This Sunday one hundred years will have passed since the signing of the armistice that ended World War One. Considering that a plethora of articles will, undoubtedly, be published in the coming days highlighting a war that is often overshadowed by its sequel, I thought it might be interesting to look at a battle that saw the first use of some of the tactics that would later typify war in the 21st century.
A full four years before the Spanish Civil War would become the “testing ground” of the Axis, two nations were already experimenting with strategies that would become synonymous with modern mobile warfare. In 1932, Bolivia and Paraguay squared off in what became known as the War of the Chaco (Guerra del Chaco). At the heart of the matter was a longstanding territorial dispute, but the discovery of oil would exacerbate the situation, leaving Bolivia and Paraguay scrambling for control over this sparsely populated and arid zone.
The first major battle of the war occurred at Fortín Boquerón, a makeshift military outpost of trenches and earthen walls that was quickly overrun by Bolivian patrols prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Bolivian President Daniel Salamanca had hoped to add the area around Boquerón into the “disputed territories” that both sides were attempting to delineate through diplomatic negotiations. However, after the fall of Boquerón and two other forts, the Paraguayans came to the conclusion that no amicable settlement was possible and mobilized 10,000 troops to retake the area. Although the Bolivians only had about 600 men stationed at Boquerón, they were able to hold off more than 10 times their number for over three weeks in a bloody siege that would witness new innovations in warfare.
The battle began on the morning of September 9, 1932, with an artillery barrage followed by a frontal attack by the “Curupayty” regiment who had previously lost the fort to the Bolivians. A hundred meters from the Bolivian trenches the assault faltered in the face of heavy machine gun fire. The defenders immediately counterattacked with their own artillery causing confusion in the Paraguayan lines. Nevertheless, the Paraguayans were able to reform and launched several more unsuccessful assaults, leaving hundreds of casualties littering the fields around Boquerón.
Realizing that Boquerón simply could not be overrun, the commanding officer Colonel José Félix Estigarribia decided to blockade the fort, cutting off its supply line to the several thousand Bolivian soldiers operating in the region. But this presented Estigarribia with another problem. A siege would require his force to operate in the area for an extended period of time with the closest source of water 50 kilometers away at Isla Poi. In fact, many soldiers had left the line during the first day of battle because of thirst.
Initially, Estigarribia did not have the necessary logistics in place to keep his troops hydrated. The environment of the Chaco was unsuitable for horses, which typically were employed to transport supplies. To solve this problem, serviceable vehicles throughout Paraguay were quickly sent to the front. This motley collection of private trucks and cars would form the backbone of the army, often having to outmaneuver Bolivian patrols or escape aircraft to bring water to the troops. At a time when most armies relied mainly on draft animals (the Germans would employ nearly 3 million horses during World War II) to meet their logistical demands, Paraguay had become a truly mechanized forced.
The days following the initial assault saw the Paraguayans increase their control of the area surrounding the fort. Small contingents of Bolivians were still able to break through and reinforce the beleaguered defenders. However, the Paraguayans quickly adjusted their tactics to ambush relieving forces that were sent into the combat zone piecemeal.
As the defenders’ situation worsened, the Bolivian high command hit on a novel idea. While conflicting reports had more or less paralyzed infantry operations, the Bolivians had a comparably powerful air force that controlled the skies. For the rest of the siege, Bolivia would attempt to supply its troops through the air, something that had been tried on only a handful of occasions during WWI. Yet, the forward-thinking was hindered by technological restraints ultimately leaving many of the supplies damaged or, even worse, in the hands of the enemy.
While the Bolivians were experimenting with airpower, the Paraguayans were putting another weapon to good use. With limited resources to spend on its military, Paraguay had fortuitously purchased a large cache of WWI era Stokes mortars. Although the Stokes mortar had been designed in 1915 for use in the trench, it was during the Chaco War that the Paraguayan military proved just how useful this technology could be. Light and easy to operate, the mortar allowed the Paraguayan infantryman to bring superior firepower against entrenched enemy soldiers without losing mobility. They were so effective that the commanding officer at Boquerón, Manuel Marzana, believed that he was under assault by unseen long-range artillery. In the harsh environment of the Chaco where tanks and cavalry could not operate, it would be the mortar that would play the key role in punching through enemy lines.
By the 26th, the Bolivians were close to surrendering. Two weeks of bombardments had left the poorly supplied defenders on the verge of collapse. Estigarribia, sensing victory and desperate to continue his offensive against a rapidly mobilizing Bolivian army, ordered nearly 2,000 of his troops to attack a small stretch of the fort. But despite some initial success, the assault was repulsed. Nevertheless, by the 29th, the Bolivians had reached their breaking point and surrendered.
Boquerón was no great victory, but it did ultimately provide Estigarribia with crucial lessons. In many ways, Boquerón was a typical WWI era battle, where overwhelming force was used in the hopes of defeating an entrenched position. But it was also a Petri dish for new ideas. The use of combined arms, mobile tactics, and even airdrops would all become staples of modern warfare in the years to come.
To his credit, Estigarribia lost little time in adopting strategies developed during the siege to be used with devastating effect later in the campaign. After Boquerón, Estigarribia would bypass Bolivian garrisons, where small forces in well-defended positions could exact a high cost, looking instead to use mobility to encircle larger army groups. Unencumbered by heavy artillery and the logistical demands of tanks, the Paraguayan forces could deploy rapidly and concentrate its mortar fire against the enemy. Indeed, it would take the Bolivians three months to finally halt the Paraguayan advance.
And while both sides would revert to WWI trench warfare during the course of the three year conflict, well-planned offensives (both militarily and logistically) could and did break the stalemate. Estigarribia may not have been the most brilliant general of his century, but he was competent enough to place Paraguay, a country that lacked resources and manpower, in a position to end the war on advantageous terms.