This is the third of a projected five-volume history of the Chaco War by a principal Paraguayan corps commander. Since the war, when not engaged in Liberal politics, the author has devoted himself to historical work. He has collected private memoirs, letters, and statements from knowledgeable participants, and has acquired important unit records. He has utilized his sources in a manner suggestive of Mitre or Bulnes. The product is, thus far, the finest Paraguayan account of the epic struggle over the Chaco Boreal.
The present volume covers the final months of Bolivia’s unsuccessful 1933 offensive and the development of the Campo Vía or Zenteno-Gondra campaign which culminated in a double envelopment of most of her army. It is true, as charged against the Schlieffen Plan, that in military history great envelopments have rarely been decisive, but nevertheless, Campo Vía was one of the hemisphere’s most brilliant actions and Fernández’ account of it is worthy of the battle’s strategic excellence.
The first portion of the book is the most complete integration to date of Bolivian and Paraguayan materials on General Kundt’s failure to win the war for his adopted Bolivia. Fernández strengthens the growing belief that Kundt’s failure was not entirely his own but owed much to the ineptitude of his Bolivian officers. While he attempted to wage war frugally, obeying the wishes of President Salamanca, his commanders were unable to utilize their available resources effectively. The Bolivian shortcomings were soon recognized by José Félix Estigarribia, Paraguay’s brilliant commander.
Fernández, turning to the disputed authorship of the victory of Campo Vía, doubts that the battle was a carefully planned classical conception. Rather, it resulted from a nearly fortuitous combination of ideas and execution. The author feels that Bolivian retreat, not annihilation, was Estigarribia’s original objective. Yet, the action confirms the latter’s ability to pyramid successes, while Kundt descended through successive defeats.
Great as Estigarribia was, he owed much to his energetic subordinates. When a key commander, noted as an organizer, lost heart, Estigarribia entrusted the crucial maneuver to a talented lieutenant colonel who drove 10,000 men to victory. The treatment such officers received in the Chaco, however, planted the seeds of the ambitions and jealousies which culminated in the 1936 febrerista revolution and conditioned Paraguay’s unfortunate postwar history. It remains a tribute to the country that her contentious sons remained united in one of the most impressive war efforts of modern times.
Although Fernández fully merits renown as a historian, his work is not flawless. His very diligence in presenting verbatim source accounts gives the book a patchwork character at times. Only brief narrative too often connects important documents. On the other hand, while a booklet by Rafael Franco, with whom the author disagrees, is hardly mentioned, the equally opinionated diary of another primadonna is quoted extensively. The casualty figures cited at times seem incredible, although the author uses the best available information. His summation of 7,000 Paraguayan losses to 12,000 Bolivian dead and 10,000 captured seems reliable enough.
This book is a notable contribution to South American military history. Readers will look forward to the appearance of the remaining volumes, one of which is in press.