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Portugal during World War I

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Monument to the Portuguese soldiers who died in World War I in Coimbra, Portugal
Monument to the Portuguese soldiers who died in World War I in Coimbra, Portugal

Portugal did not initially form part of the system of alliances involved in World War I and thus remained neutral at the start of the conflict in 1914. But even though Portugal and Germany remained officially at peace for over a year and a half after the outbreak of World War I, there were many hostile engagements between the two countries. Portugal wanted to comply with British requests for aid and protect its colonies in Africa, thus clashes occurred with German troops in the south of Portuguese Angola, which bordered German South-West Africa, in 1914 and 1915 (see German campaign in Angola). Tensions between Germany and Portugal also arose as a result of German U-boat warfare, which sought to blockade the United Kingdom, at the time the most important market for Portuguese products. Ultimately, tensions resulted in declarations of war, first by Germany against Portugal in March 1916.

Approximately 12,000 Portuguese troops died during the course of World War I, including Africans who served in its armed forces in the colonial front.[1][2] Civilian deaths in Portugal exceeded 220,000: 82,000 caused by food shortages and 138,000 by the Spanish flu.[3]

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  • ✪ The Forgotten Ally - Portugal in WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special
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  • ✪ Equilibrium of Carnage at Verdun - Portugal Joins The War I THE GREAT WAR - Week 85


