Latin America and the Great War

There is very little mention of Latin America in the history books about the First World War. Indeed, most Latin America countries took their lead from the United States and maintained a policy of neutrality until 1917 or later. In this article we examine the background and look at some events which involved Latin America.


Latin America had seen a period of economic growth, increased exports and foreign investment between 1890 and 1910 but the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 came after an economic depression in 1913 and amidst the involvement of the United States in the complex and bloody revolutionary struggles in Mexico  that had followed the ousting of General Porfirio Diaz as president in May 1911 after thirty-five years in power.

In ten tragic days in February 1913 Francisico Ignacio Madero, who had overwhelming won the October 1911 Mexican elections, was overthrown in a military coup by counter-revolutionary General Victoriano Huerta organised with the support of  Henry Lane Wilson, US Ambassador to Mexico and, together with vice-president Jose Maria Pino Suarez, had been assassinated.  The ruthless military dictatorship of Huerta was compounded by his refusal to hold elections and repeatedly tested by revolutionaries Venustiano Carranzo and Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the north of the country and by Emiliano Zapata Salazar in the south.  In April 1914 the United States despatched warships to the Mexican port of Veracruz to seize a cargo of weapons in a manoeuvre which led to a seven month occupation of the city and left 170 Mexican soldiers dead as well as an unknown number of civilians. Huerta resigned the presidency in July 1914  after defeat at the Battle of Zacatecas.  Carranzo became Head of State a month later and in 1917 eventually became president.

Neutrality (1914-1917)

So it was against this background that the United States and the nations of Latin America declared neutrality and hoped to stay well out of the unfolding conflict in Europe.  Canada, however, was automatically brought into the war by the British declaration of war against Germany.

Whilst at a national level the Americas were neutral, the same could not be said for immigrant communities of European descent. Tens of thousands of young men particularly from Argentina, Brazil and the United States abandoned their lives in the New World to defend their mother countries in the old. Volunteers from British Guiana (Guyana) and other Caribbean colonies would eventually be grouped together to form the British West Indies Regiment. 

The war immediately put an end to European investment in Latin America, of which Britain was the biggest player. German markets and investment evaporated overnight. Imports dried up as protagonists hoarded their resources for their own war uses. Unemployment rose in Chile, Bolivia needed a bailout and Central American economies initially suffered trade losses. But the outbreak of war in Europe would promise new opportunities as well as challenges. The opening of the Panama Canal in August 1914 would greatly increase US influence in the region.

In August 1914, the German navy had six warships positioned in East Asia under the command of Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee.  He was outnumbered and outgunned by Allied navies in the region, particularly the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. After the bombardment of Papeete (Tahiti) in French Polynesia on 22 Sept 1914 Spee headed towards South America with five of his ships whilst the other travelled to Hawaii for repairs. On 4 October 1914, the British learned from an intercepted radio message that Spee planned to attack shipping on the trade routes along the west coast of South America. Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock was in charge of  the 4th squadron of the Royal Navy based at Stanley (Falkland Islands).  He split his fleet into two forces. Leaving three armoured cruisers and two armed merchantmen to look out for Spee in the South Atlantic, he sailed round Cape Horn with  two warships, a light cruiser and one auxiliary cruiser.

On 1 November 1914  Cradock’s contingent met the five cruisers of the German squadron at the Battle of Coronel. Spee’s ships outclassed the four older British ships and in the five hour battle the Germans sank both British armoured cruisers present,  killing all 1,570 crew, including Cradock. It was the first Royal Navy defeat in more than a century. The Germans suffered just three wounded men.

Under the Hague Convention warships were permitted to anchor on neutral territory for no more than 24 hours. At a reception at the German club in Valparaiso Spee stated: “I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany. We possess no other secure harbour. I must plough the seas of the world doing as much mischief as I can, until my ammunition is exhausted, or a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me.”

Spee’s next piece of mischief-making would be his last. After rounding Cape Horn he attempted a raid on  the Falkland Islands but was surprised by a superior Royal Naval squadron under Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee who had been sent from the Admiralty after the defeat at Coronel with reinforcements. In the Battle of the Falklands on 8 December 1914  the British destroyed the German squadron,  killing von Spee and 1,871 men (including two of his sons). The battle is commemorated in the Falklands each year.

As the war went on neutrality was tested. Britain and France protested that the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile were assisting the German fleet by allowing ships to take on coal, use their wireless in territorial waters or overstay their 24 hour limit. There were unfounded rumours of German bases on Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands. Germany complained that Argentina was defying neutrality by allowing British steamers to carry Argentine horses to France. Britain protested that Cuba allowed German ships to provision in Havana. Britain imposed a Black List which prohibited trade by any company that was doing business with Germany or which was funded by Germans.

Supply Lines

In 1914, Britain imported over 60% of its total food supply and 80% of its wheat, almost all sugar, three quarters of cheese, two thirds of the bacon and half of the condensed milk. British meat and fresh milk were expensive and more likely to be consumed by the wealthier classes. Britain drew chiefly on Argentina for beef, New Zealand for mutton and lamb, on Australia for mutton and beef, on the United States and Denmark for bacon and ham.

