In Remembrance of the Latin Americans Who Fought in the Great War

Why Did They Fight?

Tomás Pizarro-Escuti | Thu, 13 Feb 2020

Argentinian Hospital in Paris, 1917

The historiography on the participation of Latin America in the First World War has been scarce in both the European and Ibero-American academia despite the significant number of Latin Americans who volunteered in the War. Thousands of young Latin Americans
embarked between 1914 and 1918 to join either the Allies or the Central Powers and fight alongside British, French, Italian and even Ottoman soldiers. In fact, Argentina alone sent around 40,000 combatants. Why did they leave the comfort of their homes and cross the ocean for a War that apparently was not theirs? On the one hand, I want to put into perspective their participation by analysing the reasons that led the Latin American volunteers to join the conflict in hope to determine - or at least open a dialogue - about Latin America’s rightful place in the Great War, and, on the other hand, rescue these soldiers from oblivion as they have almost disappeared from collective memory.
Two groups of volunteers must be distinguished: those volunteers with a direct connection with the belligerents who held a transnational identity and were motivated by a sense of national duty, the case of the British, French, Italian and German diasporas in Latin America; and those volunteers with no direct connection to Europe who were mostly inspired by cultural affinity and western values.
Well-known is the arrival of the first Spanish conquistadores in the Americas during the 16 th century and the establishment of their colonial Empire. However, the movement of people between 1860 and 1915 was equally unprecedented. The economic crises that afflicted Europe during this period forced millions of Europeans to leave their homes in the hope of a better quality of life; indeed, around 41 million Europeans left their countries to settle in the New World. Latin American policymakers were enthusiastic about this migratory wave, which would “modernise” and “civilise” their countries; hence, the immigrants were well received by the locals. Indeed, this positive reception enabled the migrants to integrate civically while keeping their ethnic identity as the hosting states did not perceive their European identity as an obstacle because the newly formed Latin American Republics tended to have a civic form of nationalism. In turn, this allowed migrants to naturalise in the country of residence without sacrificing their ties to their country of origin, thus developing a transnational identity. Transnational identity substitutes singular national loyalties with the capacity of belonging to multiple states; this was the case of the Latin American volunteers of European origin who fought in the War. It is important to highlight that there are no rigorous estimates that would allow us to differentiate between those who were first- and second-generation immigrants from those who were born in Europe; however, both subgroups resided and were well settled in Latin America.
The Great War echoed in Latin America, especially among immigrant communities as their states of origin became involved in the conflict. In cities such as Valparaiso, São Paulo and Montevideo, the volunteers converged in mass - “Our streets are now the forum of the war” - reported the Argentinean newspaper La Nacion. Waves of mobilisation followed, dictated by the rhythm of the conflict to defend their "distant homeland". In many countries of Latin America, the European migrants established communities with numerous social institutions such as clubs, churches, and schools. These associations generated a platform which was highly important during the War as they shifted from a societal nature to one whose main purpose was to foment the patriotic spirit of the migrants, recruit volunteers and aid the families of the combatants. European communities also devoted themselves to propagandistic tasks through the ethnic press, newspapers like the Franco-Chilean Le Journal du Chili, La Patrie; or the German-Argentinean, La Plata Zeitung and Argentinisches Tageblatt; or the British-Latin American Los Aliados; and the Italian La Nazione Italiana and
L'Operario Italiano - justified the position of their countries. Mobilisation was also encouraged through institutional coercion. For example, those who rejected the call of their “homelands” were pressured by their employers with threats of dismissals or even with expulsion from societies and clubs. These communities played a substantial role in encouraging volunteers to join the War, their strong cohesion and dynamism favoured conscription by appealing to the migrants’ sense of patriotism. Indeed, as we can see, the mobilisation was also inspired by loyalty to the diasporas, and as such, it should have been more a consequence of allegiance to their local peers than of adherence to their homeland of origin.
More limited in number - but equally important - are the Latin American volunteers who did  not have direct pre-migratory ties with countries at war. In order to understand their motivations, it is essential to consider that the young Latin American Republics, especially Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, adopted cultural models distinctive from those of Spain for the construction of their national identity, shifting towards the more “enlightened” civilisation of Northwest Europe. Consequently, Latin American society relied upon European cultural and social values and was not indifferent to a War that put these into question. Among Latin Americans, there was a division between the vast Allied majority and the Germanophile minority. These groups were represented in newspapers and magazines of the time which generated a great ideological debate between “liberal” Allied-supporters and the more “conservative” Central Powers-supporters. This ideological struggle, argue historians like Michaël Bourlet, ultimately inspired numerous cases of Latin American volunteers to fight. A remarkable case is Eduardo Alfaro, a young Chilean who faked his age to join the war when he was 16.
“I have a duty to help in this war for civilisation because as a Chilean, I want to repay England for what it did for us during the war of independence [..] The advantage that we have is that we know that we are fighting for a just cause”
The Uruguayan writer, José Rodo, wrote in the Pacific Magazine: “Germany’s ambition is to restore feudal Europe, this represents a struggle between the principles of liberal governments and the divine right of kings.” In other words; it was the defence of the enlightenment and the Rights of Man that prompted some Latin Americans to fight. These  same ideals were the ones that inspired a group of Argentine doctors to open a hospital in Paris to treat war-wounded in 1917. The hospital was two kilometres from the Eiffel Tower, and 150 beds were installed on its seven floors.
Reconstructing the experiences of these volunteers with a collective biography is a task for future historians. Questions remain unanswered: how significant were these volunteers for the overall global effect of the war? What expectation did the belligerents place upon Latin America? What was the experience of the returning volunteers who had to live with the enemy in the Latin American cities where they resided? However, what is undoubtedly clear is that they must not be forgotten because their heroic effort was not in vain - such was the case of the thousands of Latin Americans who gave their lives for the Old World.

Latest Features Articles