Portugal’s role in World War I || Part 1 – Europe

It is surprising that so few foreigners know of Portugal’s involvement in World War I, in spite of the memorials in Tavira, Loulé and Lagos.

As we approach the centenary of the Battle of La Lys (April 9), it is interesting to reflect on the reasons for Portugal to join the war.

First, Portugal wanted to safeguard her African colonies; second, to protect herself from a Spanish invasion; third, to legitimise the new anti-monarchist Portuguese Republic and, lastly, to gain a voice among the great nations.

The outbreak of war on August 4, 1914 had caught 36 German and Austro-Hungarian ships in Lisbon harbour, and they were interned there by neutral Portugal.

In late 1915, Britain began to put pressure on Portugal to seize these ships for her own use, which she did on February 24, 1916 in return for a loan from Britain.

Germany protested and despite her promise to hand back the ships after the war, Portugal received the formal declaration of war on March 9, 1916. Picture 1 illustrates the reasoning behind Portugal’s response – “’Why are we fighting the bird of Prey?’ The mother (hen) replies: ‘To defend my children.’” (i.e. Portugal’s colonies).

President Bernardino Machado established a government of national unity (known as the União Sagrada) and he initiated recruitment to the army. Because these volunteers were so rapidly assembled at Tancos and put under training, in Portugal this event is known as “The Miracle of Tancos”.

The troops sent to France formed the Corpo Expedicionário Português. From January 2017, two divisions of the CEP (57,000 men) reinforced the British First Army in Flanders under General Sir Henry Horne.

President Machado’s decision to participate in the war was not without opposition, and on December 5, 1917 his government was overthrown in a military coup by Sidónio Pais, who became President and Prime Minister of Portugal.

Pais was a Germanophile and disagreed with Portugal’s role alongside the Allies. He undermined Portugal’s war effort.

He would not allow junior ranks to take leave but permitted officers to return to Portugal, then preventing them from returning to France. Without their officers, young Portuguese volunteers were left in the wet and freezing mud of the trenches in a Flanders winter, using British equipment and British-made uniforms and, worst of all, fed on British bully beef (see picture 2). They were highly demoralised.

After the USA entered the war in 1917, the race was on for the Germans to force a victory on the Western Front before the Americans could be deployed in overwhelming numbers. Their nearly successful Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) began on March 21, 1918 in four sectors, named by the Germans Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck.

The two Portuguese Divisions stationed on the Flanders front on the River Lys were due to be withdrawn from the front line on April 9. The First Division had just left the line when the German Georgette attack burst on the Second Division before dawn on April 9.

The weakened Portuguese made a desperate defence against the stormtroopers, but lost more than 7,000 men.

There was at least one Portuguese hero on that tragic day. Aníbal Milhais held up a German advance singlehandedly over three days with his machine gun, covering the retreat of Portuguese and Scottish troops.

On a later occasion, machine-gunner Milhais held up a similar German advance to allow a Belgian unit to retire to the secondary line. As a result of his bravery, he was awarded Portugal’s highest distinction, the Order of the Tower and Sword, of Valour, Loyalty and Merit as well as the French Légion d’Honneur.

He was decorated in the field in front of 15,000 allied soldiers and his unit commander wrote of him that he was a single soldier but that he was worth a million. “Tu és Milhais, mas vales Milhões.” Milhais promptly changed his name to Milhões (see pictures 3 and 4).

Portugal’s one main military cemetery in Northern France is at Richebourg, in Pas de Calais. It holds 1,831 graves, of which 238 are occupied by unknown soldiers.

At sea, on October 14, 1918, First Lieutenant José de Carvalho Araújo commanded the minesweeper Augusto de Castilho on escort duty with the passenger steamer São Miguel en route from Madeira to the Azores. To allow the passenger ship to escape, Araújo engaged the more powerful U-139. In the words of the German commander: “The Portuguese fought like devils, firing one shell after another from their popgun, while we raked their ship from stem to stern.” Araújo was killed and the Augusto de Castilho sunk, but the São Miguel escaped.

At the Peace Conference in Versailles in 1919, Portugal was successful in achieving her aims at the outset. Her African colonies were saved for Portugal, the threat of a Spanish takeover reduced and the young Portuguese Republic was accepted at the Versailles peace conference and also at the League of Nations.

In common with many other nations, however, at the end of the war, Portugal suffered food shortages, raging inflation and large-scale epidemics. The lack of political stability, political assassinations and large-scale forgery paved the way for a military coup in 1926, followed by a dictatorship which lasted nearly 40 years.

In my next article, I shall describe Portugal’s role in World War One: Part 2 – Africa

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Aníbal Milhões
Aníbal Milhões