Dynamite, tunnels, explosions: five shocking moments to understand the Toma del Morro de Arica

On June 7, 1880, one of the most memorable battles of the Pacific War took place. In just 55 minutes, the Chilean army – commanded by Pedro Lagos – took possession of the impregnable fortress that protected Morro de Arica. Here is an overview.

a minefield

Until today, the Capture of the Morro de Arica in 1880, as one of the main operations of the Pacific War . The national troops not only had to pass over the fortifications of Ciudadela and Fuerte Este before attacking the fortification located at the top of the hill, the first obstacle that the Chilean soldiers had to face was a minefield.

Land explosives were the work of the Peruvian engineer Theodore Elmore , and this made the defense of El Morro impregnable. “Under his direction, Arica was filled with ditches, automatic mines and tunnels laden with dynamite, which, added to the strong natural positions and numerous artillery redoubts, made it an impregnable place”, explains the historian. Gonzalo Bulnes in his classic book Pacific War.

The Assault and Capture of Morro de Arica, Zig-Zag illustration

However, fortune was on the side of the Chileans, since in the first days of June 1880, and during an exploration party, Elmore was taken prisoner . Military They were about to shoot him, enraged because two comrades were injured by the effect of the mines, but Elmore only saved his life thanks to the intercession of the Chilean engineer Orrego Cortés, who went with the national troops and asked the colonel for the clemency for elmore’s life Pedro Lakes commanding the detachment. Lagos agreed and Elmore saved his life, although he was kept as a prisoner. There, the valuable power grid blueprints that activated the mines were confiscated. Valuable information for what was to follow.

The Colonel Who Wouldn’t Surrender

Arica was an important city and became a main target for the aspirations of the Chilean forces, once victory was achieved in the Battle of Tacna . “The objective of the Tacna campaign was to conquer the departments of Moquegua, Tacna and Arica, but after the Battle of Tacna the last remaining resistance was Arica. The objective was to destroy this force, which was more or less 2,000 men”, explained the Chilean historian to this media. Raphael Mellafe specialist in military history.

Moreover, according to journalist and writer Guillermo Parvex, “Chile immediately needed a port, for various reasons. The first and most urgent, to be able to evacuate to Antofagasta, Caldera and Valparaíso the almost 1,800 wounded from the battle of Tacna and more than 1,000 seriously ill, who had contracted malaria in Moquegua”.

For this reason, the general, chief of the Chilean army, Manuel Baquedano , ordered some bombardments on the city, on June 5th. But this turned out to be in vain, as the Chilean guns were placed very far from the objective. Then the general sent Major of Artillery Juan de la Cruz Salvo to finalize the surrender to the Peruvian Colonel Francois Bolognesi , charged with the defense of Arica. The officer replied with the fiber of those who feel like a hero: “I have sacred duties, and I will fulfill them until the last cartridge is burned.”

The Answer (1891). Oil by Juan Lepiani.

A surprise tactic

When the bombardment proved useless, Baquedano ordered Lagos to storm the city. He accepted, but he had a problem which he did not mention to his superior: according to historian Gonzalo Bulnes in his book pacific war, Lagos would only have 150 rounds per rifle for each soldier, that is, little ammunition to carry out such a task.

But the ammunition shortage he replaces it with a strategy that proves to be as effective as it is surprising for his rivals. During a new bombardment of Arica which took place on June 6, and after having received the order of Baquedano, Lagos ordered the Lautaro regiment to go to the city of Arica to recognize the Peruvian force, but with an order key: that they walk along the coast.

The Morro in 1880

The idea was not accidental. “It makes Bolognesi think that the main attack is going to come from the beach, not from the other side,” explained Rafael Mellafe. For this reason, the Peruvian leader decided to concentrate the majority of his forces in this sector. Furthermore, he ordered the regiments of the 3rd and 4th lines, plus the Buin, to move up the Lluta valley and head towards Arica behind the hills, in order not to be seen by the Peruvian lookouts. Also, the walk was done stealthily.

Meanwhile, Lagos ordered another operation. “He left the cavalry at the Chacalluta camp, with the sole mission of tending the bonfires at night. The idea was that the defenders of El Morro think that the Chilean force was still there,” says Rafael Mellafe. So, at dawn on June 7, and after marching all night, the 3rd Line turned right to face the Citadel, and the 4th Line turned to the east. Once close, the troops embark on a frantic race which surprises the Peruvians.

This tactic, Lagos had learned this from the campaigns against the Mapuche, from which he drew his surprise tactics in the middle of the dense forests of southern Chile. ” To my taste, Lagos is the best tactician in the Pacific War points out Mellafe. He was in the Battle of Tacna on Baquedano’s staff and had a leading role in managing the divisions in the battle itself.

Painting representing the capture of Morro de Arica in 1880.
Painting representing the capture of Morro de Arica in 1880.

Devil’s Chupilca?

A popular myth has raised the idea that Chilean soldiers completed their task quickly because they had consumed a brew known as “The Devil’s Chupilca”. It was a liquor composed of gunpowder and brandy which was said to cause a stimulating effect. Its name derives from the drink of the same name made of chicha and toasted flour.

But specialists categorically deny its existence. “It’s a great myth, the devil’s chupilca never existed. It’s an invention that Jorge Inostroza made in his novel Farewell the seventh line», affirms -categorically- Rafael Mellafe, author of the book Myths and Truths of the Pacific War (Legatum Editores, 2014), in which he addresses certain passages of the conflict that are more rooted in popular culture than in books.

“It is fully proven that it was never ingested by Chilean troops as there is no primary historical source that mentions or even alludes to the existence, let alone the use of this concoction or anything something similar”, adds Guillermo Parvex, also excluding any other use of stimulants.

Col. Pedro Lagos

Pedro Lagos, killed in action?

In the midst of the 2020 Army Glory Day Memorial Ceremony, not in O’Higgins Park but on the Military School’s Alpatacal Patio (due to the pandemic), the then President , Sebastián Piñera, had a misstep . Like so many others in his political career who are known as “Piñericosas”.

He mentioned that in the past there were occasions when members of the army gave their lives in combat, “as did, for example, Colonel Pedro Lagos when taking Morro de Arica or Captain Ignacio Carrera Pinto during the Battle of Concepción”.

However, Pedro Lagos Marchant did not die during said battle. Strictly speaking, he did not die in battle either, but his death occurred in Concepción in 1884, shortly after the end of the conflict between Chile and the republics of Peru and Bolivia.

Indeed, Guillermo Parvex assured this medium: “During the whole Pacific war, he systematically concealed the fact that he suffered from a serious liver disease, an ailment which caused his death in 1884, at the end of the conflict.”

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Source: Latercera

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