The Chaco War 1932-1935: South America's greatest 20th century conflict

One of the largest and most destructive wars in Latin American history was the Chaco War, or the Gran Chaco War fought from 1932-1935 between the South American nations Paraguay and Bolivia. Fought over the more than 250,000 square miles of hot and arid desert terrain of the Gran Chaco known also as the Chaco Boreal, on the border with Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.

What started as a 19th century territorial dispute over vast amounts of lands never formally annexed by the many South America republics that emerged after the Napoleonic Age and the end of imperialism, developed into a major Inter-War era conflict that saw mass mobilization of conscripted soldiers and true war economies on both sides.

The diplomatic situation in the Chaco which had been unstable in the late 1920's escalated into total war following the break down of peace talks in Washington D.C.  on July 8, 1932 between Paraguayan/Bolivian representatives and the American government, hoping for a resolve to  the conflict and perhaps League of Nations intervention as well. Several sources cite the influence of major oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell though no positive connection can be made for sure historically, that oil interests drove the conflict as the territorial disputes were first and foremost for both Paraguay and Bolivia.

Paraguayan mortar team in a trench

Bolivia from the early 1900's on had begun to rapidly transform their military and its service branches into a professional, European style army equipped with modern weaponry purchased abroad, mostly from England  Germany and France.

The Bolivian infantry had recevied training from German advisers, including the future SA general and one of the most powerful men in the early Nazi party, Ernst Rohm, also hiring World War I veteran Major-General Hans Kundt. General Kundt would later led the Bolivian Army as supreme commander and de facto prime minister until late 1933 when he is fired for his inability to defend or counter-attack with numerically and technologically superior forces against the Paraguayan military resurgence under General Jose Felix Estigarriba.

Portrait of Major General Hans Kundt wearing the famed Imperial German pickelhaube

General Kundt at the front reviewing his Bolivian soldiers

Paraguay had become in the 19th century a somewhat progressive but ultimately imperial-military based autocracy of the L√≥pez clan, ending with their devastating and costly defeat in 1870 following the end of War of the Triple Alliance, or the Paraguayan War, at the hands of a coalition force Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.

The Paraguayan government purchased armaments from European countries as well and used the logistical support and private allegiance of their former enemy countries to keep their army well supplied, while ironically the Bolivians relied on the logistical support of Chile throughout the conflict. The country who had made them a landlocked nation following the defeat of the Peruvian-Bolivian alliance in 1883 in the War of the Pacific.

Throughout the Chaco War 250,000 men would serve in the Bolvian Army while 150,000 Paraguayans would serve following mass conscription by 1935. Before the war Paraguay maintained a tiny standing of army of just over 4,000 men, mobilizing very quickly between 1933-1935 as the desire for occupation and control of the Chaco grew.

Period cartoon of General Estigarriba vanquishing Kundt (note the Iron Cross around his neck) and his supposed puppet German government

The Chaco War cost the lives of perhaps in excess of 100,000 men and is important as one of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in the history of South America. It was a conflict that showcased the first large scale usage of mechanized modern warfare following the Great War of 1914-1918, including naval operations, tank assaults, and a small but still important air campaign. Indeed some of the largest ever seen in North or South America past or present.

Captured Bolivian Tank

Paraguayan crew pose outside their German-made Junkers aircraft

Of the many but relatively small conflicts in the history of South America, the Chaco conflict helped to shape modern 20th-21st century South America politically and diplomatically and is still very important to the national conscious of both Bolivia and Paraguay.

Unfortunately very few English language sources or books are available on this large and most important conflict. There is a fairly new (as of 12/13) & abbreviated yet fact filled and beautifully illustrated Osprey publishing title, men-at-arms series #474, which does cover the fighting men, weapons, tactics, within a concise chronological History of the Chaco War.

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