A History of Paraguay
By Baruja, Paiva & Pinto

Chapter 12

When in June of 1932 the first shots of the war were fired, the Bolivians felt completely assured of a swift victory. Their country was richer and much more populated than Paraguay, its army larger, had superior commanders and they were better trained and provided for. However, these advantages were not the decisive factors due to the impressive zeal of Paraguayans defending their mother country, besides the fact that they understood the base of their nationality to have firm physical roots. They could never accept that the Bolivian expectations included half of their national territory. The highly motivated Paraguayans knew perfectly the geography of the Chaco, unlike the Bolivians and for that reason, they could easily infiltrate the Bolivian lines, surround bunkers and capture provisions. Contrarily, the Indians of the Bolivian Highlands were recruited in the Bolivian army by force, but did not have a genuine interest in the war and never adapted to the harsh climate of the Chaco like the native Paraguayans. As if only a small thing, the meager provisions, poor paths and the logistics impeded the Bolivian campaign. The Paraguayans were more united than the Bolivians, at least initially, as President Eusebio Ayala and Colonel Estigarribia worked very well together.

That war laid the foundations for the definitive ascent of the Guaraní language as the second national language due to its use as a code in the army. As the Bolivians did not pay attention to that apparently insignificant detail, they soon did not know what to make of the Paraguayan intelligence.

On June 15, 1932, the Bolivians initiated hostilities by taking Fort Carlos A. López on the banks of the strategic lake Pitiantuta, but a month later troops led by Captain A. Palacios recovered that position at a terrible cost. Bolivia also took Boquerón, which was a few kilometers from Asunción as well as other smaller forts. Paraguay called a truce for peace talks but Bolivia had decided to go for the victory.

In the middle of a war, an admirable democratic practice began: Guggiari (who was occupying a second presidency after his resignation) hands over the presidential command to Eusebio Ayala who was known for his pacifism but against adversity did not hesitate in showing his patriotism. He put a civilian, Justo Pastor Benítez in the position of Secretary of the Military and Naval Branch, an unusual action in the midst of battle. Soon he granted the practical control of the troops to Colonel Estigarribia.

Without hesitation, Paraguay took the offensive by attacking Boquerón. This being formidably defended from invaders was finally surrendered on September 29, 1932 after 20 days of uninterrupted combat, various displays of heroism and enormous shortages. It was the general Bolivian retreat. The rest of the country felt that as great boost to moral as it saw that a small, but well equipped army of a country with limited resources had won the battle. Since Curupaity, Paraguay had not had such a resounding victory but on this occasion the feeling of winning a war felt very certain.

Bolivia had to resort to recruiting as the commander of its troops the German veteran general of World War I, Hans Kundt. He attempted to stop the Paraguayan attack in Saavedra but failed in his offensive at Nanawa in January of 1933.

Meanwhile there were discussions of peace. The United States proposed a plan that visibly favored Bolivia. Paraguay had the wisdom to reject it. Of all its neighbors, only Argentina helped the Guaraníes under the table with rockets, fuel and other resources. Even the future Argentine president Perón, then a major in the neighboring army, he had been the coordinator of the trafficking in Paso de los Libres in the southwest of Paraguay dressed as a Paraguayan colonel to avoid a probable capture and execution for violating Argentina’s “neutrality". For his collaboration, years later, Perón was made an honorary general of the Paraguayan Army. This time, the Brazilians and Chileans minimally supported Bolivia to attempt to shift the balance of power more to La Plata. Days later in February of 1933, Argentina and Chile proposed a plan that this time Paraguay accepted but Bolivia did not, trusting in Kundt. But Kundt suffered an ugly military defeat in Toledo at the end of the month.

Paraguay officially declared war on May 10, 1933. This meant that Bolivia could no longer supply itself through the Pilcomayo and the Pacific Ocean through Chile.

By July of 1933, Bolivia launched a general attack against several forts, including the important plaza of Nanawa. They failed with many spectacular losses in human lives. The enigmatic and laconic Estigarribia (so described by the great poet Augusto Roa Bastos in one of his works) ordered an offensive intending to exterminate the Bolivian army.

Estigarribia became a general (this was the first time that the national army was run by a general. It would not soon have another for the duration of the battle) and surrounded the Bolivians in Pampa Grande y Pozo Favorito in September of 1933. On December 11 they forced the opposing army to hand over their arms after a catalytic victory in Campo Vía. The nation was overjoyed.

There was an armistice that only lasted until January 6, 1934. Kundt was discharged and replaced by General Peñaranda. The Paraguayans wasted no time in advancing north following the Pilcomayo River. In March of 1934, the Bolivians suffered defeat at Cañada Tarija but also had a significant victory at Cañada Strongest, the only blemish on the brilliant military career of the future Marshal Estigarribia. Ballivián on the Pilcomayo looking towards Argentina seemed unconquerable and Estigarribia understood that it was better to go further north going along the side to surround him.
On November 16, 1934, Colonel Carlos Fernández won the important victory of El Carmen in the Chaco on land then considered to be Bolivian. At the same time, Estigarribia attempted to prevail over the enemy’s counter offensive. Because of this battle, Ballivián, who was already without provisions, surrendered and the Paraguayan troops continued into Bolivian territory while the Bolivian president Salamanca was deposed by unsatisfied Bolivian officials.

The last reserves of the Bolivian army attempted one last attack but Estigarribia understood that to confront them before they reached the supplies of water at Yrendague in the middle of a huge desert would be a huge victory. Thanks to his official Eugenio Garay, that was exactly what he did, and the enemy was soundly defeated. Thus the expedition continued towards the old Parapití River which was the border of Paraguay and sovereign Bolivia when the Guaranís arrived from a distant river. Total victory came January 16, 1935. The Paraguayan Chaco and parts of enemy territory were effectively in Paraguayan hands.
On April 16, 1935, Charagua, the first and only Bolivian city that underwent attack, fell to the Paraguayans. Alarmed Bolivians escaped the Paraguayans but in Ingaví on July 7, 1935, they were defeated. Before Estigarribia’s impassive gaze, the commander of the sixth Bolivian division and more than 1000 enemy soldiers surrendered.

This signaled the end of the war. It had been an expensive war, almost 125 million dollars in cash were spent, but in a unique case, the State was left without debt. However, the human cost was high, of the 140,000 involved in the war, 36,000 never returned home.

Estigarribia, who used various military movements that were utilized later on in WWII, emerged as one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century, comparable to such great men as Petain, Hindenburg, Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Patton. These are excellent comparisons in spite of the critique of competent Paraguayan official Arturo Bray regarding some of Estigarribia’s military decisions.

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