A century ago, after a prolonged period of recuperation and planning, the Western Front was back in full-on, bloodletting action. In line with Berlin’s decision to focus resources on the escalation of submarine warfare while remaining poised to exploit fallout from Russia’s revolutionary chaos in the east, the German Army in France had taken a small step backwards to occupy carefully prepared defensive positions. In line with recent tradition, the French and British armies on the Western Front had chosen to hurl themselves at those positions in the same northern and southern sectors of the front that had been their targets since the beginning of 1915, employing a tweaked and expanded version of the same tactics that had failed every time.
As usual, the Allied attacks were launched in the belief that final victory was just a well-aimed push away, but this time the belief was a little more desperate and a little less universal. While politicians clung gratefully to French Army c-in-c Nivelle’s assertion that his version of breakthrough tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours, they were forced to override opposition from many senior commanders in both armies. I’ve talked about the build-up to the Allied spring offensives on the Western Front before (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and on 9 April they finally got underway, when the BEF launched its opening assault in the northern sector.
This was the start of the Battle of Arras (sometimes known as the Second Battle of Arras), which encompassed various smaller battles (beginning with the Battle of Vimy Ridge), and which formed the northern prong of the Allied Artois and Champagne Offensive (often known as the Nivelle Offensive). If that seems unclear, bear in mind it’s a simplification and then let’s move on.
The Nivelle Offensive was destined to be the usual disaster and its centenaries (again beginning with the genuinely heroic, largely Canadian and distinctly minor victory at Vimy Ridge) are destined to keep the Anglophone heritage industry busy for the foreseeable future. There’s no real need for me to bang on about the combinations of bad weather, bad strategy, bad tactics and bad luck that turned the spring of 1917 into another miserable confirmation that contemporary methods of attack were no match for efficient, trench-based defence, so I won’t. Instead, let’s take a look at South America, because on 11 April 1917 Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Bolivia followed suit two days later.
The standard line on Latin America during the First World War is that the flight of European money and influence during the conflict opened the door for American business interests, bolstered by money, military force and diplomatic pressure, to gain control over much the continent’s exportable economic output. This was true enough, broadly speaking, but sweeping generalisations applied to whole continents – like the ones about all African music or all European food – tend to be short on nuance and riddled with exceptions. US economic encroachment in Latin America was primarily driven by trade winds, so it was directly concerned with securing all approaches to the new Panama Canal and focused on exploitation of small states with easy access to sea lanes; the kind of countries that could be easily coerced by the dispatch a few marines and plenty of dollars. Much of Central America, the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America were targetted accordingly, but for very different reasons neither Brazil nor Bolivia came into these categories.
Brazil, a country with plenty of accessible coastline, rich in resources for exploitation and a system of government ripe for the marines and dollars treatment, was simply too big to be an easy target for American dominance, as were its neighbours Argentina and Chile. As the region’s most powerful states, the three of them make for an interesting subset within the world at war, pursuing lines of alliance and development that would shape the continent’s turbulent twentieth-century history, so they’re worth a post of their own another day.
On the other hand Bolivia was small, possessed valuable natural resources and was dominated by an almost feudal political system that could be controlled from the centre – but it didn’t meet the accessibility criterion, having been landlocked since the loss or sale of territory to its more powerful neighbours in the late 19th century. Partly because of its relative isolation, and partly thanks to the talents of a particularly acquisitive ruling elite, the country faced no wartime threat to its political or economic independence – but that didn’t protect it from the War’s destabilising effects.
Bolivia’s otherwise agricultural economy was built on abundant tin and silver resources, and during the late 19th century its politics were run by competing oligarchies of tin and silver barons, both principally concerned with maximising their wealth and content to treat the native population as forced labour. Promises of reform had won some native support for the Liberal Party, representing the La Paz-based tin industry, which had seized power from the silver barons of the Conservative Party, based in the city of Sucre, in 1899. The Liberals still ran a government tightly controlled by the presidency in 1917, by which time they had established La Paz as the national capital and become a lot richer on the back of a tin boom based on European shortages during the early 1900s, but had done nothing to improve the miserable condition of the workforce.
Foreign investment poured into Bolivia during the tin boom, but wealthy Bolivian entrepreneurs quickly learned to exploit the dependence of overseas smelting industries on Bolivian tin. The process of putting the tin industry back into Bolivian hands was well underway by 1917 and would be complete by the early 1920s – but though the ruling elite remained prosperous during wartime, the long-range economic effects of world war, especially disruption of trade with Europe, were forcing socio-political changes that threatened its hold on power.
A long slump in the silver trade helped keep the Conservatives weak and divided, but the dip in general trade with Europe before and after the outbreak of War, along with a series of droughts that hit agricultural production, brought a third, elite-based political force into play, as a faction committed to territorial expansion broke away from the Liberals to form a Republican Party. Rapid growth of the tin mining sector, and associated construction of roads and railways, meanwhile bred rising social tensions as native workers moved into cities, where they became more organised and more militant. With strikes beginning to disrupt the mining sector, the Republicans making appeals for support to workers’ organisations, and a presidential election due in May 1917, the ruling Liberals were understandably keen to promote economic recovery through a resumption of normal trade patterns.
German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 had precisely the opposite effect, and made trade with the American continent, above all with great market of the USA, even more important to Bolivia. Under the circumstances, the US declaration of war against Germany offered the ruling oligarchy a free hit, which it took by severing diplomatic relations on 13 April.
The move was a no-brainer, offering a chance to display solidarity with the USA and to mop up the remnants of extensive pre-War German investment in the country, as well as leaving Bolivia poised to become an official belligerent should it need a voice at the peace conference. It was also good local PR, and a sense of better times on the horizon helped the Liberals win the 1917 election, but it made no difference to Bolivia’s immediate economic problems.
Nothing Bolivian leaders could do was ever going to interfere with the tsunami progress of world war economics, and better times were too long coming for the tin barons. Two decades of relatively stable misery for the Bolivian people came to an end in 1920, when a bloodless coup by the Republicans ushered in a long period of upheaval underpinned by a multi-faceted popular struggle for social reform.
The Bolivian government’s dip into world-war diplomacy involved no pressure from foreign powers, but was yet another case of a ruling elite’s opportunistic self-interest disguised as national interest. Bolivia’s behaviour was more like that of Bulgaria or Romania than of Cuba or Panama, which had declared war against Germany on 7 April in their capacity as what amounted to US client states. As with almost every state in any way involved in the First World War, those behind Bolivia’s involvement were destined to disappointment in its outcome, and couldn’t stop the ripples from distant battlefields contributing to fatal cracks in a political system built on repression.
Giving human and civil rights a small shove from a great distance isn’t such a big deal, and war-related changes didn’t conjure up any happy endings (or many happy intermissions) for the people of Bolivia – but even that has probably made a more significant contribution to modern times than the springtime slaughter on the Western Front, and it’s definitely less depressingly repetitive.