History of South America

Why was the war against Chile lost?

Last interview with Andrés A. Cáceres
In 1921, the hero of the Pacific War answered one of his last interviews. Why did we lose the war? There was no cultural or political harmony... and a lot of betrayal in the wealthy sectors. It sounds so relevant. The homeland celebrates today, shaken with joy, the glorious anniversary of the battle of Tarapacá, an honorable page in our history and a shield of pride for the National Army. All Peruvians evoke, with our eyes, our soul, the singular epic in which a handful of brave men, sublimated by sacrifice and exalted by misfortune, in a vigorous push, destroyed the powerful and conceited Chilean hosts, putting them in shameful flight. If unfortunately this victory was infertile, due to the impotence of our Army to persecute, devoid of cavalry, the defeated enemies, we must, however, keep eternal cult to that handful of braves who, far from collapsing due to fatigue, hunger and the nakedness to which they were reduced, after the San Francisco disaster, they concentrated all the powers of their soul and all the forces of their organism in a supreme impetus of courage to cover themselves with glory and give America a unique lesson in heroism and of energy. As we commemorate this imperishable feat, we salute the worthy survivors full of patriotic pride. In the picturesque neighborhood of Leuro in Miraflores, to the love of rural solitude and peace, lives, delivered to the memories of him and pampered by the affection of his family, the old Marshal of Peru. Until his poetic retirement, the insatiable demand of our journalistic curiosity and the homage paid by our patriotic pride went to look for him, finding the cordial welcome of his glorious old age.
We found him at his desk, accommodated in a leather chair, the weak legs sheltered by thick dark blankets. He dressed correctly in a gray jacket and covers the snow of his gray hair with a cap of the same color. The walls of the room are decorated with fine prints that reproduce war scenes.
From a large oil painting, which stands on the desk, the fine and beautiful effigy of the marshal's daughter stands out, whose fresh and cheerful youth was cut short by the death. In front of the portrait of the hero of La Breña, wearing on his chest the medals won by force of bravery and audacity, and on his face, the eternal decoration of his glorious scar. Marshal, on the anniversary of the victory of Tarapacá, we demand of you, the vivid account of that glorious deed. The venerable face of the ancient warrior comes to life. A flash of lightning dazzles his pupils and nervously smoothing his pointed white beards, he tells us:I remember the battle, with absolute precision, and I am going to recount it to you, as if it had just taken place.

And the story begins with an emotional voice: I, with my division, was in one of the streets of Tarapacá, taking a frugal ranch, before undertaking, with the entire Army and as General Dávila's troops had already done, the retreat to Arica, after the disaster of San Francisco, when my assistant who had spotted the enemy on the crest of the hills west of the city, came running to warn me. Receiving this unexpected news, he was eating. I dropped the little saucepan containing my ration, and proceeding with impetuous activity, ordered my division to launch with fixed bayonet up the hill to dislodge the enemy. I proceeded quickly to divide my troops into three columns:the first and second companies formed the one on the right, which I placed under the command of Commander Zubiaga, a brave and expert commander; the one in the center was made up of the fifth and sixth companies, commanded by Major Pardo Figueroa, also a distinguished chief, and the one on the left was made up of the third and fourth companies that I entrusted to Major Arguedas. I warned my troops to avoid firing , as long as they had not reached the top, to save ammunition, which, unfortunately, was very scarce. I sent a commission to Colonel Recavarren, Chief of Staff, to Colonel Manuel Suárez, who was in command of the Dos de Mayo battalion, so that he could distribute his forces in the same way as those of the Zepita, and place himself at my left. Little by little, when my brave soldiers had thrown themselves into combat, full of enthusiasm and warlike ardor, Colonel Belisario Suárez took his orders and Colonels Bolognesi, Ríos and Castañón took their respective positions. The Zepita climbed the hill on the west side, with an irresistible push defying the shots that the enemy fires relentlessly at them. They are deployed in guerrilla warfare and without stopping, they fire incessantly, a hundred and fifty meters from the enemy, who yields to our push. The Zubiaga column launched a bayonet attack on the Chilean artillery and boldly seized four cannons. The columns of Pardo Figueroa and Arguedas, meanwhile, tear the enemy infantry to pieces.
