Saturday, April 11, 2009


Peru was not the only nation whose army contained too many officers commanding too few men. Bolivia created its first military academy in 1823. Like its Peruvian counterpart, the school functioned only intermittently. Indeed, in 1847 the military institute for the third time closed its doors. Not until 1872 did these reopen when President Tomás Frías entrusted the Colegio Militar and its cadets to the care of a French general and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. (The defeat sustained by the French in the Franco-Prussian War should have given the Bolivians pause.) Regrettably, this school did not meet its founders’ expectations, and even if it had, it never trained enough officers to change dramatically the tone, or level of skills, of Bolivia’s officer corps. Just before the War of the Pacific ended, the Bolivian government called for the creation of both another academy and a school to train noncommissioned officers. In short, Bolivia’s officers lacked the education or training to fight a conventional war.

The military, additionally, lacked the institutions of a modern army: when it existed the general staff, rather than consisting of the army’s intellectual elite, had become a dumping ground for officers considered too untrustworthy to command troops in the field; it had even lost most of its copies of its own Código Militar. Although General Daza apparently revived and reorganized the general staff in the early months of the War of the Pacific, it did not actually function until 1880.

The Bolivian army of 1877 included not only a smaller number of men but fewer units as well: three battalions of infantry, the Daza Granaderos 1 de la Guardia, the Sucre Granaderos de la Guardia, and the Illimani Cazadores de la Guardia; one cavalry detachment, the Bolívar 1 de Húsares; and a mobile squadron of four Gatling machine guns. The Regimiento Santa Cruz de Artillería also contained four cannons, purchased in 1872, as well as ten to fifteen older weapons. In 1880 Bolivia organized the Bolívar 2 de Artillería, which consisted of sixteen artillery field and mountain guns.

The small arms that these troops carried—ranging from Martini-Henrys to flintlocks—proved as varied as their uniforms. Worse, not one unit carried the same weapons into battle. La Paz’s minister of war attributed this problem to the countless cuartelazos that had consumed so many weapons that there was no uniformity of small arms within each of the army’s units. This lack of standardization not only led to supply problems but, according to the 1877 Memoria, “caused many, grave troubles in practical training as well as in their use.” Of the three combat arms, only the infantry seemed marginally acceptable. Certainly the artillery appeared blighted: it possessed two heavy and two light machine guns, and three three-inch artillery pieces. But the unit lacked the horses to transport them to the field and the technical skills needed to fire them accurately. Thanks to a lack of decent mounts, the product of the constant civil unrest, one minister called the cavalry the least efficient branch.

In fairness, Bolivia tried to remedy these problems. Unfortunately, its attempt to improve the troops’ living conditions, increase junior officers’ salaries, purchase draft animals, and acquire small arms plus four Krupp cannons foundered due to a lack of funds.45 In 1878, with war in the offing, Bolivia had requested and received permission from Peru to import, duty free, fifteen hundred Remington rifles plus some other military items. And in mid-1879 it received another two thousand Remingtons to add to the approximately three thousand rifles of the same make. By 1881, thanks to shipments from Panama, Bolivia acquired six modern Krupp artillery and enough rifles that it could to lend some to Peru, though it still continued to carp about the lack of ammunition. La Paz, however, had yet to standardize its arsenals’ contents.

By 1881 La Paz had improved the lot of its troops by providing food and clothing, as well as a general education. It also created various militia units such as the Guardia Republicana and hoped to train another ten thousand militiamen.

The Bolivian soldier’s stolid endurance, his stoicism, and his ability to endure privation did not make a skilled soldier. As Campero observed, training an illiterate Indian, “who does not know how to hold a rifle, [and who] has a very little idea of the motherland or of its elevated ends,” proved extremely difficult. Before the army could make these men into soldiers, it had teach them to be citizens, “to impart notions of civilization” or culture for the soldier “to know and to practice his duties to the motherland.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The declaration of a state of belligerence caught the Peruvian and Chilean armies in various stages of military unpreparedness. In Peru’s case, this condition partially resulted from bad luck: in 1875 the Lima government embarked on a project to reorganize the army using its noncommissioned officers recently graduated from the newly created Escuela de Clases as the core of the new formations. Economic as well as domestic political considerations, however, delayed the proposal’s completion. Thus, once the conflict erupted, Mariano Prado’s government had to abandon its efforts at restructuring and revert to the army’s old table of organization—seven infantry battalions, three cavalry squadrons, and two artillery regiments—to fight the war.