100 years ago the first Portuguese troops fought in the trenches of the Western Front. Portugal is often overlooked when people talk about World War 1. And their soldiers were in some ways even forgotten by their own government. And Portugal is what we are going to talk about today. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War Special Episode about Portugal and the First World War. In the late 19th century, the Kingdom of Portugal had a much larger territory than Portugal has today. From the Azores in the Atlantic to Angola and Mozambique in Africa to East Timor in Southeast Asia, Portugal’s foreign territories were far larger than its European lands. But Portugal had limited military resources and a small “home” population and couldn’t rely on itself alone to maintain its empire. For that, Portugal relied on close diplomatic ties with Britain. Those ties prevailed in spite of the “pink map” affair, when Portugal tried to create a Trans-African colony that would have interfered with Cecil Rhodes’ plans for a Cape to Cairo railway. The Portuguese government gave in to British demands realizing that they couldn’t win a war. But that had huge repercussions on public opinion in Portugal. It was a humiliation and the king and the government were cowards. The Republican faction exploited this sentiment to attack King Carlos I. They mounted a failed coup in 1891, but over the next two decades their support and influence grew and grew. In 1908, Carlos and his son were assassinated by Republican activists, and in 1910 they mounted a successful coup. Portugal became a republic like France and Switzerland. The war broke out and the ties with Britain and strong anti-German sentiment made Portugal view the Entente favorably. That anti-German sentiment was from colonial issues; the Portuguese African colonies bordered the German ones and there was tension and even skirmishing between the two before the war. Portugal asked Britain how they could help out in the war effort, and they were basically put on hold. “For the present moment His Majesty’s Government would be satisfied if the Portuguese government refrained from proclaiming neutrality. In the event of His Majesty’s government considering it necessary to make any demand upon the Portuguese government which would not be compatible with the latter’s neutrality, they would appeal to the Alliance as justification for such demand.” That appeal finally came in early 1916. Following a British request, Portugal seized all German and Austro-Hungarian ships in Portuguese ports and Germany declared war on Portugal. Now, Portugal and Germany were already engaged militarily in Africa, but because it was peripheral neither side had seen the need to officially declare war, so this declaration was for Portugal’s entry into European hostilities. But it wasn’t just Britain’s request that brought Portugal into the war. See, the new Portuguese regime wasn’t that popular among the people, partly because of tax reforms, the secularization of the state, and the legalization of divorce, but also Portugal’s economic situation was dire. Afonso Costa, the leader of one of the new parties, thought Portuguese intervention could unite the country around a common goal, thus using patriotism to stabilize the government. He was the main promoter of the interventionist movement. Recent historians suggest that he also thought intervention would bring financial benefits, and that theory is supported by the fact that he was their representative at Versailles postwar and actively pushed for financial compensation there. We’ve talked about the fighting in Africa in our regular episodes and Africa specials, so let’s look at the European theatre. Germany declared war on Portugal March 3, 1916 and preparations for a Portuguese Expeditionary Force - the CEP - began May 24th, when Minister of War General José Norton de Matos gave the green light to initially drafting and training 20,000 men. The men spent most of the rest of the year training in the weapons and techniques of modern war and were then brought to Lisbon and put under the command of General Fernando Tamagnini de Abreu e Silva. The troops were sent to France over the first two months of 1917 and were all there by February 23rd. Once at the front, the British gave them further training in trench warfare and British weapons and equipment. The men were gradually assigned to British units and the Portuguese to reach the trenches did so April 4th. That same day also saw the first Portuguese casualty. Soon, the British began to organize entirely Portuguese units that were integrated into British brigades. When there were enough units, an entirely Portuguese brigade was formed. This repeated itself until two Portuguese divisions could be formed, one under General Sinel de Cordes and one under General Gomes da Costa. Once these divisions were formed, they were given a section of the front to defend, on the La Lys River between Armentieres and Bethune. This was an 11km section of front. By comparison, in April 1918 the Americans had about the same amount of front to defend, but had three times as many men there as the Portuguese. Those Portuguese would also be seriously affected by events back home. December 1917 saw a change of power in Lisbon. Sidonio Pais’ new authoritarian government was openly against Portugal participating in the war and he distanced himself from the whole thing. He had been Portuguese Ambassador to Berlin until 1916 and was pretty pro-German. For the Portuguese Army in the field this meant that they would get no further assistance from Lisbon. The men felt abandoned and morale plummeted. This really showed when their sector of the front went active in April 1918. The Portuguese troops were exhausted after six straight months at the front and were due to be relieved by British troops April 9th. That very morning, while the relief was in progress, the Germans attacked with around 55,000 men. The sector was thrown into confusion. The Germans swiftly took the first few defensive lines. High Command ordered a retreat to new defensive positions but the Portuguese and British had to delay the Germans to cover the retreat. The orders were to “Die at Line B”. This they did, but they did also slow the German momentum and by the time the Germans reached the rear of the sector, they were stopped. The Portuguese forces had been crushed. 1,300 men dead, 4,000 wounded, and 7,000 taken prisoner. The survivors were replaced by British troops and the CEP never really recovered after La Lys. That battle did produce the hero Anibal Milhais, who fought the Germans single-handedly with a Lewis Gun there. He reportedly killed several hundred German soldiers during the four days he wandered the front, after personally enabling the retreat of several entire units. He was awarded the highest Portuguese military honors and remains a badass legend to this day. After La Lys, the men performed mostly auxiliary tasks until they saw smaller scale front line duty toward the end of the war. General Tamagnini was replaced in July 1918 by General Rosado. A month after the war, Sidonio Pais was assassinated and the interventionists came to power once again. At Versailles, Portugal got a piece of Mozambique and the promise of reparations from Germany. These were never paid but Germany did build a new naval base near Lisbon that’s still in use today. The war had produced a big rift between the politicians and the army. The army wasn’t even that well received when it returned home and the military leaders, like Da Costa, who felt neglected during the war began to participate in the political arena. This, together with high inflation, high unemployment, and shockwaves from Russia’s Bolshevik revolution put the Portuguese Republic in a precarious state. Between 1920 and 1926 there were 23 governments in Portugal, as one fell after another, before Da Costa staged a coup in 1926 that would begin a period of nearly 50 years of authoritarian rule in Portugal. All that is beyond the scope of this channel, though. Today was just a brief look at Portugal before and during the war. You should look it up yourself to get a better understanding, particularly the colonial struggles with Germany. I just thought I’d say a few words about one of the smaller nations that fought the war, but still one who sent men to die at the front, and one whose soldiers were unfortunately neglected by the people at home. Thank you Pedro Paulo for helping us with the research for this episode. If you want to learn more about the week Germany declared war on Germany, you can click right here. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more background information about World War 1. See you next time.



