díaz dictatorship and its successor force under both Madero and Huerta ultimately lost to what appeared to be rag-tag bands of irregulars. Janssen blames the defeat of the federal army on four factors: the Mexican military focused not on internal security, but rather external threats (invasion by the United States in particular); the divided command structure, which included a permanent militia, provincial militia, local militia, National Guard, and Auxiliary forces; poor leadership that likely derived from the fragmented structure; and the poor quality of the soldiers.

The officer corps, especially after 1910, was undermanned. There were shortages of soldiers as well. The federal army could never obtain enough manpower through voluntary means and consequently had to rely on the draft (leva) which in turn meant inexperienced, untrained soldiers, who would desert when given the opportunity. Many of the federals were swept up from the prisons. As Janssens puts it: “The Federal Army proved adept at gathering together cannon fodder, but to pursue and battle mounted irregulars over difficult terrain called for a different kind of troops” (p. 373).

The most surprising aspect of the book is its treatment of the counterrevolution, involving first the uprising of Félix Díaz and then the Tragic Ten Days in Mexico City in 1913, which led to the coup against Madero. Here again, Janssens argues more for incompetence than any nefarious planning. The sacrifice of many of Madero’s best soldiers (actually rural police) to the counterrevolutionaries’ guns during the battle, for example, was not purposeful, as most historians have claimed, but rather the result of miscommunications.

This is a meticulous, detailed, thoroughly researched study that fills a considerable need for a history of the military operations in the Mexican Revolution in English. We should all look forward to the second volume.

Mark Wasserman                                                                                                                                     Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey         

                                                                                                                                                                                                 New Brunswick, New Jersey

Journal of Military History

Wasserman, Mark. 2016. "Maneuver and Battle in the Mexican Revolution: Rise of the Praetorians." Journal Of Military History 80, no. 4: 1234-1236.