The Portuguese in the Great War


Founded after the revolution of 1910, the young Portuguese Republic assured Great Britain of its support in August 1914 and promised to send men and equipment. Although officially neutral, the Portuguese Government was able to justify its belligerent stance by way of an old alliance which had been renewed just two years previously in 1912. By entering the war at the side of the British, Portugal hoped to protect its African colonies––Angola and Mozambique––which previously had been the subject of secret agreements between the British and the Germans in 1898.

In addition to this practical consideration, Portugal also entered the Great War in order to mark its entry into the alliance of European nations. Its arrival on the international scene was seen as a way of bolstering national unity and reinforcing the republican regime whose hold on power was faltering under pressure from monarchist movements and the grave economic difficulties then affecting the country.

Initially the British were content to accept material aid from Portugal but were less enthusiastic about the young Portuguese Republic actually taking part in the fighting. The growing logistical problems affecting the Allies did however lead the British to ask the Portuguese Government in December 1915 for permission to requisition all the German ships moored in their ports, and this was done on 24 February 1916. In reaction, Germany declared war on Portugal on 9 March.

France succeeded in convincing its British ally to accept Portuguese reinforcements and a Corpo Expedicionário Português (CEP) was soon assembled and shipped to France to await orders. The CEP, under the command of General Tamagnini, landed in the Breton port of Brest in February 1917 and was subsequently stationed in Aire-sur-la-Lys, a small town in the region of Pas-de-Calais. The Portuguese troops were, from then on, attached to the 11th Corps of the 1st British Army under General Henry Horne. In October 1917 the CEP comprised nearly 56,500 men.

In November 1917 General Horne entrusted the CEP with the defence of an eleven kilometre front in French Flanders which stretched from Laventie to Festubert. The Portuguese set up their headquarters at Saint-Venant. The area they had to defend, a plain between the river Lys and the La Bassée Canal, was very damp and muddy and this soon had a negative effect on morale. The Portuguese soldiers found it enormously difficult to adapt the particularly inclement conditions of the winter of 1917–1918. In December 1917 the Portuguese Government fell in a coup d'état which brought Sidonio Pais to power. Less enthusiastic than its predecessor in its support for the Allies, the new government instituted a new and far less strict system of leave which allowed soldiers to return home for extended periods. This resulted in a CEP with fewer officers to lead its men. To make matters worse, by April 1917 Great Britain was devoting all its shipping to the transport of soldiers from the United States, which had just entered the war, and therefore had no available capacity to bring in Portuguese soldiers to reinforce their comrades stationed in Flanders. As a consequence, insubordination grew steadily among the ranks of the CEP.

When the Battle of the Lys broke out on 9 April 1918 two divisions of the CEP, wanting in men and officers, had to take on nearly ten German divisions spread over three successive lines. Except for a few pockets of resistance, the Portuguese soldiers were completely swept aside by the German offensive "Operation Georgette". On 13 April Portuguese units were sent to Lillers and Steenbecque to reinforce the British 14th and 16th Divisions posted there. Thereafter they were grouped together in a single division and took part in the Allied offensive of 1918. By the time the ceasefire was announced on 11 November 1918 the Portuguese had reached the river Escaut and entered Belgium.

Of the 56,500 Portuguese soldiers sent to the Western Front, approximately 2,100 were killed, 5,200 wounded and 7,000 taken prisoner.

Richebourg Portuguese National Cemetery contains the graves of 1,831 Portuguese soldiers, most of whom fell in the Battle of the Lys, and is undoubtedly the most poignant memorial to Portugal's participation in the First World War.

Edouard ROOSE

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