26 May 1880

After liberation from colonial rule, South America experienced few prolonged wars. The longest and bloodiest was the War of the Pacific, fought between Chile on one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other.

This photograph of the Chilean commander-in-chief, General Manuel Baquedano Gonzalez, was taken in 1891. Gonzalez was a tough and aggressive commander who insisted that his men at the Battle of Tacna charge head-on against the enemy guns.

The conflict began over claims to the rich nitrate sources in the province of Antofagasta in southern Bolivia but it soon developed into a power struggle between the three states over control of the Pacific littoral. The decisive battle near the small city of Tacna in southern Peru was a crude clash of arms between three armies that relied on the courage and discipline of men who had little experience of combat as they charged and countercharged under a hail of fire.


The Bolivian government’s threat to confiscate the Chilean Nitrate Company in Antofagasta prompted a swift response. Nitrate production was essential to Chile’s economic survival because it could be traded against European goods. Chile’s small army, no more than 2,500 strong, occupied the port of Antofagasta.

The invasion activated a secret alliance made in 1873 between Bolivia and Peru. This prompted Chile to declare war on both states on 5 April 1879. A prolonged naval battle opened the conflict as Peru and Chile used their tiny navies in a bid to win control of coastal sea lanes. Chilean naval success opened the way to a land invasion, and in November 1879 the Chilean commander, Erasmo Escala, landed in the Tarapacá province of southern Peru.

The efforts of the Peruvian and Bolivian armies under General Juan Buendía to co-ordinate their operations broke down when the Bolivian commander Hilarión Daza deserted. Following victory over the Peruvians at Dolores, Chile occupied Tarapacá. The presidents of Peru and Bolivia were replaced, and the new Bolivian president, General Narcisco Campero, assumed command of the army in the field.

By this stage the tiny armies had grown through conscription, with many of the recruits drawn from the local Indian population. In February 1880, 13,000 Chilean soldiers were disembarked at the port of Ilo, further up the coast of Peru, in an attempt to seize the nitrate-rich province of Tacna. Escala had by now been replaced by General Manuel Baquedano Gonzalez, a more aggressive and effective commander. He moved inland, over difficult terrain that took a steady toll of his force, intent on reaching and capturing the main port of Arica.

After a difficult month’s march his army arrived at the Campo de la Alianza, an arid plain in front of the town of Tacna, with a gentle slope on one side, and sandy dunes along its edge. It was here that Campero, now the overall commander of the Bolivian and Peruvian troops, decided to establish a defensive line to await the arrival of Baquedano.

Campero commanded somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 men, supported by 16 cannon and 7 Gatling machine guns. The Chileans numbered around 14,000, according to the official history (11,000 according to other accounts), supported by 37 field guns and 4 machine guns.

Baquedano was advised by the Chilean war minister, José Vergara, to try an outflanking attack in order to preserve manpower, but his artillery commander recommended a frontal assault along the whole line to prevent the enemy from moving men from one part of the defence to another. Baquedano agreed and divided his force into five divisions, to attack the enemy defences head-on in a human wave.

The battle began with an artillery duel that had little effect as shells buried themselves in the soft sand. At 10 a.m. the first line of Chilean infantry attacked up the slope but was driven back under heavy fire. Thinking they were retreating, the commander of the left wing of the Peruvian–Bolivian army, Colonel Eliodoro Camacho, sent his men forward, only to be destroyed by accurate fire from Chilean artillery and machine guns. After a brave hour’s fighting, Camacho had lost around four-fifths of his force. Along the rest of the line the Chileans were pushed back by intense fire as they tried to storm across the open ground.

The effort to reinforce Camacho with reserves weakened the right wing and it was here that the line cracked as waves of Chilean soldiers attacked with bayonet charges in the face of continuous fire. When Baquedano sent in the Chilean reserve division to force a path round the right flank of the enemy, resistance crumbled. The remnants of the Peruvian and Bolivian divisions staggered back to Tacna where they surrendered after a brief Chilean bombardment at 6.30 p.m.

The harsh nature of the contest between soldiers who were ordered back and forth against determined fire was evident in the exceptional level of casualties. The Chilean Army suffered 500 dead and 1,600 wounded – around 20 per cent of the force engaged on the battlefield. The Atacama and Santiago regiments lost one-half of their men.

The defenders suffered even more, losing between 3,500 and 5,000 men. Only 400 Peruvians escaped from the battle and the surrender of Tacna. The high cost of Baquedano’s tactics prompted one Chilean journalist to suggest that the triumph should be celebrated by a ‘dance of death’ rather than a victory ball. But Baquedano was unrepentant and in two further battles in 1881 to capture the Peruvian capital, Lima, 1,300 Chilean soldiers died in tough frontal assaults.

The victory at Tacna did little to end the war, though it confirmed Chilean occupation of the three coastal provinces of Tacna, Tarapacá and Antofagasta and cut Bolivia off from the sea. After two years of frustrating occupation in Lima, fighting a growing Peruvian insurgency, a peace was finally signed at Ancón on 20 October 1883, ceding Tarapacá to Chile.

Bolivia signed an indefinite truce with Chile in April 1884, on the assurance that Chilean occupation of Antofagasta would be only temporary. The slaughter experienced in the War of the Pacific prompted the Peruvian writer Manuel Prada to reflect a few years later on the primitive nature of combat: ‘When man leaves behind his atavistic ferociousness, war will be remembered as a prehistoric barbarity…’