Excuse me, Mariscal, in that assault, what notable action of courage, do you remember, of your soldiers? I cannot forget the heroism of Alferez Ureta, from the first company of the right column, who, inflamed by an ardent patriotic enthusiasm and unfailing courage, mounted a Chilean cannon, throwing uproarious cheers for the country. Nor will I ever forget the meritorious act of Commander José María Meléndez, veteran of the Naval Column, one of the first to join me in the assault on the enemy. When the Chileans were defeated and we were tired of pursuing them unsuccessfully, due to lack of cavalry; we fainted from thirst and hunger, to the point that I was forced to moisten the lips of some of my soldiers with small slices of a lemon, which fortunately I carried in one of my coat pockets; Commander Meléndez appeared suddenly and without my being able to explain to myself where he came from, carrying a barrel of water that quenched the thirst of those brave men. And like this, so many other episodes of courage and enthusiasm.
And the infantry destroyed and the Chileans stripped of their artillery, what happened? The enemy thus punished in that first combat by our men, fled in disarray, down the pampa, closely pursued by our men and camped a league away until joining another Chilean body that came to reinforce them. Meanwhile, my horse had been shot and I had to stop, halfway through the day. An officer who had found a mule belonging to a Chilean regiment brought it to me and mounted on it, I was able to continue the pursuit. After three hours of fighting, we had to counter-march to the place where the first attack had taken place, because my troops were exhausted by the fatigue of the action. General-in-Chief Buendía congratulated me on the success achieved by my division. But in the midst of the joy of victory, I had to deeply deplore the death of my best lieutenants:Zubiaga, Pardo Figueroa, my own brother Juan... they also gave their lives in the first encounter.
And the second encounter? ? Reinforced my division with the Iquique battalion commanded by the immortal Alfonso Ugarte, the Meléndez Naval Column, a picket from the Gendarmes battalion commanded by Morey, a company from the Ayacucho battalion with Somocurcio at the head, an hour later the fight resumed in the middle of the pampas to the SW of Tarapacá. First, a lively rifle fight is held by both parties, with determination. The enemy is run over five times, rallying, then another five. Then, encircling the Chilean left wing and flank commanded by Arteaga, with my troops I forced him to retreat to the south. The Iquique battalion arrives in time to repulse the Chilean grenadiers who had surprised the Loa and the Navales. Beforehand, however, Arteaga tried to recover in vain and we charged again with irresistible determination. At a time when victory was already decided by our weapons, Dávila arrived with his division at a trot (they had traveled 12 km from Huarasiña) and, very close to the Chilean flank, still panting, he fired repeated volleys at it. Then I took the opportunity to make the final attack in the center, which decided the defeat of the Chileans who left the field, leaving behind their last 6 Krupp artillery pieces, then the most modern in the world. It was at that moment -the Marshal continues enthusiastically- when I called Captain Carrera and, handing him one of these cannons, I told him:"gunner without cannons, there you have a piece to act". And to my credit, he knew how to do it, firing at the fleeing enemy rearguard. It was five in the afternoon. The battle was over after nine hours of close fighting. Many of my brave soldiers remained on the field along with hundreds of enemies. But, I have told you only the part that I had to play, at the height. However, you should know that in the ravine, Bolognesi, Castañón, Dávila and Herrera fought ardently. It was a soldier from Bolognesi, Mariano de los Santos, who seized a Chilean banner. The enemy is driven from that part to Huarasiña, after vigorous encounters, and there they meet up with the remnants of the Arteaga division, which we had overwhelmed. At the same time, our entire army concentrates, and together all our forces pursue the Chileans. even beyond the hill of Minta. I have already told you that it was impossible to sweep them away, as we would have wanted, because the fatality that always accompanied us in war wanted us to have no cavalry. And so, the victory was unsuccessful, because after it, lacking food and reinforcements, we had to continue our retreat to Arica.
