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A Virginia Soldier in Mexico

Ed. note: Today we have a guest post from Brexton O’Donnell, Tour Counselor, Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission, highlighting some of the content collected during the Profiles of Honor mobile tour.

Photographs taken by, and belonging to, Clarence Pax, taken during his participation in the Poncho Villa Expedition. Courtesy of George Goodson Jr. (Pax)

The United States entered the Great War in 1917, and began deploying large forces to France near the end of that year. Even before then, American volunteers were serving in France with the French and British militaries. But France was not the only place that Americans, and Virginians, in the service were deployed before we entered World War I. In 1916, US Army forces, at the direction of President Woodrow Wilson, entered Mexico in pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had raided across the border into American territory. In response to the crisis, the Virginia National Guard was federalized, and some units were deployed to the border between Texas and Mexico.

Clarence Pax was one of the Virginia National Guardsmen who was deployed to the Mexican border in 1916. Having graduated from Auburn at age sixteen, he was a rather remarkable young man. He was serving in the National Guard at the time of the Pancho Villa Expedition, and was among those sent to the border. Pax took many photos during his deployment, and 100 years later, his family brought them to the Virginia WWI and WWII Profiles of Honor Mobile Tour to be scanned and archived at the Library of Virginia. The pictures in this post, were scanned at the 100th Anniversary of historic Hilton Village on 7 July 2018. Thankfully for us, Pax was interested in photographing what life in the National Guard along the Mexican border during this time was like.

Pax was one of about four thousand Virginians in the National Guard who were sent to the border during this time period. The Guard was prohibited by law from crossing the border into Mexico, so their assignment was to protect the border regions from further raids while the Regular Army units pursued Pancho Villa and his confederates in Mexico itself. Some evidence exists that Guard units stationed around Columbus, New Mexico, may have briefly entered Mexican territory at times, but there’s no indication that any units of Virginians did so. The Guard units were stationed on the border for nearly a year. They saw no combat, but their very public presence likely deterred further raids across the border. Some of the men who served in the expedition, both in the Guard and the Regular Army, would later go on to serve in France during World War I.

The entire necessity for the deployment of Army and National Guard alike to the border had its origins in political chaos in our neighbor, Mexico. In 1910, Mexican rebel factions ousted the dictatorial President of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, driving him into exile in an event known as the Mexican Revolution. The result was nearly a decade of civil war and political assassinations that left Mexico in turmoil during this period. Pancho Villa was a commander in one of the factions in the civil war, and his 1916 raid against Columbus, New Mexico, was largely motivated by the fact that after recent defeats, Villa and his men were badly in need of supplies, and the United States government had officially recognized one of Villa’s enemies as the legitimate leader of Mexico.

The American expedition to eliminate Villa’s forces and capture the rebel leader was led by an American brigadier general named John Pershing, operating under the supervision of his superior, Frederick Funston. Pershing’s force pursued and repeatedly engaged Pancho Villa, eliminating portions of his force, but they never managed to capture Pancho Villa himself. This was due to a mixture of intelligent guerrilla tactics on the part of the Mexicans and interference from other Mexican forces who while opposed to Villa, were also opposed to Americans invading their country. The active pursuit phase of the expedition ended after a couple of months, though American forces remained in northern Mexico for the rest of the year and into early 1917 to deter any further incursions.

For a country on the brink of entering the Great War, the Pancho Villa expedition served several useful purposes. It gave the US military some much needed practice in mobilization, training, and logistics. The soldiers and commanders got the opportunity to practice with the equipment, tactics, and techniques they would later use in the field. The expedition also demonstrated that the US was willing to use military force when threatened, a lesson Germany failed to heed. The expedition also made Funston and Pershing national figures, and when Funston, Wilson’s original first choice to lead American forces to France, died of a sudden heart attack, Pershing, just a brigadier general when the expedition began, was catapulted into the role of leading the American Expeditionary Force in France.

Clarence Pax would continue to serve in the National Guard throughout World War I. After the war, he would return to Virginia and work for the Noland Company, which distributed heating, air conditioning, and electrical supplies; Pax specialized in setting up electric units. He would serve in the Army Reserves in World War II, though he was never deployed abroad. Today, there is an exhibit at the Virginia War Memorial which highlights the service of Virginians such as Pax along the border before World War I.

To view more from the Clarence Pax collection, as well as thousands of other photographs, letters, and documents from Virginians in WWI and WWII, please visit the Profiles of Honor scanning program online at www.VirginiaWWIandWWII.org/scanning.

 

-Brexton O’Donnell, Tour Counselor, Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission

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