Portuguese Expeditionary Corps WWI - watercolour by Augusto Pina
Portuguese Expeditionary Corps WWI - watercolour by Augusto Pina

Anglo-Portuguese alliances and ruptures

The pride and prejudice of two great nations

Since October 2022, a series of papers has been published by Academia.edu which purport to show a deterioration of political and social relations between Portugal and Britain after the 17th century. 

These have been submitted as post-doctorate studies made by Mr. Jesse Pyles PhD of Stanford University USA, whose research was principally carried out in Lisbon and London where access was granted to both public and private records. An abridged version may be seen at the site of the Journal of Anglo-Portuguese Studies (JAPS).

The fulcrum of Pyles’ assertions is the Battle of Lys which took place on the morning of April 9, 1918, in foggy conditions that cloaked the advance by German infantry who outnumbered the 12,000 Portuguese defenders of the front lines by six to one.

This had been preceded by one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of WW1 and was followed by an inevitable retreat which exposed the flank of British troops.

In his diary, the commander of the British and allied forces, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, related that the tactical defeat of the 1st Army was due to the cowardice and poor combat ability of the Portuguese forces and this opinion was enshrined in the Official War Record of J.E. Edmonds and the memoirs of other senior British officers.

Following the end of Portuguese neutrality in March 1916, the British government invoked the Treaties of Alliance and financed the recruitment, equipping and movement to Flanders of two Portuguese infantry divisions consisting of more than 50,000 militiamen who were led by officers and NCOs of the regular army.

After some peremptory training in trench warfare, they were sent, in 1917, to the front line where they performed their military duties well and earned several citations for valour. But, having endured the grim realities of war, they shared with other common soldiers drawn from all corners of the British and French Empires a disillusionment concerning the reasons for the bloodshed in which their role was seen to be one of  “cannon fodder”.

Just before the Lys battle, two battalions had come close to mutiny such was their despair with the expectations made of them and the lack of food, ammunition and warm clothing.

But Pyles’ papers show that their low morale was also caused by the condemnation by the British of the Portuguese troops as being “an indolent, corrupt, simple-minded, uncivilized and swarthy people” fit only for manual labour.

Pyles’ central dissertation devotes 15 pages to the history and origins of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliances. In this, he opines that it was the Portuguese who led the English in imperial dominance until 1580 when the Treaty of Windsor was suspended for 60 years due to a union of Portugal with Spain.

Thereafter, the British became ascendant through their naval power, which enabled the phenomenal growth of an Empire upon which the sun never set. Thus, the role of Portugal was to become a “client state” by granting exclusive access to the facilities of its overseas possessions to Britain in return for protection.

By the mid-18th century, an officer class drawn from the aristocracy became an integral part of the Establishment and exercised an increasingly powerful role in the affairs of State. As with all divisions of society, a “pecking order” was established. The officer class of Britain considered itself superior to that of north European countries which, in turn, considered countries to the south to be their inferior.

By the 19th century, Portugal maintained only a token military presence and relied completely upon Britain for the protection of its mercantile fleet, which worked in conjunction with British merchants for the spread world-wide of commercial logistics.

Mr. Pyles’ findings are reflected by many peer historians who are named in his papers but the extent to which British arrogance abrogated or enhanced the working of the various alliances which followed the Treaty of Windsor is subject to much speculative debate.

In her introduction to the erudite book English Art in Portugal, Susan Lowndes, who was perhaps the most prominent Lusophile of the 20th century, states that, during the 19th century, Portugal was seen by the British for all means and purposes as an unofficial colony.

They demanded a privileged protection from local laws and the Inquisition which, since its inception in 1536, regarded non-Catholics as being heretics to be refused the public practice of their religion or burial on Portuguese soil. She considered that the special relationship which had existed between Portugal and Britain for centuries was more a marriage of convenience than a love affair.

Apart from trade, the most important contribution made by the British to Portuguese life was in the technological field, commencing with the innovations of the first industrial revolution and continuing in modern times with the unstoppable advance of engineering leading to hi-tech industries.

In general, foreigners were only welcomed by the Portuguese as long as they were useful. The continuing presence of the British military after threats of invasion had disappeared was resented by both the Portuguese military and heads of government.

It must be added that Susan Lowndes OBE lived in Portugal from 1938 (when she married journalist Luis Marques) until her death in 1993 and throughout was responsible for the running of the Anglo-Portuguese News as well as being a correspondent for numerous international newspapers and journals.

She was a great traveller and visited all corners of the country to gather information for her various books and guides. She earned the respect and affection of all whom she met.

Alliances between nations are rarely symmetrical and their first defined obligations and responsibilities are subject, like all relationships, to fluctuations caused by the vicissitudes of time’s good or bad fortunes.

Such has been the case with the original Treaty of Windsor and its successors which, for long periods, were forgotten or conveniently ignored by the political forces which determine the destiny of nations, regardless of what may have been thought by the common people, who were all too often misinformed concerning the location and character of those to whom they had been allied.

The post-war period brought about vast changes in social structures by the growth of tourism and commercial expansion following the catalytic pressures of being members of EEC, EU and NATO, which have often posited the question of who is allied to whom and for what purpose.

Putting aside the many myths, half-truths and distortions of historiology, the Anglo-Portuguese “special relationship” is one which merits a cultural continuation through the tumultuous 21st century.

Roberto Knight Cavaleiro first came to Portugal in 1982, acting as advisor to international investors. A complete career change followed when he started trading in water-sports equipment. Following coronary surgery in 2002, he was forced to reduce his business activity, but continued with “adventure holidays” in central Portugal. Current interests include animal welfare and writing opinion articles, especially with reference to environmental issues.

By Roberto Cavaleiro

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Roberto Cavaleiro first came to Portugal in 1982, acting as advisor to international investors. A complete career change followed when he started trading in water-sports equipment. Following coronary surgery in 2002, he was forced to reduce his business activity, but continued with “adventure holidays” in central Portugal. Current interests include animal welfare and writing opinion articles, especially with reference to environmental issues.