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The Portuguese Soldiers in World War I

Updated on January 13, 2017
Portuguese flag flying on the German ship Energie 
Portuguese flag flying on the German ship Energie  | Source

Initially Portugal was not directly involved in the conflict, although in 1914 troops were sent to Angola and Mozambique to defend these colonies against the German threats in Africa. It was also feared a secret agreement between England and Germany to partage the Portuguese colonies after the war.

On February 1916, England invoked the Treaty of Windsor, the oldest military alliance in the world, to ask the Portuguese government to capture German ships.

A detachment of the Portuguese navy seized several dozen German ships, stationed on the Portuguese coast, raising the Portuguese flag.

This incident would eventually lead Germany to declare war on Portugal on March 9, 1916.

Our treaties with Portugal have been respected and adhered to for over five-hundred years… it caused a thrill of pleasure and pride to know that at that moment our oldest ally was fighting side by side with us.

— Lord Mayor
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Portuguese troops disembarking in Brest 1917Portuguese troops heading for Angola, during World War I.
Portuguese troops disembarking in Brest 1917
Portuguese troops disembarking in Brest 1917 | Source
Portuguese troops heading for Angola, during World War I.
Portuguese troops heading for Angola, during World War I. | Source

Portugal entered the war in 1917, sending troops to Flanders (Belgium) and France.

The CEP, Portuguese Expeditionary Corps , under the command of General Tamagnini, landed in the Breton port of Brest in February 1917 and the Portuguese troops, comprising nearly 56,500 men, were from then on, attached to the British Army under General Henry Horne.

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Soldiers had complementary training before being sent to the front
Soldiers had complementary training before being sent to the front
Soldiers had complementary training before being sent to the front | Source
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The CEP was sent to defend a very damp and muddy area, near the river Lys where they also had to deal with a rigorous winter.

The troops moral went down for all these reasons and because of being ignored by the Portuguese government that just changed after a revolution in December 1917.

The CEP fought in Flanders between November 1917 and April 9, 1918 and the most striking battle was the Battle of the Lys.

On April 9, 1918, the Portuguese forces (about 20,000 men) were attacked by 100,000 Germans, during the called Operation Georgette and were heavily defeated.

Portuguese forces were slaughtered, but resisted long enough to allow the Allies to sustain the offensive.

Portuguese victims - Battle of the Lys
 
Death
1.341
Wounded
4.626
Disappeared
1.932
Prisoners
7.740
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Portuguese soldiers in the frontPortuguese infantry battalion on a route march, near Locon, 24 June 1917.
Portuguese soldiers in the front
Portuguese soldiers in the front | Source
Portuguese infantry battalion on a route march, near Locon, 24 June 1917.
Portuguese infantry battalion on a route march, near Locon, 24 June 1917. | Source
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The Portuguese units were then sent to Lillers and Steenbecque to reinforce the British Divisions. They were grouped together in a single division and took part in the Allied offensive of 1918. By the time of the ceasefire on 11 November 1918 the Portuguese division had reached Belgium.
In addition to human and material losses, Portuguese participation also had an enormous economic and social impact in the country.

Portuguese soldiers besides the Christ of the Trenches.
Portuguese soldiers besides the Christ of the Trenches. | Source

The Christ of the Trenches

On April 9, 1918, during the German spring offensive, the village of Neuve-Chapelle almost disappeared from the map, becoming a rubble. In the end only the Christ stood, but mutilated. The battle cut his legs and right arm and a bullet pierced his chest.
The image was taken from the battlefield by the surviving soldiers, desiring that this monument of faith and hope be venerated in a dignified place. Years later she was taken to Portugal, thus giving birth to the devotion of the Christ of the Trenches.

War prisoners

Portuguse POWS.  This picture is probably from April 1918 after the Battle of the Lys, of which the Battle of Armentieres was a part.
Portuguse POWS. This picture is probably from April 1918 after the Battle of the Lys, of which the Battle of Armentieres was a part. | Source

The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (CEP) had 6,678 prisoners, of which 6,585 were made in 9 and 10 April, 1918, during the Battle of La Lys (68 prisoners before 9 April, 6,585 on 9 and 10 April and 25 after 10 April until the armistice on 11 November 1918

Portuguese prisoners of war
Portuguese prisoners of war | Source
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Portuguese hero

Anibal Augusto Milhais (1895-1970), the most decorated Portuguese soldier of World War I and the only Portuguese soldier awarded the highest national honour, the Military Order of the Tower and of the Sword, of Valour, Loyalty and Merit on the battle.

Anibal Milhais and the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps

Milhais was a farmer, born in the small vilage of Valongo in a remote area of Portugal and was drafted in 1917, arriving to France in the same year, as a member of the Trás os Montes brigade from the 2nd Infantry Division from the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps.

In the article, "Corpo Expedicionário Português - Aníbal Milhais", we can read some pages from the book "Sniping in France", writen by a British author, H. Hesketh-Prichard, mentioning the rather strange vocation of Portuguese soldiers who volunteered too often to infiltrate enemy lines and raid trenches even if the casualties on both sides start to rise.

Did you know about the Portuguese participation in WWI?

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