RESEARCH ON LITTLE-KNOWN EPISODES IN THE WAR OF THE PACIFIC
The War of the Pacific was a significant milestone in Chilean history. Today, the Chilean people are unfamiliar with many of the stories from this period, Chilean Army officer Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Kaiser, ventured to investigate this historical period in his book "Antofagasta 1879: Construyendo el camino a la Victoria" (Antofagasta 1879. Building the Road to Victory) weaves the strategic, political, and social themes together into a story that fascinates from beginning to end.
We talked to Ricardo, a self-declared lover of history, about the history of the Chilean Army to obtain a behind-the-scenes look into how this research project was born and developed.
How did you become interested in writing this book?
Antofagasta 1879 was born out of my curiosity as to what really happened in that period. When we were children, and we were taught at school about the War of the Pacific, so we are familiar with the landing in Antofagasta on February 14, 1879. Then we jumped to the battle of Calama and quickly turn our gaze to the Maritime campaign. After the capture of the Huáscar (Peru’s most powerful warship) by Chilean warships, the preparations of Chilean forces to disembark in Pisagua and start the Tarapacá campaign followed. Many questions arose from this incomplete history which inspired my curiosity. I asked myself, what happened during the rest of that year, how was the force prepared, how was it trained and sustained, and were there other engagements? In 2013 I was a student at the Chilean Army War College studying for my Masters in Military History and Strategic Thinking. This program is unique in Chile; the outstanding professors are specialized in both ancient and modern armed conflicts. An essential module in the degree program was Chile's military history, particularly the study of the War of the Pacific.
At the end of my master's degree, the Army’s Cultural, Historical, and Extension Department invited me to present a paper on "The Cavalry roles in the Antofagasta Campaign" at their Military History Conference. Many historians and people who are passionate about the subject participated in this event. After my presentation, Rafael Mellafe, Director of Legatum, approached me and, besides congratulating me for the paper, offered to publish the book.
Tell us the story of this event?
My book focuses on everything which happened from February 14, the day of the occupation of Antofagasta, through the whole year of 1879. I catalogue and describe several previously unknown events of the Antofagasta campaign, including isolated episodes such as the bombardment of the port of Antofagasta, the capture of the Rimac personnel carrier, and the Chilean forces occupation of the line of operations along the Loa River. Regrettably, traditional history texts rarely recount these important events.
The book brings to life many forgotten vignettes including the battle of Canchas Blancas, Sergeant Major José María 2º Soto’s raids throughout the altiplano (Andes highlands) in search of supplies, and engagements at Rio Grande and Monte de la Soledad. The narrative illustrates how a military campaign requires not only great battles, but also depends on competent organization, deployment, and training to achieve a strategic objective. Lastly, the book captures the sacrifices cavalry soldiers made in the altiplano. I would dare to say that no other book talks exclusively about this campaign.
What type of reader or audience is it aimed at?
This book is mainly for those who enjoy history; however, it is also an excellent opportunity for anyone who wants to learn more about the War of the Pacific. For example, for those readers who are not familiar with the geography of northern Chile, particularly the Antofagasta region, this book offers an excellent opportunity to immerse themselves in the theater of operations. The inserted maps, especially an enlarged one that comes in the appendices, allow readers to visualize the time and feel like a soldier in the war. For those who want to explore further into this period, Legatum offers many other texts which illuminate other campaigns as well.
Military historians will enjoy this because it is a bit controversial – not everyone agrees this was truly a campaign. They will also find it useful in their own research due to the great primary and secondary sourcing I discovered. With support from extensive primary documents, I describe in the book's first part how it was a military campaign with significant strategic value to Chile. Those who like the genre will enjoy this work as I also describe tactical actions.
Any other projects along these lines?
Yes! I’m really interested in the Sierra Campaign because so little is written about it so there is still much to research and publish. But also, a dream I have is to preserve Tarapacá into a great meeting point as a national battlefield park like Gettysburg. When I was a child, my father took me to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the United States, where we visited all the monuments and sites. This was a famous battle that would decide the fate of the American Civil War. I still have that guidebook with a detailed explanation of the events that took place.
It would be fascinating to have a Tarapacá designated an historical site complete with different stations explained in detail in a book. As an example, it is a pleasure to visit Campo de la Alianza in Tacna and see how Peru cares for, respects, and maintains its heroes’ and veterans' memory and I believe we in Chile should do the same for our citizens who sacrificed so much for our nation.
How would you describe your experience with this book?
Writing this book was an enriching experience. My family deserves recognition, especially my wife Carolina, who always encouraged me and supported me in the most challenging moments. Because it is my first book, I learned that writing requires perseverance and a lot of discipline. That was especially true in those moments where specific episodes could not be connected. That demanded more and more research! Writing this book was a challenge due to my military duties which are very demanding in terms of limiting my available time for writing. I always had to work evenings and weekends. In that very real sense, I can never repay the debt of gratitude I owe to my family who selflessly and loving supported me and my many absences to accomplish this project.
Finally, the experience of researching our history was enriching because it helped me appreciate just how much it cost to have what we have today. I spent a large part of my military career in northern Chile where this war occurred. The value I assign to this period in our history is in recognition of our ancestors' sacrifices and dedication, which I intend to share with everyone who ventures into "Antofagasta 1879. Construyendo el camino a la Victoria."