How was the battle of San Francisco? Painful is the memory:the lack of foresight, the Chilean espionage, the defection of Daza and his famous cable:"The desert overwhelms, the army refuses to go forward", the frustrated assault, the death of Commander Espinar at the foot of the Chilean canyons, the catastrophic night retreat…
What was the decisive cause of the loss of the war? The lack of military organization and military autonomy, particularly in ammunition. That in terms of the technical aspect, but beyond that, racial discrimination was decisive. There was no cultural or political harmony. The lack of military organization, of cohesion, of political harmony. There was patriotism, there was generous enthusiasm, there was courage and military virtues in our soldiers and in our officers, but there was also a lot of betrayal in the wealthy sectors.
And in our generals? Also. There were too many generals, whose knowledge and skills could not stand out in the contest, due to the lack of willingness of a totally politicized command.
But do you think that, without those defects and deficiencies, we would have been able to win the war? With all the numerical and weapons superiority of the Chilean army, I firmly believe so. Disunity, folly, political ambition and lack of identity in wealthy sectors lost us.
When did your career begin? In 1854, the revolution against Echenique had just broken out, provoked by the guano corruption scandals. From all corners of the country, adhesions were added. In Ayacucho, my native land, Don Ángel Cavero, one of the local residents, led the movement surrounded by popular sympathy. Many young people volunteered for the ranks. I was 19 years old, I was studying at the University of Huamanga and I was one of the most enthusiastic. We seized the gendarmerie. Then the rebel army arrived, where I finished enlisting. Then General Castilla, whom I undoubtedly liked, called me to his office and said:“Do you want to continue the career?” “Yes, sir, it is my greatest wish,” I replied with aplomb. So, he replied, patting me on the back, “you'll be a good warrior.”
And how did Marshal Castilla treat you? Castilla, who had known me since the battle of La Palma, gave me sympathy and support. So much so that several times he put up with my conceit. And that once I revolted against him.

Did he make him the "revolution"? I wanted to say that I had a fit of pride. It was when the Marshal wanted to form the "Marina" battalion. He summoned the chosen officers of the various regiments to the palace. I was highlighted from Ayacucho. He had already met me in La Palma and later in the Arequipa campaign against Vivanco. Well, Castilla inspected all the gathered officers one by one and when he got to me, he stopped looking at me and said:"What is your name, Captain?" I was unfavorably impressed by the fact that the marshal had forgotten my name and I replied:“I am, Your Excellency, the son of Don Domingo Cáceres, whose hacienda was destroyed by General Vivanco, for having been loyal to you. I was in the battle from Arequipa, where I was wounded almost losing an eye; My name is Andrés Avelino Cáceres”. “Hello, hello”, replied the marshal:“So you are Captain Cáceres, son of my friend Don Domingo. Well, well, you will stay in his body”. And I stayed in my Ayacucho battalion, in which I had started and in which I continued until I went to France, as a military attaché.
Your scar on your face, Marshal… I received this "decoration" at the turn of Arequipa, in 1856. Marshal Castilla, who had camped in the outskirts, carried out, for several nights, simulated attacks, which had the enemy in shock. The night he decided to take it for granted, he ordered me to move forward with my company and seize the 1st. enemy trench. Without hesitation, I executed that order and, surprising the occupants, managed to capture the trench, returning to inform the marshal of my task. Then, Castilla ordered me:"Keep advancing on the city, taking the heights up to the convents of San Pedro and Santa Rosa". And, although I thought it was cruel to send me to the sacrifice like this, I did not hesitate, and slipping through the roofs I advanced to the first of the convents. I don't know how I managed to jump the innumerable obstacles until suddenly I found myself inside the vault, next to the tower. Along the way he had lost many soldiers, killed by vivanquista volleys. From the tower of Santa Rosa, the fire that was made on us was incessant. But, the 2 bodies that formed the 1st. Marshal Castilla's division had flowed through streets parallel to the convent and thus fell on the atrium and the interior, forcing the enemies to abandon it. Meanwhile I went up, with mine, to the tower and there I had to endure the fire from the frontier tower of Santa Marta. Meanwhile, Castilla had entered the convent from another side. Colonel Beingolea climbed the tower, believing it to be empty, and bumped into me and my soldiers. Calculate the surprise of both of us, about to riddle each other. “We have just taken the convent”, he told me; "My colonel:I had already taken it," I answered. The colonel hugged me and announced that he would make this feat known to Castilla. "He's down there, with the whole Army," and he left.

