- Andean Tragedy: Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879–1884
The War of the Pacific (1879–1884) between Chile and an alliance of Peru and Bolivia is best known by military and naval historians as a conflict fought at the cusp of technological change that foreshadowed modern warfare. At sea, the Chileans and Peruvians fought battles using modern armored steam-driven warships, mines, torpedoes, and rams. On land, the belligerents employed the telegraph and railroads where practicable, breech-loading rifles of different designs, Krupp steel artillery, and Gatling guns. The war was fought over the possession of valuable resources of nitrates and guano situated in the arid Atacama Desert. In the 1870s, Chilean mining companies entered Bolivian territory under legal concessions to mine these resources. At the time, Bolivia ruled the port of Antofagasta and a significant stretch of the South American coastline and interior desert. When Peru and Bolivia recognized the danger to their sovereignty posed by Chilean [End Page 1346] activities, in 1873 they signed a secret military mutual assistance pact. The war over resources broke out in February, 1879, when Chilean armed forces landed at Bolivian Antofagasta. Although the better equipped Chileans got off to a slow start, they eliminated the more modern Peruvian naval ironclad warships and invaded Peruvian territory.
With only a third as many soldiers as the Peruvians and Bolivians, in theory the Chileans faced a difficult task. Nevertheless, they captured Iquique, Peru’s export port for nitrates and after some battlefield setbacks occupied the southern Peruvian provinces of Tacna and Arica—driving the Bolivians inland and effectively out of the war. In the bloody battles, some Bolivian units lost up to eighty percent of their original complement. Lack of understanding about the use of modern Gatling guns and breech-loading rifles affected both sides, but especially the Bolivians and Peruvians. In campaigns marked by atrocities and massacres, Sater stresses that the Chileans gained significant advantages on the sea and land owing to their better educated and trained officer corps. After the Battle of Angamos, the Chilean navy controlled the seas. Although conditions were extremely difficult, in the land campaigns the Chilean officers trained at the country’s Escuela Militar proved to be more than a match for the poorly prepared allied officers.
In 1880 the Chileans moved an army of 30,000 troops to attack and to occupy Lima, at that time a city of 120,000 to 130,000 inhabitants. The Peruvians organized new units to replace losses, but poor training and equipment contributed to their defeats. Still, the Peruvians refused to surrender and instead withdrew to the interior highlands—organizing guerrilla forces called montoneros that harassed the Chileans and even raided occupied Lima. The Chileans responded by dispatching punitive raids that executed prisoners, robbed, and abused the Peruvian population. The guerrilla raids on towns, railroads, and communications provoked the Chileans to dispatch forces to the Peruvian altiplano where skirmishes, cold weather, and altitude sickness exposed their weaknesses. Chilean troops robbed and sometimes executed Peruvian civilians and soldiers, burned towns, and applied brutal counterinsurgency techniques.
After five years of warfare, in April, 1884, the conflict ended with the Treaty of Ancón that left the Chileans in control of the Peruvian provinces of Tacna and Arica—opening a lengthy struggle for sovereignty. In assessing the war, Sater concluded that the application of modern weaponry produced little in the way of military innovation. Though the politically stable Chileans deployed better educated officers and NCOs, their overall victory in large part resulted from the disorganization, instability, and lack of preparation of the Peruvians and Bolivians. The conflict left permanent scars on both sides that even today produce frictions and conflicting claims. This is an outstanding study of an important later nineteenth-century South American war. [End Page 1347]
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