The Battle of Tacna, also known as the Battle of Alliance Heights (Spanish: Batalla del Alto de la Alianza), effectively destroyed the Peru-Bolivian alliance against Chile, forged by a secret treaty signed in 1873. On May 26, 1880, the Chilean northern operations army led by General Manuel Baquedano González, conclusively defeated a Peru-Bolivian army commanded by Bolivian President, General Narciso Campero, after almost five hours of fierce combat. This battle took place at the Inti Urqu (Intiorko) hill plateau, a few miles north of the Peruvian city of Tacna. As a result, Bolivia was knocked out of the war, leaving Peru to fight the rest of the war alone. Also, this victory consolidated the Chilean domain over the Tarapacá Province, territory definitively annexed to Chile after the signing of the Tratado de Ancón (English: Treaty of Ancon) footbal uniform, in 1884, which ended the war. Tacna itself remained under Chilean control until 1929.
After the Bolivian government threatened to confiscate the Chilean Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company on 1 February 1879, Chile sent troops to Antofagasta and took the city on 14 February. Obliged by a secret cooperation treaty signed with Bolivia on 6 February 1873; Perú was forced into the conflict. Despite Peruvian efforts to avoid a confrontation, Chile — by then aware of the secret pact — declared war on both countries on 5 April. Once started, the conflict began on the sea, since its domination was crucial for the war effort development. The Chilean Navy had serious problems with its Peruvian counterpart at the beginning, as the monitor Huáscar, commanded by Admiral Miguel Grau Seminario scored several victories at Iquique and other engagements. The lack of results determined the resignation of both Navy and Army commanders, replaced by Commodore Riveros and General Erasmo Escala. Finally, Riveros eliminated Huáscar’s threat by capturing her in the decisive encounter of Angamos on 8 October.
With the sea assured, the Chileans began to prepare the invasion of the Tarapacá Department.
Accordingly, Chile launched an amphibious operation at Pisagua on 2 November, successfully pushing the Allies inland and isolating the strongholds of Arica and Iquique. Escala’s army continued moving into the Peruvian department seeking water supplies to support the beach head of Pisagua. A scout mission encountered and crushed two allied squadrons at Pampa Germania on 6 November. Two weeks later, on 19 November, an outnumbered Colonel Emilio Sotomayor defeated General Buendía at San Francisco Hill, near Dolores. This action was marked by the failed march of Daza with the bulk of Bolivian army. This is known until this day as the Camarones betrayal.
These victories made the Chileans too confident. A poorly planned attack over Buendía’s army remains at Tarapacá confronted 4,000 Peruvians against 2,200 Chileans under Col. Luis Arteaga. The battle ended with almost 30% of Arteaga’s men dead, wounded of captured.
Despite his victory, Buendía left Tarapacá under Chilean control. The Allies withdrew to Arica in an extenuating and perilous march, and lost almost 2,000 men. When arrived, both Buendía and Dávila were removed from their commissions and court-martialed.
Additionally, the lack of results generated popular discontent in Perú and Bolivia. This was determinant for the deposition of the President of Perú, Mariano Ignacio Prado, and his Bolivian counterpart, Hilarión Daza. Both were deposed and replaced by Nicolás de Piérola and General Narciso Campero, respectively. Also, the loss of the Tarapacá Department stopped the earnings of the saltpeter trade, making the war financial weight heavier for the Allies.
After being defeated at Tarapacá, the Chileans went quiet for some time. The government in Santiago believed that with the capture of Tarapacá, Perú would be inclined to sign a truce, allowing to keep the recently gained territory as war compensation. Also, Chile saw how civilian volunteers increased the army contingent up to 10,000 men in less than six months. Besides, the control of Antofagasta meant an extra cash-flow from the saltpeter exportation, making possible to purchase weapons, clothes, food and other war materials the expanding army would require, easing the burden of war expenditures.
The Allies had about 11,000 men between Tacna and Arica; also, the new Bolivian President Narciso Campero managed to send another division to Tacna. But, there were disagreements about how to face the enemy between Admiral Lizardo Montero and Piérola’s deputy, Pedro del Solar, wasting precious time in internal disputes whilst the Chileans marched towards Tacna. Meanwhile, the Peruvian vessel Unión broke through the blockade on Arica, delivering supplies, medicines and shoes to the port garrison. The army present in Tacna had about 10,000 men and thirty one cannons — six Krupp cannons, six machine guns, two La Hitte cannons, seven 4″ strayed cannons and 12″ Blackey cannons. The Allied infantry had to fight with different types of rifles, making it harder to supply them.