Portuguese troops embarking to Angola.
Portuguese troops embarking to Angola.
  • July: The German and British Empires enter into secret negotiations over a possible dismemberment of Portuguese Angola;[4] in such a case, most of the land would fall into the hands of the Germans. An Angola-Bund ("Angola League" to promote a German takeover) had been founded in 1912.
  • August to September: Skirmishes occur between German and Portuguese colonial troops in Africa and the Germans instigate tribal revolts.
  • September: The Portuguese government sends reinforcements to the southern border of Angola. After the war breaks out, the border between German South-West Africa and Angola remains open. The Germans hope to supply food and possibly even arms through it. However, the Portuguese colonial government is hostile and tries to stop all of the trade. A few German nationals in Angola are interned.
  • October: 1600 troops arrive in Portuguese Angola and 1527 troops arrive in Portuguese Mozambique from Portugal, transported by British ships.[5]


  • November:1543 troops arrive in Mozambique, commanded by Moura Mendes. The second force is tasked to recapture the Kionga Triangle from the Germans.


When Portugal complies with the British request to confiscate the German ships interned in Portuguese ports, Germany reacts by declaring war on Portugal, thus forcing the Portuguese officially into the war.

  • February 23: Following a British request, Portugal interns 36 German and Austro-Hungarian ships in Lisbon.
  • March 9: Germany declares war on Portugal, followed by Portugal's reciprocal declaration. The Portuguese government starts to organise the participation of its troops on the Western Front. Shortly afterward, Portugal begins closing its consulates in the Ottoman Empire (for their part, the Ottomans do not have any representation in Portugal).[6]
  • March 15: Austria-Hungary declares war on Portugal.
  • June 9: Finance Minister Afonso Costa participates in an Allied Economic Conference in which the Allies decide that Germany would have to return the territories of Alsace-Lorraine to France (occupied since 1871) and Kionga in Mozambique to Portugal (occupied since 1894) as a condition for peace.
  • July 15: The British government formally invites Portugal to take an active part in the military operations of the Allies.
  • July 22: The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (Corpo Expedicionário Português, CEP), with 30,000 soldiers, is established in Tancos, Portugal, under the command of General Norton de Matos.
  • August 7: The Portuguese Parliament accepts the participation of Portugal in the war, following the invitation of the British government. The Portuguese war effort reaches 55,000 infantry soldiers, plus 1,000 artillerymen, to be sent to France, 4,000 soldiers per month, to man 12 km of battlefront. Only the first two divisions reach France. At the same time, Portugal fields forces in its African colonies: in Mozambique to defend the colony from German colonial forces and in the south of Angola against native unrest instigated by the Germans.
  • December 3: The German U-boat SM U-38, captained by Max Valentiner, enters Funchal harbour in Madeira and torpedoes and sinks 3 ships: CS Dacia (1,856 GRT),[7] SS Kanguroo (2,493 GRT)[8] and Surprise (680 GRT).[9] The commander of the French gunboat Surprise and 34 of her crew (7 Portuguese) die in the attack. The Dacia, a British cable laying vessel,[10] which had previously undertaken war work off the coast of Casablanca and Dakar, was in the process of diverting the German South American cable into Brest, France. Following the attack, the Germans proceed to bombard Funchal for two hours from a range of about 4 kilometres (2 nmi). Batteries on Madeira return fire and eventually force the Germans to withdraw.
  • December 26:The French government asks Portugal to send artillery crews to France to operate 20 to 30 heavy artillery batteries.


