Having lost its seacoast to Chile during the ill-fated War of the Pacific, 1879-1884, Bolivia, nursing its wounds in the Andes, set the stage for the Gran Chaco War of 1928 to 1935. The Gran Chaco originally belonged to the same Spanish Colonial District as Bolivia, so Bolivia assumed the Chaco was subject to the Spanish administration successor government.
Bolivians did not live in the Chaco and had virtually no connection with the Chaco or with the people who inhabited it. Paraguayans, mainly the Guarani, who were the indigenes of Paraguay, were nevertheless part of the Chaco by culture and language. Paraguay had claimed the territory when Spanish rule collapsed in 1810, its real claim resting upon the fact of use and occupation.
Over the years, Bolivian soldiers had gradually encroached upon Paraguayan territory in the Gran Chaco area of Paraguay. In the meantime, the country of Bolivia, with the aid of its huge tin revenues, had embarked upon a vast rearmament program.
On the lazy, very hot morning of December 5th, 1928, Bolivian Lt. Lozada, commander of the detachment at the fortin (fort) Vanguardia in the Chaco, was taking his ease in his quarters, waiting for the troopers under him to prepare the morning coffee. Suddenly, several of them saw what they thought was a flock of ostriches in the thick brush, but realized as they drew closer that they were mounted men. One came forward under a flag of truce. He was a Paraguayan trooper!
He gave Lt. Lozada a typewritten message which read: “The Paraguayans, knowing that you have occupied our territory, we allow you ten minutes to stack arms and be ready for us, one hundred meters south of the barracks. Otherwise we shall open fire.”
Paraguayan infantry was advancing from all sides, and Lt. Lozada passed out the single case of ammunition to his men, which amounted to a mere fifteen to twenty rounds per man. In ten minutes it was all over, with five Bolivians dead and two officers and nineteen men captured. These were indeed shots heard round the world! Long before the age of television, what happened in a few short minutes caused a little-known, minor league South American dispute to make international headlines around the world.
Outside collaboration and mediation led to a compromise solution of the incident without war….but only for the moment! The basic problems remained and flared into full war in 1932. Under the hand of Major, later General, Hans von Kundt, Chief of Staff, the Bolivian military establishment had been under the influence of a German Military Training Mission from 1911 forwards. The Bolivian army was organized along pre-WWI lines, but due to the poor quality of officers, proved to be generally inefficient.
Based upon loans collateralized by Bolivian tin exports, funds from US and Canadian banks were obtained to rearm the Bolivian army, with the contract going to the Vickers conglomerate.
VZ24 rifles and ZB26 Light Machine guns were subcontracted from Brno in Czechoslovakia, while Vickers equipped the Bolivians with machine guns and artillery. In Paraguay, armed conflict was the usual manner in which a change in government was effected, and by 1924 there were less than 4000 serviceable rifles available to the Paraguayan military.
Both countries could avail themselves of Model 1891 Argentine Pattern rifles in moderate supply (these are still available now and then on the collector’s network and, in excellent condition, can fetch from $250 to $300). Both countries early in the century had decided upon weapons based on the Mauser Model 98 action; the Bolivians chose the Model 1908 long rifle and short rifle.
The Paraguayans bought an unknown number of Mauser Model 1907 rifles and carbines. (These are rarely seen outside of Paraguay as the Paraguayans have not released their obsolete weapons from this period. If found in good to excellent condition, these weapons will fetch prices of $195 to $300). A number of Model 1903 Turkish pattern rifles may also have been purchased. The Paraguayans also purchased many Italian VV71s in 6.5mm, following the old maxim, “if it shoots, we can use it!”
After the war commenced in earnest, the Bolivian army inadvertently became the biggest supplier of arms to the Paraguayan army! At Campo Via, on 11 December 1933, the Bolivians lost 8,000 Mauser VZ24 rifles, 25 Stokes-Brandt mortars and approximately 500 machine guns to the Paraguayans, as well as Solothurn 15mm anti-tank rifles.
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Good writing, Mr. Ball. The story of the Chaco War – two dirt-poor nations fighting it out for some marginal land in the midst of the Great Depression – is an interesting piece of history.