As part of its abortive reform proposal, between 1869 and 1878 Lima sent two missions abroad to acquire small arms. The first purchased two thousand Belgian Comblain II rifles. When Peru sought to buy more of these weapons three years later, it learned that the factory could not fill its order. (Deliveries to Brazil and Chile absorbed most of the plant’s capacity.) The second mission compromised, acquiring five thousand of the less effective French Chassepots, which it modified to accept the same cartridge as the Comblain. This weapon became known as El Peruano, or as the Castañón, in honor of Col. Emilio Castañón, who led the delegation.

The arrival of these new rifles, however, still could not satisfy completely the needs of Peru’s newly expanded army. Consequently, the government had to equip its troops with the obsolescent weapons, generally of different calibers and national origin, that clogged Lima’s arsenals. The Pichincha, Zepita, and Ayacucho battalions carried American-made Sniders, while the Dos de Mayo and Cazadores de Cuzco battalions toted Chassepots. The administration later claimed that by September 1879 it had standardized its weapon systems to the point that at least each division used the same firearms. Yet, on the eve of the Battle of Tacna in May 1880, a provincial prefect informed President Nicolás Piérola that the army was equipped with 5,873 rifles and carbines produced by twelve different manufacturers. As Segundo Leiva of the Second Army of the South noted, relying on such a heterogeneous mélange of rifles caused enormous logistical problems. It proved so difficult to provide ammunition that in some units troops had weapons but no bullets.2 Predictably, the government fobbed off its most out-of-date equipment, the Austrian or Prussian minié guns, on the various guardia nacional units; others carried the old Peabody.

Peru’s artillery park consisted of four eight-centimeter Krupp M/67 guns, twelve six-centimeter Krupp M/73 mountain guns, four Gatling guns, as well as some very heavy and very obsolete bronze cannons. During the war Peru purchased additional small arms, ammunition, as well as forty to fifty Gatling guns plus artillery. Local foundries, moreover, manufactured over 650,000 cartridges for the Chassepots, Castañóns, and 688,000 minié balls. These same factories also produced sixty artillery pieces constructed of fused railroad tracks that they encased in bronze and reinforced with iron rings. Called the Grieve cannon to honor its designer, it fired the same shells made for the Krupp mountain gun and had a range of five thousand yards.

Of all its combat arms, Peru’s cavalry seemed the most ill equipped. Although all mounted units were supposed to use Winchester carbines, they did not. Col. Manuel Zamudio reported, for example, that one of the Lanceros de Torata’s two squadrons, clad in body armor, carried lances as well as sabers; the other received Henry carbines that often malfunctioned because it proved difficult to extract spent cartridges.4 Another curious fact distinguished Lima’s mounted units: while Quechua- and Aymara- speaking Indians constituted the bulk of the infantry, and indeed the country’s population, the authorities prohibited them from serving in the cavalry in the belief that Indians did not know how to ride horses. This honor fell only to blacks and mestizos, who apparently had a genetic predisposition to serve in the cavalry as well as the artillery.

The quality of many of Peru’s officers remained doubtful. Although Lima opened its first military academy in 1823, the school, as well as its successors, operated only sporadically. The most recent reincarnation, the Colegio Militar, had only begun to function in 1875, and it did not graduate its first class until 1877. Consequently, most of those who received their commission directly did so by choosing the winning side of one of Peru’s numerous revolutions. Not surprisingly, the results of this system dismayed the nation. The officers’ performance during the war, particularly those at the company grade level, was so wretched that it had been, according to one British officer, the cause of the army’s defeat. Indeed, the Peruvian intellectual Ricardo Palma said of the officer corps that “for every ten punctilious and worthy officers, you have ninety rogues, for whom duty and motherland are empty words. To form an army you will have to shoot at least half the military.” Curiously, scores of officers from Uruguay and Argentina volunteered to serve under Peruvian colors. One of these was future Argentine president Roque Saenz Pena, who managed to survive the Battle of Arica and return to Buenos Aires to fight in the only marginally less bloody battles of Argentine politics.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Chilean nitrates were the chief source of nitrogen for explosives, fertilizer, and chemical industries from the 1830s to the 1930s, and were the only significant source of iodine from the 1870s (replacing seaweed) until the mid-20th century (when iodine began to be extracted from oilfield brines).