Portuguese troops disembarking at Brest.
Portuguese troops disembarking at Brest.
  • A few Portuguese troops are sent to the New Forest, England, to help with a timber shortage in collaboration with the Canadian Forestry Corps. The stone chimney of their cookhouse is retained as a monument to them, known as the Portuguese Fireplace.
  • January 3: A convention with Britain regulates Portuguese participation in the Western Front. Portuguese troops of the CEP to be integrated in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force).
  • January 7: The Independent Heavy Artillery Corps (Corpo de Artilharia Pesada Independente, CAPI) is created to respond to the French request for artillery crews. Under the Portuguese Superior Command, this unit is to operate 25 heavy artillery batteries.
  • February 2: The first Portuguese troops arrive at the port of Brest in Brittany, France.
  • February 23: The second contingent of the CEP leaves for France.
  • April 4 The Portuguese troops arrive at the front. The first Portuguese casualty is Private António Gonçalves Curado, killed in action.
  • May 30: The First Infantry Brigade of the CEP First Division occupies a sector at the battle front.
  • June 4: Germans attack the sector defended by the First Brigade.
  • June 16: Second Infantry Brigade occupies another sector on the battle front.
  • July 4: SM U-155 bombards Ponta Delgada, Azores and kills four people. United States Navy coal collier USS Orion responds with 3-inch gunfire, causing U-155 to withdraw.
  • July 10: CEP First Division assumes responsibility of its part of the Portuguese sector on the battle front. It is subordinated to the XI Corps of the British Army under the command of General Richard Haking. CEP Third Infantry Brigade occupies a sector on the front.
  • September 23: The Fourth Brigade, known as the Brigade of Minho (Brigada do Minho), part of the Second Division, reaches the front.
  • October 17: The first Portuguese CAPI artillery soldiers, representing Portugal's direct support to the French war effort, arrive in France. They are designated by the French as the Corps d'artillerie lourde portugais (CALP).
  • November 5: Portuguese command assumes responsibility for its sector in the front. Until then, it had been under the command of General Henry Horne's British First Army.
  • Late 1917: In Portuguese Mozambique, German officer Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck enters the colony from nearby German East Africa after a series of long-running battles with numerically superior British forces.
  • December 12: two German U-boats, U-156 and U-157 (captained by Max Valentiner), again bombard Funchal, Madeira. The attack lasts around 30 min and 40 120 mm (4.7 in) and 150 mm (5.9 in) shells are fired. There are 3 fatalities and 17 wounded. In addition, a number of houses and Santa Clara Church are hit.
  • December 17: German U-boat U-156 stops and scuttles the Portuguese ship Açoriano (a wooden three-masted schooner) southeast of the Azores.
  • December 26: German U-boat U-157 (captained by Max Valentiner) sinks the Portuguese ship Lidia[11] in the Azores.


Portuguese troops loading the Stokes Mortar.
Portuguese troops loading the Stokes Mortar.
  • February 17: German U-boat SM U-157 (captained by Max Valentiner) sinks the Portuguese ship Estrella de Bissao off the coast of South Africa.
  • March 16: The Portuguese artillery batteries enter in action.
  • March 27: A German offensive restrains the Portuguese soldiers from being released. As a third Portuguese Division is never sent to France, the Portuguese Army receives no reinforcements at all. Portuguese soldiers have to serve in the battle front for long periods and are thus among the most exhausted men in the front.
  • April 6: The conditions of the Portuguese soldiers become so difficult that the British finally decide to release the Portuguese. The CEP is supposed to be reorganised, the First Division going to the rear as a reserve force and the Second Division becoming part of the Eleventh Corps of the British Army, under General Haking's command. Haking visits the Portuguese troops and decides to send the Second Division to the rear from April 9, which would never happen. The Germans attack the British lines, forcing them to retreat about 60 km. Instead of being released, the Portuguese troops have to fight off the German offensive on its sector.
Portuguese prisoners-of-war in 1918.
Portuguese prisoners-of-war in 1918.
  • April 9: The Battle of La Lys, as it becomes known in Portugal, or Operation Georgette or the Battle of Estaires to the British, starts with a heavy artillery barrage from the Germans, followed by a German offensive with intensive use of lethal gas. The German Sixth Army deploys eight divisions (about 100,000 men), supported by intensive artillery fire. Against the force, the Portuguese have 20,000 soldiers and 88 guns. As a result, the Second Division is annihilated during the battle. The Portuguese CEP loses 327 officers and 7,098 soldiers, about 35% of its effective fighting capacity. The survivors are sent to the rear, some of the units being integrated into the British Army later on. During this battle, one of the most courageous acts in Portuguese military history is perpetrated, as private Aníbal Milhais (also known as "Soldado Milhões" ["A Soldier as good as a million others" in his commanding officer's words]) defends the retreating allied forces with nothing but his machine gun, allowing them to fall back and regroup. Once he runs out of bullets, he escapes the battlefield. After defeating two German regiments and forcing the remaining German forces to go around him (they find it impossible to defeat what they believe to be an heavily armed post), he gets lost along the way, having to eat nothing but the sweet almonds his family had sent him from Portugal for three days. Lost and exhausted, he is able to rescue a Scottish major from drowning in a swamp. The major leads him to the Allied camp and tells of Milhais's deeds.
  • July: General Tomás António Garcia Rosado is appointed as the new Commanding Chief of the remaining CEP.
  • July: German forces under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck capture Namacurra in Portuguese East Africa and seize important arms and supplies for his force after similar smaller successes against Portuguese outposts had already helped reprovision his force.[12]
  • July 4: CEP First Division is subordinated to the British Fifth Army commanded by General William Birdwood.
  • August 25: General Garcia Rosado assumes command of the CEP in France. The German U-boat SM U-157 sinks the Portuguese ship Gloria, 50 kilometres (30 mi) from Porto Santo, Madeira Islands.
  • September 22: German U-boat SM U-157 sinks the Portuguese ship Gaia, near the Azores.
  • October 14: In the Action of 14 October 1918, Portuguese patrol boat NRP Augusto Castilho (commanded by Carvalho Araújo) is sunk by the German U-boat U-139 (commanded by Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière) after several hours of fighting.
  • November 11: Germany accepts the armistice proposed by the Allies. The war ends.

