South America in the Great War

Border disputes and the Powers

South America 1918.0719

South America in the Great War

The Acre dispute, Venezuela crises, South America in WWI, and the Chaco War (19 July 1918)

Historical Map of South American nations

When World War I broke out in Europe, the German East Asia Squadron attempted to reach the Atlantic via the Pacific and Cape Horn, raiding merchant ships along the route. After the squadron was defeated off the Falkland Islands in late 1914, German submarine attacks became the main threat to South American trade and shipping. In 1917, primarily in response to the intensification of submarine warfare, Brazil joined the United States and became the only South American state to declare war on Germany. Nonetheless, the war saw the erosion of European power in South America and the accompanying rise of US influence there.

Main Events

Bombardment of Papeete

The German armored cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau - part of the German East Asia Squadron and under the command of Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee - arrived in Papeete, on the island of Tahiti in French Oceania. They proceeded to bombard the port, sinking a gunboat and a freighter, and destroying several buildings. The cruisers then moved on to the coast off Chile, where they would rendezvous with the other ships of the East Asia Squadron in late October.

Battle of Coronel

The British West Indies Squadron of Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock sailed from Coronel, Chile, expecting to intercept a lone German light cruiser, but instead encountered the full force of the German East Asia Squadron under Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. The five more modern cruisers of the German squadron outclassed the four older British cruisers; in the five hour battle which followed, the Germans sank both British armored cruisers present - killing all 1,570 crew, including Cradock - for the loss of only three men wounded.

Battle of the Falkland Islands

The German East Asia Squadron of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee made an attempt to raid the Falkland Islands after rounding Cape Horn en route from China to Germany, but was surprised by a superior British naval squadron under Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee which was coaling in Stanley harbor. The two battlecruisers, three armored cruisers, and two light cruisers of the British destroyed the German squadron of two armored crusiers and three light cruisers, killing von Spee and 1,871 men in the process. Only the German light cruiser Dresden managed to escape.

Battle of Más a Tierra

Three British cruisers located the light cruiser SMS Dresden - last remnant of the German East Asia Squadron - at harbor in Cumberland Bay, Más a Tierra (Selkirk Island), off the coast of Chile - and opened fire. Believing the situation hopeless, German Captain Lüdecke sent Lt. Wilhelm Canaris to negotiate surrender terms. While negotiations were underway, Lüdecke scuttled his vessel and escaped ashore with the rest of his crew.

Muñoz Vernaza-Suárez Treaty

Ecuador and Colombia signed the Muñoz Vernaza-Suárez Treaty, ending their border dispute. The treaty was criticized in Ecuador as it ceded considerable northeastern territory the nation had long claimed while failing to secure an alliance between the signatories. Peru protested the treaty as it also claimed most of the land involved.

US declaration of war on Germany

On 2 April 1917, United States President Woodrow Wilson asked a special joint session of the US Congress to declare war on the German Empire. Congress obliged by declaring war on the 6th, with the resolution passing 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House.

Central America enters WWI

The day after the United States declared war on Germany, Panama and Cuba followed suit and entered World War I. Over a year later - in April 1918 - Guatemala also joined the Allies, followed by Nicaragua and Costa Rica in May, and Haiti and Honduras in July.

Brazil enters World War I

In response to the repeated sinking of Brazilian merchant ships by German submarines, Brazilian President Venceslau Brás declared war against the Central Powers. Brazil would become the only Latin American country to be directly involved in World War I; its main contribution would be the Brazilian Navy, which helped patrol parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Brazil would also send a preparatory military mission of 20 officers to the Western Front in mid-1918, but the war would end before further forces could be sent.

October Revolution

On October 25 (Old Style), Bolshevik Red Guards, led by Leon Trotsky, mounted an armed insurrection in Petrograd, capital of the Russian Republic, capturing several government buildings. The following day, they seized the Winter Palace, the seat of Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks declared a new government, the Council of People's Commissars, with Vladimir Lenin as its head. Simultaneously and over the following days, other Bolshevik uprisings took place in towns and cities across Russia.

About this map     Download map