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  • James Houser

May 26, 1880 - The War of the Pacific & the Battle of Tacna

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 26, 1880. The forces of Chile, Peru and Bolivia collide in the Atacama Desert at Tacna. They are here to fight the climactic battle of the War in the Pacific, simultaneously the most and least modern engagement of its time. This crazy little war is fought for two reasons: gunpowder and bat shit. I am not exaggerating.

It has been a strange fact of South American politics that its countries have rarely gone to war. Only a few major international wars have taken place between the countries of South America compared to the multiple conflicts of Europe and post-colonial Africa and Asia. This is for a few reasons. The first is that most of the South American borders do not cut across meaningful ethnic or national lines – that is, there was no issue of “historically Venezuelan” land because there was no historical Venezuela. Second is that South American countries have generally faced internal problems rather than external ones, so you have a metric ton of civil wars but no international wars. Finally, most of South America’s borders are built on geographic features, such as the Andes, major rivers, impenetrable jungle, or deserts that it’s not worth it to fight over.

The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world, so you’d think it’d fall into the category of “places that are not worth fighting over.” You’d be wrong. In the late 1800s, it was discovered that the Atacama had the world’s two largest deposits of nitrate and guano, major resources for industry and agriculture worldwide. Nitrate is a primary ingredient in gunpowder, and guano – literally bat feces – is one of the most powerful fertilizers in the world. So the Atacama immediately became a critical region. The problem was that, since it was a crazy dry desert and no one had cared about it until now, no one knew exactly where the borders were.

The Atacama lay between Peru, Bolivia and Chile. All three countries were victims of geography. Peru could only access its Atacama provinces by sea due to the harsh terrain and lack of roads. Bolivia’s only link to the ocean was by way of its Atacama provinces; without them, it was landlocked. Chile is famously the longest country in the world, just a really big strip of land running down the western side of South America along the Andes. It was facing an economic crisis and it needed the revenues from the new discoveries in the desert, but this meant that Bolivia was now a possible problem.

Can’t we settle this like adults? Well, they tried. In 1866, Chile and Bolivia negotiated a treaty establishing the 24th parallel as their national boundary, and also agreed to split all the profits from the Atacama’s exports between the 23rd and 25th parallels. This, as you expect, made a lot of business interests in both countries mad and the treaty soon began to break down. Bolivia, growing concerned about Chile’s intentions, signed a treaty of alliance with neighboring Peru in case war broke out. Peru was worried that if they did not ally with Bolivia, Bolivia might ally with Chile against *them* and engage in some territory-swapping.

With the 1866 treaty falling apart, Chile and Bolivia tried *again*. This time, the new treaty of 1874 kept the boundary at the 24th, but gave Bolivia exclusive revenue rights between the 23rd and 24th parallels – as long as they didn’t tax Chilean interests for the next 25 years. Both parties also agreed to settle any disputes through arbitration.

It’s kind of hard to sympathize with Bolivia given what happened next.

Peru had commercial interests in monopolizing the nitrate and guano trade of its own companies in the Atacama, and successfully pressured Bolivia into taxing the Chilean company CSFA, which had mining rights in the region. When CSFA refused to pay the taxes, citing the treaty of 1874, the Bolivian government confiscated most of their property. When the Chilean government tried to push for mediation, the Bolivians refused. So right there, Bolivia basically tossed the treaty in the trash. The Bolivians relied on their military alliance with Peru to keep them safe from Chilean intervention. It didn’t work.

In February 1879, just as the CSFA’s property was being seized by the Bolivian Government, the Chilean navy moved north to occupy the port city of Antofagasta in the Atacama region – over the 24th Parallel, into treaty-designated Bolivian territory. Despite Peru’s attempts to mediate and avoid conflict, Hilarion Daza, the corrupt President of Bolivia, decided to push for war, hoping to preserve his own political power and increase his popularity. On March 14, Bolivia announced that a state of war existed with Chile. Despite Chile’s request of neutrality from Peru, the secret treaty was soon revealed, and when Peru refused to declare neutrality Chile declared war on them as well.

The War of the Pacific had begun, but no one was exactly ready. None of the three countries had anything resembling a modern military on an institutional level. Though Peru and Bolivia together had double Chile’s population, they both had less stable governments and Chile was just, well, a better put-together country at this stage in its development. Chile also had access to more modern firearms – and most critically, two brand-new ironclads they had just bought from Britain. Chile’s two ironclads were virtually impervious to anything the Peruvian Navy had in stock, including their two older ironclads, and would prove to be the war-winning asset.

The Atacama was almost impossible to occupy or cross by land due to its sparse and desolate state, so the possession of Antofagasta proved to be decisive. The Chilean Navy kept the Peruvians and Bolivians from seizing the town, and began to range up and down the western side of South America. By the end of 1879, they sunk Peru’s only two ironclads and had wiped the Peruvian fleet from the Pacific. Thanks to their newfound naval supremacy, the Chileans were able to hop up the coast in a series of small leaps from province to province. The first goal was the province of Tarapaca, which was Peru’s own portion of the Atacama and its own source of nitrate. Here, the Chilean forces landed, won some battles, and quickly seized the port of Iquique. This left the Peruvian forces in the region with no line of supply, since in the harsh desert they could only be supplied through Iquique – so they had to retreat north across the Atacama, taking heavy losses in the process.

Daza had personally led Bolivian forces to Tarapaca to help the Peruvians, but saw how small the Peruvian forces were and turned back, leaving his ally to face the Chileans alone. The Chileans now sought to divide the allies. She would take the old Atacama provinces that they had fought over, but secretly offered to give Bolivia Peru’s Atacama provinces of Tarapaca and Arica. This would offer Bolivia a huge economic boon and leave her basically no worse off from the war, but would require her to abandon her ally and suffer great loss of prestige. Daza’s retreat from Tarapaca was already seen as cowardly; he was overthrown in December 1879, and Bolivian troops were sent to join the Peruvians for the defense of their most important remaining province – Arica and Tacna.