The war causes Portugal 8,145 dead, 13,751 wounded and 12,318 prisoners or missing. At sea, 96 Portuguese ships are sunk (100,193 tons) and 5 Portuguese ships damaged (7,485 tons) by German submarines.

Portuguese World War I cemetery - Richebourg, France
Portuguese World War I cemetery - Richebourg, France

After the war


  • January 18: The Portuguese delegation at the Peace Conference in Versailles, France, is led by Professor Egas Moniz. In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany cedes the port of Kionga, associated with German East Africa (now mainland Tanzania), to Portugal. This is the only territorial gain acquired by Portugal for its participation in World War I on the side of the victorious Allies.


  • Portuguese World War I cemetery - Richebourg, France
    Portuguese World War I cemetery - Richebourg, France
    November 19: Charles I, the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, goes into exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he remains until his death on April 1, 1922. In 1917, he had tried to enter secretly peace negotiations with France. Although his foreign minister Ottokar Czernin was interested in negotiating only a general peace that would include Germany as well, Charles himself, in negotiations with the French with his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, an officer in the Belgian army, as an intermediary, went much farther in suggesting his willingness to make a separate peace. When news of the overture leaked in April 1918, Charles denied involvement until French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau published letters signed by Charles. That led to Czernin's resignation and forced Austria-Hungary into an even more dependent position with respect to its German ally. Determined to prevent a restoration attempt, the Council of Allied Powers agreed on Madeira as a place of exile for the former emperor because it was isolated in the Atlantic and easily guarded.[13]


  1. ^ The War Office (1922). Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920. Reprinted by Naval & Military Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-84734-681-0
  2. ^ US War Dept 1924 data listed in the Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ Hersch, L., La mortalité causée par la guerre mondiale, Metron- The International Review of Statistics, 1927, Vol 7.Pages 61-64
  4. ^ Vincent-Smith, J.D. "The Anglo-German negotiations over the Portuguese colonies in Africa, 1911-14". The Historical Journal 17.3 (1974): 620-629.
  5. ^ "Portugal enters the war". The Independent. Oct 26, 1914. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  6. ^ Oliveira Marques, António Henrique R. de (1991). Nova história de Portugal: Portugal da Monarquia para a República. Editorial Presença. p. 343.
  7. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Ships hit during WWI: Dacia". German and Austrian U-boats of World War I - Kaiserliche Marine - Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  8. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Ships hit during WWI: Kanguroo". German and Austrian U-boats of World War I - Kaiserliche Marine - Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  9. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Ships hit during WWI: Surprise". German and Austrian U-boats of World War I - Kaiserliche Marine - Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  10. ^ "". 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  11. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Ships hit during WWI: Lidia". German and Austrian U-boats of World War I - Kaiserliche Marine -
  12. ^ First World War – Willmott, H.P. Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page 93
  13. ^ "CHARLES'S ST. HELENA LIKELY TO BE FUNCHA.; Paris Diplomats Expect Portuguess Government to Assent toHis Internment There" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-07-12.
This page was last edited on 29 January 2019, at 15:04
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