El Paso, Texas (Fort Bliss): World War I Era, 1910-1919

Fort Bliss

At the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Fort Bliss was one link in a chain of American military posts near the border. These posts included forts McIntosh, Sam Houston, and Clark in the Department of Texas, and forts Apache and Huachuca in the Department of the Colorado.

bird's eye view fort bliss       Fort Bliss, circa 1900 / Source: San Marcos Mercury

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                                           Fort Bliss, circa 1916 / Source: Google Images

During the Mexican Revolution, Fort Bliss served a number of strategic and logistical functions. Fort Bliss’s most important role was as a base camp for patrol operations. These patrol operations culminated in the Punitive Expedition. Troops operating from Fort Bliss attempted to control the flow of weapons into Mexico, and escorted Mexican troops back across the border. The post played an additional role as a reception center for Mexican refugees, the wounded, and prisoners. Additionally, Fort Bliss served as a supply point for American troops in the Southwest throughout the decade.

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                                          Fort Bliss, circa 1918 / Source: Google Images

Mexican Revolution & The Punitive Expedition

The Mexican Revolution led to Fort Bliss becoming a major horse cavalry post. Fighting in northern Mexico spilled across the Rio Grande. Border violations, violence, and arms smuggling made an increased American police presence along the border necessary.

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     Clifford K. Berryman political cartoon of Pancho Villa 1918 / Source: Google Images

During the Mexican Revolution, Fort Bliss played a significant role in local, regional, and national history for the first time. Also, because of its strategic border location, the fort became important in the international confrontations that occurred during the revolution. The Punitive (Pershing) Expedition and the Zimmerman Telegram affair kept international attention focused on the border during this time period.

troop field inspection for mexican incursion 1916

Full pack inspection for the Mexican incursion, 1916 / Source: Google Images

The Punitive Expedition (1916-1917) is the best-known episode of American involvement in the Mexican Revolution. The expedition represented a turning point in American military history. It was the first major test of the new American Army of the twentieth century. Airplanes were used for the first time in a field operation, and other new transport systems and logistical techniques were tested, such as dirigible balloons and armored vehicles.

armor vehicleArmored vehicle used in the Punitive Expedition, 1916 / Source: Google Images

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Observation balloon used in the Punitive Expedition, circa 1916 / Source: Google Images

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 First Aero Squadron commanded by Gen. Pershing, circa 1918 / Source: Google Images

The Punitive Expedition began after the forces of General Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa struck Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. The U.S. border was crossed, 17 Americans killed, and 7 wounded. On March 10, Fort Bliss was directed to organize an adequate military force under Brigadier General John J. Pershing to pursue the outlaws who had attacked Columbus. Pershing had arrived at Fort Bliss on April 27, 1914, and had assumed command of the post and all forces from Columbus to Sierra Blanca, Texas.

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                     Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, circa 1916 / Source: Library of Congress

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                          John ‘Blackjack’ Pershing, circa 1918 / Source: Google Images

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   The Pershing “Punitive” Expedition by W.A. Rogers / Source: Library of Congress

American military historian Clarence C. Clendenen wrote, “It is no exaggeration to say that the Punitive Expedition of 1916 gives continuity between the American soldier of the Civil and Indian wars, and the American soldier of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.” The army demonstrated it could mobilize a small force and move it quickly. Clendenen also commented, “It is not too much to say that the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 and 1917 was a training school for the greater war [World War I] which was soon to follow.”

Zimmerman Telegram

Political intrigue in World War I led to the Zimmerman Telegram episode. The war had begun in August, 1914, engaging Germany in a colossal struggle against Great Britain, France, and Russia. Germany was concerned that the United States would eventually join her enemies, tipping the balance of power against Germany and her allies. German diplomats looked for a way to distract American attention from the European war and believed they had found it in Mexico.

In January, 1917, British Intelligence intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, an encoded diplomatic telegram from German Foreign Secretary Artur Zimmerman to the German ambassador to Mexico. The Zimmerman Telegram suggested that Germany offer Mexico an alliance against the United States. Germany would offer “generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” The “lost territory” was the land Mexico had lost to the United States in the Mexican War (1846-1848). The British turned this diplomatic note over to the U.S. State Department, expecting it would raise a furor in the United States and move the Americans closer to intervening in Europe on Britain’s side.

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  Zimmerman Telegram, 1917 / Source: National Archives and Records Administration

President Woodrow Wilson gave the Zimmerman Telegram to the Associated Press and in March, 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram was published widely in American newspapers. It had much the effect on the American people the British had hoped-public opinion was inflamed against Germany. The Zimmerman Telegram, made public a matter of weeks after the Punitive Expedition had returned from Mexico, also justified American fears of a German-Mexican alliance.

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        New York Times front page, March 1st, 1917 / Source: Google Images

The Zimmerman Telegram affair is central to the interplay of American, Mexican, and German relations on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I. The Zimmerman Telegram connects the Mexican Revolution to World War I, and it represents one reason for the United States’ great interest in events in revolutionary Mexico. Events associated with the Mexican Revolution drew American attention to the border, specifically at Fort Bliss. The Zimmerman Telegram focused that attention and connected Mexico with Germany in the minds of most Americans. This international background set the tone for Fort Bliss history during the Mexican Revolution.

World War I

The United States entered World War I in April, 1917, about three months after the Punitive Expedition returned from Mexico. The Great War came to Fort Bliss when the post was involved heavily with the ongoing Mexican Revolution. Fort Bliss between the years of 1917-1919 was shaped by two great events, the Mexican Revolution and World War I.

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             Field artillery training for World War I, circa 1917 / Source: Google Images

Fort Bliss contributed to the American war effort in a variety of ways, none of which appear to be unique or unusual. By the time the United States entered World War I, the Mexican Revolution had made Fort Bliss a major military installation. Fort Bliss’s first service to the war effort was as an enlistment post. During the war years, Fort Bliss was surrounded by a ring of auxiliary camps where support units were stationed and troops were mobilized for the European war. Several training schools also were established at Fort Bliss during the war. Many units passed through Fort Bliss on their way to the Western Front.

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