In 1830, a shipment of 700 tonnes of nitrate left Tarapacá, southernmost Peru. The industry mushroomed, and annual exports were 16,000 tonnes by 1843. The peak was not reached until the rather unusual conditions of World War I, when production reached nearly 3 million tonnes. The all-time record was set in 1928, at 3.1 million tonnes.

The nitrates occur in what are now Chile's two northern provinces, Tarapacá and Antofagasta, along a band 30 km wide and 700 km long. They seem to have formed in shallow playa lakes, where the saline water contained bacteria that fixed nitrogen into nitrate.

In 1868 there was a boom in nitrate mining in the Atacama Desert, and major nitrate ports were developed from Iquique in the north through Pisagua and across the Atacama desert to Taltal. The nitrate mining was dominated by British and Chilean enterprises, even though the Atacama Desert was formally part of Bolivia. Chile had recognized Bolivia's title in an 1874 treaty, but was allocated economic rights there, including a guarantee that taxes on Chilean mining enterprises would not be raised.

For Peru, nitrate was rather unimportant as long as the guano trade was flourishing: in fact, most of the early nitrate mining on Peruvian and Bolivian territory was done by Chilean and British entrepreneurs. However, in 1875 a particularly impoverished Peruvian government declared nitrate deposits to be the property of the state, copying the declaration covering guano decades before. By this time the governments of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, had all focussed their attention on control of the nitrate region.

In another of its economic crises, the Bolivian government announced a tax increase of 10 centavos per hundredweight on nitrates in 1879. At that time the largest nitrate mining company was the Antofagasta Nitrate and Railroad Company, a Chilean firm controlled by British capital, including the merchant house of Gibbs. It's not clear what part was played by Gibbs in the politics of this incident, but the Chileans mobilized with the intention of seizing the desert. The Peruvians expressed the intention of mediating the dispute between Bolivia and Chile, but when it turned out that there was a secret treaty between Peru and Bolivia, the Chileans declared war on them both.

The War of the Pacific may have been started as much by national rivalry and runaway emotion as by the economic prize of the nitrate deposits themselves. However, the nitrate prize was enough to give the victor the income of an entire nation, and the combatants were acutely aware of that. Peru's income had been largely based on guano and nitrate for decades; Bolivia's economy was ramshackle at best, but its foreign income was based on metal mining in the Altiplano; and Chile had already had a taste of the riches to be gained from the Atacama mines it was already operating.

Early in the War, W. R. Grace allied itself with the Peruvian government, and became a clandestine arms shipper to Peru. It bought and shipped millions of dollars' worth of armaments, including guns from Krupp and a new naval weapon, a torpedo boat. However the Chileans quickly beat both their opponents and went on to occupy Lima.

Chile's victory in the War of the Pacific gave it full control of a large northern strip of coast. Iquique was the terminus of the Nitrate Railways and the most important outlet. At first Tarapacá province was dominant, with 48 out of Chile's 53 nitrate works in 1892. But twenty years later the southern fields of Antofagasta, linked by a new railroad, the Longitudinal Railway, overtook the northern field in production.

Nitrate played an increasing role in Chile's economy after the War of the Pacific, as copper production declined. By the late 1880s an export tax on nitrate was earning 43% of Chilean government income, and in 1894 it was 68%, and the wealth was used to improve the country's infrastructure. The nitrate industry, however, was largely foreign owned. European capital had bought out Chilean entrepreneurs in Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, even before the War of the Pacific. The major reason was the large amount of capital needed to set up the nitrate works, the infrastructure in the difficult desert regions that contained the nitrate deposits, and the railroad and port facilities that were needed, and the continuing requirement for importing supplies. Capital on this scale was simply not available in South America, nor were the basic supplies to support the industry. For example, foreign coal constituted 20% of Iquique's imports in 1909. In fact, a convenient two-way trade of coal for nitrate favored British shipping firms, who loaded 60% of the nitrates even though most of the nitrate went to European countries.

Synthetic production of nitrates surpassed Chilean mining production in the 1930s. By 1950 the Chilean production was only about 15% of world supply, and by 1980 it was only 0.14%. Today the Chilean reserves total only about a year's worth of world consumption, not because they are close to exhaustion, but because world demand has increased so much.