The Chilean High Command planned a landing at Ilo and Pacocha to scout the country and to gain knowledge of the Allies status. Following two previous incursions, 10,000 men were unshipped at Ilo. By the time of these events, Gen. Erasmo Escala resigned his commission as Commander in Chief due to constant arguments with War Minister Rafael Sotomayor. The latter appointed General Manuel Baquedano Gonzalez, a Peru-Bolivian Confederacy war veteran, who had the sympathies and respect of the soldiers as his successor. Since the beginning of the conflict, the infantry was equipped with Comblain and upgraded Gras rifles, using the same type of bullets. The artillery had thirty-seven cannons — twenty Krupp cannons and seventeen mountain cannons.
A Chilean expeditionary force disembarked at Ilo on 31 December, to take the port and eliminate any resistance in the region. Under Lt. Col. Arístides Martínez, the Chileans took control of the town and severed the telegraph to Moquegua. Afterwards, the expedition took the train to Moquegua, and seized the town the next morning. Then, Martínez returned to Ilo and sailed back to Pisagua on January 2. With this successful campaign, Sotomayor decided to attack Tacna and Arica with the whole army, leaving Moquegua alone.
A massive landing took place between 18 February and 25 February. In two separated waves, four divisions disembarked at Ilo. On the 27, the Chilean Navy began the bombardment of Arica, where Huáscar‘s new captain Manuel Thompson, died.
On 8 March, another Chilean expedition of 900 soldiers under Colonel Orozimbo Barbosa was sent to Mollendo. Ten days later, Gen. Campero’s 5th Division reached Tacna, assuming control of the Allied Army. By the end of the month, the Peruvian stronghold of Los Angeles Hill, -a position considered unbreakable by the Allies- fell to Baquedano. Shortly after, the Chileans marched across the desert to Tacna, but the artillery had to be re-embarked and shipped to Ite; while on 9 April, the Peruvian port of El Callao was set under blockade.
On 20 May, Minister Rafael Sotomayor died of a stroke at Las Yaras. The Chilean President Aníbal Pinto appointed José Francisco Vergara as the new War Minister in Campaign.
Whilst the Chilean Army developed in the Tacna Department, the Allies had their own problems. Montero wanted to wait for the Chileans at Tacna, but Col. Eliodoro Camacho supported the idea to march and ambush them at the Sama river valley, easing the communications with Arequipa. Trying to avoid any confrontation, Gen. Campero traveled to Tacna to take charge, assuming his command on April 19. On the night of 25 May, Campero’s troops tried to ambush the Chileans at Quebrada Honda, but the darkness and the mist prevented the Allies from doing so, forcing their return to Tacna for defense preparations.
The Intiorko plateau is an arid and soft-sloped terrain located a few miles north from Tacna, becoming an excellent shooting ground. It has on the rear a series of little sand accumulations that allowed the concealment of reserve units behind them. The flanks are protected by the Sama-Tacna road from the east, and to the west by an almost impossible to walk terrain, where no artillery could ever been placed, and a harsh field for infantry or cavalry movement.
The Allied plan relied on the terrain tactical advantages, so the strategy was to wait the attack from a strong position. So, the army was set on the southern edge of the Intiorko plateau, deployed in a 3 km. defensive line. The troops did not make any defenses or trenches, apart from little sand defences for the artillery on their right wing.
Campero divided his army into three major sectors, with the right wing under the command of Lizardo Montero, the centre led by Col. Manuel Castro Pinto, and the left flank commanded by Col. Eliodoro Camacho. The Southern Peruvian Army and the Bolivian Army added up twenty one battalions and eight machine guns with nine cannons, plus eight cavalry squadrons.
Baquedano had two attack plans before him. The first one was a flanking manoeuvre on the Allied right proposed by War Minister Vergara. On the other hand, Col. Velasquez had the idea to engage the whole enemy front in a simultaneous and frontal charge, taking advantage of the defensive line thinness. Hence, the troops couldn’t be moved from one point to another, avoiding that the weaker points generated during the battle could be reinforced. Besides, the lack of trenches and fortifications would make this breaking easier.
Baquedano decided to use Velasquez’ plan. Thus, the infantry split into five divisions, with the 1st Division of Col. Santiago Amengual right next to the 2nd Division of Col. Francisco Barceló on front. Right behind them was Col. Jose Amunátegui’s 3rd Division and Col. Orozimbo Barbosa’s 4th Division deployed on a third line, and behind these two was the reserve of Col. Mauricio Muñoz. Velasquez’ artillery had thirty-seven cannons and four machine guns, and the cavalry was composed of three regiments, with a fraction detached to the 2nd Division and the rest with Baquedano’s chief staff. The Chilean army presented at Tacna a total of sixteen battalions, three cavalry regiments and thirty-seven cannons.
