Bolivia had the indirect support of the United States, had a larger population than Paraguay and the push of its president Daniel Salamanca, a cultured and charismatic person, who did not have officers up to the task (four times he changed commander-in-chief during the war). In addition, the Bolivian soldiers were completely unmotivated, they were young people from the mountains who did not know the hostile environment of the Chaco nor did they have a clear idea of the reasons for the conflict and who their true enemies were (some believed that they were fighting a civil war and their adversaries were Bolivians from another part of the country).
Instead, the Paraguayans had fewer but more motivated combatants, knowledgeable about the terrain and used to the weather, led by then Colonel Estigarribia, an officer with long experience and used to the dangers of the area.
In one way or another, and despite Argentina’s neutrality, the national government discreetly supported the actions of the Paraguayans in defense of the important interests of the country in the area, dedicated to the exploitation of quebracho. Suffice it to say that Estigarribia’s headquarters were in the Puerto Casado tannin factory, from where a narrow-gauge train departed that served to transport troops to the large sector in which the war was taking place.
During the dry season, thirst raged among the combatants and in the wet season (December to May) the roads were impassable due to the mud and the flooding of the watercourses.
Hostilities began with a surprise attack by the Bolivian army on the fort Carlos Antonio Lopez on the Pitiantuta lagoon. Although the Paraguayans had to retreat, a month later the fort was recovered by the Guarani. The war that they believed would last a few weeks, was extended in time despite the economic difficulties suffered by both countries. Bolivia was experiencing a crisis due to the drop in the price of tin and other metals due to the crack of 29. Despite preparing for this confrontation, Bolivia did not have all the war material that it had bought from the British company vickers and even suffered fuel shortages because the company Standard Oil smuggled oil into Argentina through an illicit pipeline.
Paraguay reacted in a timely manner and, despite not having the necessary number of vehicles, Estigarribia planned an all-encompassing attack in the Cañada del Carmen area, a tactic that was repeated until the end of the conflict in the different battles that marked it. Boquerón, Fortín Arce, Ramírez, Castillo, Lara were the bloody battles that marked the relentless advance of the Paraguayan army.
Bolivian commanders were periodically replaced by President Salamanca. General Osorio was replaced by Lanza, but there was a popular consensus calling for the appointment of General Hans Kundt, the veteran German officer of World War I who had organized the Bolivian army on the Prussian model.
Kundt assumed leadership of the army in 1934, but after the defeats at Alihuatá and Campo Vía, he was dismissed and Kundt returned to Germany. He died in Switzerland in 1939, days before the start of World War II.
So desperate was the Bolivian government that it was about to start a biological war by infecting the Chaco lagoons with Vibrio Cholera, which would have been a disaster not only for the enemy but for the local population and the Bolivians themselves who also suffered from the lack of Water.
From the end of 1933, both Argentina and Brazil proposed a peaceful solution to the conflict. Although Paraguay accepted the arbitration from the beginning, Bolivia persisted in its belligerent attitude, but the heavy losses, especially in the surrender of Campo Vía with 2,500 dead, 7,000 prisoners and a large quantity of weapons (which even included Vickers tanks) made the Bolivian authorities doubt who, even in the face of these disastrous experiences, attempted another offensive with a massive conscription of soldiers and the handing over of command to General Toro. He achieved a significant victory in Glen Strongest.
The new balance convinced President Salamanca to initiate some kind of diplomatic agreement. While conditions were being discussed, Paraguay again seized the initiative and again achieved a series of victories, especially in the battle of Carmen and the fall of the Ballivián fort. The situation of the Bolivian soldiers became desperate due to the lack of food and the thirst that tormented them. Suicides due to the psychic instability caused by dehydration were not uncommon. Insubordination spread among the ranks and there was even an attempt to assassinate Commander Toro, head of the Bolivian troops, by his own men.
On June 12, 1935, the peace protocol between Paraguay and Bolivia was signed in Buenos Aires for this dispute that cost tens of thousands of deaths and a terrible monetary effort in two nations that suffered severe economic problems. Because of his call for peace, the Argentine foreign minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas (a descendant of Cornelio Saavedra, married to the daughter of President Roque Sáenz Peña) received the Nobel Peace Prize – to the consternation of President Justo.
Through the signing of several agreements, Paraguay kept 75% of the disputed territory, although Bolivia was able to access the Paraguay River.
Perhaps the best definition of this confusing and frightening conflict was given by the Bolivian author Augusto Cespedes referring to the confrontation as: “Heroic chronicle of a stupid war”.