Peru’s own government was also unsteady, and it had no choice but to go all in on defending Arica from the Chilean onslaught. The Chileans had leapfrogged up the Pacific west coast of South America from their own territory to Bolivian territory to Peru; first to Antofagasta in Bolivian territory, and then to Tarapaca and its port city of Iquique in Peru. The next lily pad in their path would have to be Arica – and from there, Chile would go as far as they needed to seek peace.

The Chileans landed on the coast north of Arica on February 24, 1880 with about 11,000 men – a big army for South America. This was part of General Manuel Baquedano’s strategy: he would land north of the city to cut off its communication from Peru before maneuvering to defeat the Allied armies to the south. He quickly moved inland, defeating a small force of Peruvians in the Battle of Los Angeles and cutting off the main army from their supplies. The only serious Allied force left in the field was in the south, across the Atacama Desert at Tacna.

The Peruvians and Bolivians were in a bad situation. They had no escape route overland since Baquedano’s Chileans were between them and the primary Peruvian city of Lima; their sea supply through the port of Arica was cut off by the Chilean Navy. Their only hope lay in the Atacama Desert. Baquedano’s army would have to cross it to get at them; so long as they could hold out for reinforcements, it would prove a safeguard.

Baquedano surprised everyone by leading a well-organized, thunderous march across the dry valleys and craggy slopes of the Atacama to come barreling up to the Allied positions. The Peruvians and Bolivians, about 12,000 in all, confronted 11,000 Chileans for the decisive battle of the war.

Both the Peruvians and Chileans were using semi-modern French or Belgian breechloading rifles, but the Bolivians still had old flintlocks. Both sides used modern Krupp artillery and land mines, and each army had a handful of Gatling guns – primitive machine guns. At the same time, both armies still had large numbers of mounted cavalry with sabers and lances, the soldiers were mostly illiterate peasants, and the tactics were not far advanced beyond “attack those guys over there.” It was simultaneously a very modern and a very primitive war, and this was exemplified at Tacna.

The Chileans began the battle with an artillery bombardment, but their shells buried in the desert sand and failed to explode. Soon the Chilean infantry moved forward and the battle was joined. The enormous clouds of smoke emitted by the Chassepot rifles made it nearly impossible for commanders to see, and lines of troops stumbled back and forth in desperate seesaw struggles in the sand, dust, and smoke of Tacna.

By noon, though, the Chilean attack was fading. Their soldiers had burned through their ammunition, and the infantry began to fall back under increasing Peruvian pressure. Baquedano ordered his cavalry to charge the pursuing Bolivians and Peruvians, and the cavalry moved forward. The Peruvian infantry formed square to drive off the cavalry, and the Chilean horsemen suffered heavy losses, but they had forced the Allied infantry to pause while the Chilean infantry resupplied and moved their reserve artillery up.

The Bolivians, and coming to support their Peruvian allies, were blinded by the sand and smoke and ran straight into an artillery and rifle crossfire that tore them to pieces. The Chilean Gatling Guns rattled into the Bolivian ranks, smashing their attacks and forcing them into headlong retreat. Baquedano ordered the whole Chilean army to advance, and his infantry moved forward in skirmish formations to avoid the Allied artillery. As the Allied center caved in, their defenses collapsed, and the army finally began to rout. By nightfall, the city of Tacna itself had surrendered, and the Allied armies were broken.

The Bolivians had lost half their number; they made their way home dejected. For all intents and purposes, Bolivia was out of the war for the foreseeable future. Peru’s Army, though, was shattered as well. The Battle of Tacna, and the eventual capture of Arica, virtually destroyed their standing army. It was a decisive defeat for the Allies – from this point on, there was no hope of winning the War of the Pacific.

Peru, however, was determined to fight on, because now that Bolivia had rejected Chile’s peace deal Chile was demanding more territory as a consequence – not only the Bolivian territory on which the war had begun, but Peru’s Atacama territories as well. When Peru refused to negotiate after the crushing defeat at Tacna, the Chileans realized that only the complete defeat of Peru would bring peace.

The war would continue for almost two and a half years after Tacna should have ended it. Chilean forces invaded Peru, capturing Lima and engaging in a horrible guerrilla war in the Andes as Peru tried to hold out and wear down the Chilean armies. The remnants of the Peruvian army scattered across the mountains, forcing Chilean forces to root them out in a counterinsurgency campaign. Only after significant defeats were they able to force the Peruvian government to come to terms in March 1883.

The results of the war were significant. Though peace talks would continue literally until 1929 – yes, 1929 – Chile had won a clear victory. They now had virtual military hegemony on the Pacific coast of South America and were widely recognized as one of the major powers of the continent. Bolivia lost its Atacama provinces, and its only outlet to the sea, as a result of the war; Peru lost its most valuable southern provinces and had its capital of Lima occupied and looted. The borders settled in 1883 remain the same to this day – poor landlocked Bolivia.

The reaction of the world’s powers – Europe, America, etc. – was surprisingly not as ignorant as you might think. Multiple nations sent observers to take note of the impact of technology, especially the second generation of ironclads – it was the first time ironclads had fought each other since the American Civil War. One American officer in particular took special notes. He noticed that Chile had won the war by first seizing control of the sea, which had enabled it to win the war on land. His name was Alfred Thayer Mahan, and it was at this time that he began to formulate his groundbreaking theories on sea power – theories that would play a key role for all nations in the coming World Wars.

All this over some bat shit.

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