Very early in the war, the British Board of Trade signed agreements with the mostly British and American
owned firms in Argentina to supply the British army with 15,000 tons of meat a month. The uncertainty about price was resolved by a British government guarantee to pay exporters the average price during the week the contract meat arrived. In addition, the companies would continue to use the rest of their capacity to supply the British civilian market as far as circumstances allowed. Further uncertainties over price were removed by paying them 75 per cent of the value of each cargo in Argentina the week it left. The system remained in force throughout the war.

In 1915 Germany turned its attention to the Allies’ transatlantic supply lines.  The first US merchant ship to be sunk was the William P. Frye, carrying a cargo of wheat destined for England.  The ship was intercepted by the SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich on 27 January 1915 off the coast of Brazil. Orders were given for the consignment of wheat be thrown overboard. When this was not carried out quickly enough the captain of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, Max Thierichens, took all crew and passengers prisoner and scuttled the ship. This, the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 helped to sway public opinion in the US and in Latin America against Germany although neutrality continued to be maintained until 1917. The German Navy suspended U-boat warfare in September 1915.

Latin America would play a critical role in the supply of food to the Allies, particularly meat, grain and coffee. The seasonal harvest for grain was opposite that of the United States and Canada which became very important in 1918 when France received more than a third of its wheat from Argentina. New Zealand lamb and Australian mutton took far longer to arrive and used up greater resources of valuable shipping.


There were acts of intrigue, espionage, deception and skulduggery involving Latin America in the Great War.  In February 1915 a German reserve lieutenant who worked as manager of a coffee plantation in Guatemala left Central America and tried to blow up the international railway bridge over the St Croix River between the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine.  Germany developed a policy of disruption aimed at formenting war between Mexico and the United States (and thereby keeping arms and attention away from involvement in Europe).  In charge of Berlin’s intelligence activities in Mexico was  Heinrich von Eckardt and in April 1915 German intelligence officer Franz von Rintelen arrived in New York with orders to stoke the violence in Mexico.  Mexican factions would buy up weapons that would otherwise be sold to the Allies.  Von Rintelen who had worked for Deutsche Bank in Mexico City also orchestrated extensive sabotage against Allied cargo ships.

Between September 1915 and April 1916 three Latin Americans were executed by firing squad at the Tower of London for spying for Germany. The first, Augusto Alfredo Roggen, was a Uruguayan of German extraction who had arrived at Tilbury on 30 May 1915 posing as a buyer of agricultural machinery. He travelled to London and Lincoln before arriving in Edinburgh on 5 June where he stayed for a few nights and asked about fishing in the Trossachs. He sent two postcards from Edinburgh to an H. Flores at an address in Rotterdam. Both were intercepted: it was an address known to the Security Services which had been used by other spies. After copying the contents the postcards were allowed to continue to the Netherlands. Roggen was picked up on 9 June at Loch Lomond, close to the testing site for Royal Navy torpedos at Loch Long. A search of his room at the Tarbet Hotel uncovered a loaded Browning revolver with 50 rounds of ammunition, invisible ink and, on a piece of blotting paper, the details of another German spy. Roggen was 34 years old when he faced the firing squad at 6 am on 17 September 1915.

Fernando Buschman was a twenty-five year old Brazilian whose German father had a music and instrument business and whose mother was Brazilian of Danish extraction. Before the war Buschman was partner in a food import-export firm based in Hamburg, a business which involved considerable travel between Brazil and Europe. Buschman arrived in London on 14 April 1915 from the Netherlands. He travelled to Portsmouth and Southampton to investigate shipping movements before he was arrested in the early hours of 5 June 1915.  He had contacted Heinrich Flores in Rotterdam by telegram asking for money to be wired to him to pay rent on a flat. When his rooms were searched they found notes entitled ‘Impressions of London’, and letters written in invisible ink.   In his defence, he argued “I was never a soldier or a sailor, and I am absolutely ignorant of all military matters. I am not a good businessman as I am more wrapped up in my music than business.” Buschman asked for his violin the evening before his execution and played through the night, the music could be heard around the Tower. When his guard collected him for the walk to the firing range, Buschman kissed the violin saying “Goodbye, I shall not want you any more” and gave the instrument to one of the soldiers who had a child who was learning to play the violin.

Ludovico Hurwitz y Zender was a 37 year old Peruvian who spied for German intelligence. He had been born in Lima to Scandinavian immigrants, spoke English and French and made a living selling goods throughout South America. He travelled from Peru to the United States in 1914 and across via Norway and Denmark reporting on ship movements in coded messages which were picked up by British intelligence. He was arrested in Newcastle in July 1915 and was executed at the Tower in April 1916.

In the meantime in July 1915 US troops had been sent to Haiti  by President Woodrow Wilson to restore order after the brutal murder of president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam following the execution of 167 of his political opponents. Military occupation continued in Haiti until 1934.