I continued to face the fire of those from Santa Marta, and showed my soldiers the target towards which they should shoot, a bullet knocked me down blinding me. My soldiers picked me up and took me down to the refectory of the convent, where Sergeant Coayla and Corporal Huamaní attended me. I was deprived of knowledge. When I recovered it, I found Captain Norris, one of my best companions, by my side, asking me what I wanted. "Water, I'm dying of thirst," I answered. In a little while he returned with a plate of jam and a bottle of water. The sweet was not necessary for me, nor could I ingest it. His jaw was clenched. Only a small slot let the water pass. Desperate, I drank part of the contents of the jug and had the rest poured on my face so that I could wash the wound, almost fainting. The doctor said the wound was fatal. The chaplain was about to give me last rites... Then my soldiers transferred me to the house of a lady named Berrnúdez, because typhus infected the wounded in the convent and she would have finished killing me. In my new quarters, Dr. Padilla treated me, extracting the bullet at the request of my troops. They saved my life.
And how was your convalescence? I remember that the mothers of the convent who had taken a liking to me, sent me the diet there. What cakes! How sweet! And here comes the curious thing:once I was convalescing, I was going to have lunch at the convent and the mother superior, very serious, spoke to me one day like this:“Lieutenant, you have been reborn in this convent, right?”, “Without a doubt, Reverend; From here they picked me up almost corpse and here they began to cure me, I owe you care that I would not know how to thank”. "And why don't you leave your career and become a friar?" I almost fell backwards from shock. I had to contain my laughter:“I friar, mother! I am not worthy to wear the robes…” I had to appeal to all my oratorical resources to make the mother desist. Poor she suffered a disappointment. She already saw me with a shaved head, hood and cassock!
Marshal, what has been the happiest time of her life? The best days of my life, during my youth, were of course those spent in Arica, when we were in garrison, before the capture of Arequipa. I had a great game among the girls, I had a lot of fun!
Marshal, and the most satisfying memory of his military life? The La Breña campaign is the most honorable page of my military life. He did not hesitate to proclaim it myself. I am proud of her. I have very present and will accompany me to the grave, all the enthusiasm, all the satisfactions, all the disappointments, and also bitterness, that I experienced during those three years of constant battle. All those who joined me, to continue the campaign and expel the hated enemy from the country, even after the disasters of San Juan and Miraflores and the taking of Lima, refused to help me... Ambitions, quarrels, petty passions, everything coalesced against me, who defended the homeland, when everyone left it abandoned to misfortune, the memory of my soldiers and guerrillas, the people in arms, marching between punas and ravines, graceful and brave, they were the great anonymous heroes that history will one day vindicate .
Is it true that the Kaiser recognized you as the winner of Tarapacá? Of course. I went to the audience that I requested in my capacity as minister of Peru and the Kaiser advanced to extend his hand to me:"I have the pleasure of shaking hands with the winner of Tarapacá, that great battle won after the disaster of San Francisco." The King of Spain, when he met me, told me:“It is known that you have always fought head-on, General”. He was alluding to the scar on his face. And the one from Italy:"I am very pleased to meet the general who has given so much glory to his country."
Interview with Marshal Andrés Avelino Cáceres, in the newspaper La Crónica, November 27, 1921, on the occasion of the 42nd anniversary of the victory of Tarapacá, during the War of the Pacific .