The battle began with useless artillery cross-fire, because the projectiles buried in the sand and didn’t explode. According to Velázquez’ plan, around 10 a.m. Amengual began the march against Camacho followed by Barceló who was to attack the Allied center. Both divisions advanced under heavy fire, but failed to hit the Allies at the same time. Amengual engaged first, allowing Campero to send in Herrera’s division, followed by the Alianza and Aroma battalions from the right flank reserve. When Barceló approached to Castro Pinto, the 2nd Line Regiment recognized the Peruvian Zepita Battalion —the unit that took its banner at Tarapacá— in front of it, and charged. Until now, only 4,500 soldiers had assaulted the Allied front. When Camacho saw his units retreating, he ordered his rearguard to fire upon the fugitives.
By 11 am, Camacho had several units lined up, among them the Sucre (also known as “Amarillos”), Libres del Sur and Viedma battalions. A brief calm in the Chilean attack misled him and ordered to charge. However, an unseen maneuver performed by Velásquez’ artillery proved deadly and decimated the Allied left by entire ranks. Pretty soon, Camacho’s advance was obliterated by a precise and concentric fire that killed about 80% of the soldiers within the hour.
Then, Camacho urged for reinforcements, and the Allies’ elite units, the Aroma and Idelfonso Murguía’s “Colorados” battalions, were sent to his help. Once arrived, the reserve counterattacked Amengual immediately. Amengual’s men had already exhausted their ammunition, and they had to fall back under heavy fire. Barceló faced the same problem best meat mallet, and retreated as well with heavy casualties sweater ball shaver. The Atacama Regiment alone lost almost half of its personnel. Meanwhile, Baquedano sent Amunátegui to reinforce the vanguard, and moved the artillery forward.
To ease the retreat, Vergara ordered Yávar’s Granaderos a Caballo Regiment to charge. Although Murguía’s men received the cavalry in square formations and rejected it, they were stopped, giving Amengual and Barceló enough time to regroup and resupply. When Yávar retreated, Amunátegui’s division arrived, and along with Amengual caught the Bolivians in a heavy cross fire, tearing them to pieces. Both divisions advanced covered by the closer artillery fire, and forced the Allies back to their initial positions.
The Chileans kept pushing forward. When both armies were close, the Chilean divisions assaulted the defensive line . One of the bigger allied units, the Victoria Battalion, gave under the pressure and withdrew, breaking the Allied line.
Meanwhile, the Allied left and center were being broken, Barbosa’s division engaged the weakened Allied right. His troops encountered light resistance and outflanked the position. Once the Peruvians were outmaneuvered and forced back, Barbosa captured the artillery batteries on the sector. Baquedano sent in the reserve, which engaged the Allied right flank combined with the remains of the Atacama Battalion. With this final move, the defensive front collapsed, and the Allies fled from the battlefield after 5 hours. While the Allies retreated to Tacna, Amengual chased them until reaching the city. Later, Tacna was shelled in order to force the surrender, and finally Col. Santiago Amengual entered into the city around 18:30.
The Chilean Army had 2,200 casualties. Amengual’s, Barceló’s and Amunátegui’s divisions, which added up 6,500 men, had 1,639 dead and wounded. Barbosa’s division lost 15% of its force. The Chilean reserve almost did not fight, having only 17 wounded. The Atacama and Santiago regiments lost almost 50% of their effective force. Also the 2nd Line, Navales and Valparaíso regiments had severe losses. The 2nd Line Regiment banner lost at the battle of Tarapacá was found on a church in Tacna by Ruperto Marchant Pereira.
The Allies had casualties estimated between 3,500 and 5,000 men. The Bolivian Army lost 23 officers from Major to General. The “Colorados” Battalion had only 293 survivors, while the Aroma Battalion — also known as “Amarillo” – lost 388 soldiers, since these units chose to fight to the end instead of retreating. The Peruvian army lost 185 officers, and more than 3,000 soldiers died. According to a communication of Solar to Piérola, only 400 Peruvian men escaped from the battle.
The defeat had a decisive impact upon the Allies. Gen. Campero withdrew to Bolivia, taking the road to Palca, meanwhile Montero retired to Puno, passing through Tarata.
The battle broke the Alliance. The crippled Bolivian army didn’t participate in the war again, forcing Bolivia to accept its complete defeat. On Peru’s side, its army had to fall back north, isolating the garrison at Arica, which fell to the Chileans two weeks later.
For Chile, the victory allowed it to concentrate its efforts on conquering Lima, since it was clear to the Chilean leadership that only the fall of the Peruvian capital could end the war.