In November 1915 the first contingent of 129 soldiers from British Honduras (Belize) departed for Europe as part of the British West Indies Regiment which served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In Argentina in 1916 a German secret agent codenamed Arnold arranged for a supply of anthrax to be delivered to him. It was brought by Marthe Richard, a French spy who was the mistress of the German Naval attache in Madrid.  Arnold used the anthrax in sugar lumps which he fed to horses and mules consigned for delivery to Europe and Mesopotamia. British intelligence revealed the plot to the Argentine government and reports suggest that Arnold was shot dead trying to infect sheep and cattle when he was finally caught in 1917.

The Zimmerman Telegram

On 16 January 1917, German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a coded message to the German Ambassador in the United States, Johann von Bernstorff for forwarding to Heinrich von Eckardt, Berlin’s minister in Mexico. The message was intercepted by British intelligence and deciphered by code-breakers in Room 40 of the Admiralty. If the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, Von Eckardt was instructed to approach Mexico’s president with an offer for a secret wartime alliance. Germany would provide military and financial support for a Mexican attack on the United States, and in exchange Mexico would be free to  take back Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, territory that had been lost with the expansion of the United States in the 1840s.  In addition, Von Eckardt was told to entice the Mexican President to persuade the Japanese Empire to join the German cause.

On 1 February 1917  Germany resumed unrestricted U-boat warfare in a plan to sink 600,000 tons of shipping per month and bring Britain to her knees. President Woodrow Wilson, who had been reelected on 7 November 1916 under the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War’, responded by severing United States diplomatic relations with  Germany two days later. The submarine campaign was initially a great success: Britain lost 105 ships in February and 147 in March,  a total of nearly 1,000,000 tons of shipping in two months. In April 860,000 tons of shipping was lost by which time Britain had just six weeks supply of wheat left. Germany had lost only nine submarines in the first three months of this campaign.

On 24 February 1917 Britain released the Zimmermann telegram message to President Wilson who authorised its contents to be published in the newspapers.  Some believed that the telegram was Allied propaganda, what today would be called ‘fake news’.  The doubts ended when Zimmermann himself admitted authorship on 29 March.  On 2 April Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, stating, ‘The world must be made safe for democracy’.

The end of Neutrality

The US Congress declared war on 6 April. Cuba and Panama both followed shortly afterwards. As merchant ships from Allied countries were sunk, Brazilian ships took over routes that had been vacated. On 11 April,  a few days after the sinking of the Paraná by German submarines, Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and anti-German riots broke out in Porto Alegre.  Bolivia broke relations on the 13th. Guatemala followed on 27 April, closely followed by Honduras and Nicaragua on 17 and 18 May respectively. In May shipping losses exceeded 600,000 tons, and in June 700,000. Haiti severed relations with Germany in June, Costa Rica in September, Peru and Uruguay in October. They were joined by Ecuador before the end of the year.

In Mexico, President Venustiano Carranza declared that his country would maintain a “strict and rigorous neutrality”.  As a Mexican nationalist with much antipathy towards the United States he trod a difficult path between the belligerent nations. He allowed German companies in Mexico to continue to operate but at the same time he supplied much needed oil to the British Navy. He also threatened to set fire to the oil fields if the US invaded.

Eventually a regular system of transatlantic convoys were established, and after July 1917 monthly losses never exceeded 500,000 tons, although they remained above 300,000 tons for the remainder of the year. The sinking of Argentine ships led to large anti-German demonstrations in Buenos Aires although the country remained cautiously neutral throughout the war.

Chile, the other major economy in Latin America, also remained neutral reflecting anti-U.S. and pro-German sentiment in the country but impounded German ships whilst profiting from the sale of nitrates to the Allies for the use in explosives.

But behind the facades of neutrality there was still plenty of mischief going on,  smuggling networks and covert operations such as  unexplained fires or explosions aboard merchant ships departing South American ports,  attempts to sway public opinion. A grand plan to topple Guatemala’s president Manuel Estrada Cabrera who had been in power since 1898 and invade Honduras and British Honduras (Belize), was put to Heinrich von Eckardt in Mexico.

On 26 October 1917 Brazil declared war on the Central Powers and the Brazilian Navy played a role in the anti-submarine campaign, patroling the Atlantic between Dakar, Cape Verde and Gibraltar. Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua would go on to declare war in April-May 1918, followed by Haiti and Honduras in July.


The Latin American nations that had broken relations with Germany or had declared war were invited to the Paris Peace Conference at the Palace of Versailles in 1919.   Sixteen Latin American countries went on to become became  founder members of the League of Nations on 10 January 1920 (notable absences were Ecuador and Mexico ). The British Empire had separate membership for Canada, Australia, New Zealand , South Africa and the United Kingdom. The United States never joined.

Argentina withdrew membership in 1921 when a resolution they had proposed that all sovereign states should be admitted was rejected. They returned in 1933. Mexico became a member in 1931 and Ecuador in 1934.

In March 2015, the UK government finally finished paying the debts incurred by the First World War by redeeming the outstanding £1.9 billion of debt from the “War Loan”, which was taken out in 1917.

Key Sources/Further Reading:

World War 1 in Latin America by Jamie Bisher

1914-1918 Onine: International Encylopedia of the First World War

World War (Special Feature: Latin America)

How Important Was Latin America to the First World War? Phillip Dehne, St Joseph’s College New York

Owlcation: Latin America Neutrality during World War One