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Webmatters : The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps

The Lys

The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps

Portugal is England’s oldest ally with The Treaty of Windsor dating back to 1386 (In the middle of the Hundred Years War).

Like England Portugal was a seafaring nation and began to acquire her own colonies around the world. This led of course into diplomatic conflict when in 1890 Britain ordered the Portuguese government to remove its troops from what would become Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

King Carlos I gave in to the British demands and with that the authority of the Portuguese monarchy began to slip away. In 1908 the King was assassinated and on 5th October 1910 the country became a Republic with bitter views about the territorial desires of its old ally. Perhaps not without reason for in 1913 Britain and Germany signed a secret accord dividing up the Portuguese African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Defending her colonies

When war broke out the following year between Britain and Germany Portugal was persuaded to remain neutral. Opinions in Portugal were mixed in that there was an opinion that they should let the British and French get on with it whilst at the same time there was a nagging worry about the war being waged in Africa. How secure were the Portuguese colonies ?

Another important question for the young republic was how to put itself onto the international stage. Whilst the thoughts of going to war over something that did not really concern them was not popular with the government, they were astute enough to realise that some form of involvement would provide greater guaranties in the future.

On 24th February 1916 the Portuguese government seized all the German and Austro-Hungarian ships that had been laid up in the port of Lisbon since the outbreak of the war. It was explained to the concerned governments that they were needed to transport food for a the civil population and that they would eventually be returned, but the two powers didn’t buy the explanation and on 9th March 1916 German declared war on Portugal.

 

The formation of an Expeditionary Force

The Portuguese set about creating an expeditionary force for the Western Front.

In effect this force consisted of two bodies:

  1. An Independent Heavy Artillery Corps (CAPI)
    Corpo de Artilharia Pesada Independente
  2. A Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (CEP)
    Corpo Expedicionário Português

The Expeditionary Corps started to arrive in Brest on 2nd February 1917 and over the next eight months nearly 60,000 men would arrive in France. They were transported by train to the front in Artois near the town of Air sur la Lys and placed under the control of the British First Army.

They located their Corps Headquarters in St Venant at the mansion of La Peylouse and would remain there until forced out by Operation Georgette in April 1918.

The CEP consisted of two Divisions and were given British equipment and training in trench warfare techniques. On 11th May 1917 they were sent up to the front line and the problems began almost immediately.

The Portuguese government was not whole heartedly behind the war and no account was made for the daily attrition of manpower. The idea that outside of the great battles the front was peaceful is a false one. Artillery bombardments were carried out routinely as well as trench raids by both sides. One of Field Marshal Haig’s gripes in 1918 was the fact that the British government wasn’t prepared to replace his daily losses let alone plan to defend against a major German offensive.

The winter of 1917 was harsh and the soldiers far from acclimatised to such hardships. The constant gnawing away at their numbers created gaps that needed to be filled by working the men for even longer hours at the front (Sometimes for months at a time — unthinkable within the British Divisions around them).

Sitting in a filthy mud filled trench for a cause which seemed to have little to do with their homeland resulted in a lot of disaffection amongst the often illiterate Portuguese soldiers who felt abandoned by their government and officers.

Leave was almost non-existent for the simple reason that it was hard enough to get the officers to return to duty. Surprisingly it would appear that the soldiers had better military bearing than their superiors for of the 519 that were given leave, all returned — which could not be said for nearly half of the officers (1090 out of 1912).

The British were swift to acknowledge that the morale of the CEP was being seriously weakened as established strengths fell by almost a quarter. On 4th April 1918 their Commander: General Fernando Tamagnini de Abreu e Silva alerted the British of mutinies within the ranks and the decision was swiftly taken to have the CEP removed from the front.

Orders were promulgated to relieve the Portuguese 1st Division on the 6th April and the 2nd on the 9th April. Unfortunately the Germans were on the point of interfering with the plans.

With about 20,000 Portuguese soldiers holding their sector and already in the mindset that they were going to the rear, the Crown Prince of Bavaria was amassing 100,000 trained troops supported by 1,700 pieces of artillery.

 

9th April 1918 — Operation Georgette

At 0415 hours Colonel Bruchmüller’s artillery orchestration began its work as it had done a few weeks before against the British on the Somme. Pounding all centres of communication and identified HQ’s emplacements as well as the front line and artillery positions. Whole sectors were drenched with gas and the Portuguese Artillery noted their infantrymen starting to retire through them long before the actual attack had begun.

In the north of their line the 4th (Minho) Brigade did their best to stem the tide in front of Laventie but by 1100 hours it had been taken along with almost all of the Portuguese 4th Brigade.

Elsewhere the line collapsed despite being bolstered by the British as fast as they could with the 1st King Edward’s Horse and the 11th Cyclist Battalion.

A stand was made at Lacoutre by the Portuguese 13th and 15th Battalions aided by the arriving British but even here the position became untenable by 1145 hours.

The hole created in the line was plugged as well as possible by the British 50th (Northumbrian) and 51st (Highland) Divisions. For the CEP the battle was finished.

Their losses amounted to nearly four hundred killed and 6,500 captured.

Their participation in the battle, though, earned Portugal the right to participate in the victory parade and a place at the peace conference in Paris.

 

The Million Man

The low morale of the Portuguese soldiers no doubt contributed to the day’s events but faced by a similar bombardment and overpowering enemy the British Fifth Army had fared little better in March.

Not every Portuguese grabbed a bike and ran. Private Anibal Milhais of the 15th Battalion was in charge of one of their Lewis gun’s on the 9th April. Firing his gun Louisa for all he was worth, he managed to cover the retreat of Portuguese and Scots alike despite coming under heavy attack himself.

Only 1.55 metres tall the big wee man stayed at his post until he had run out of ammunition. His bravery under severe circumstances managed to convince the Germans that they were up against a fortified unit rather than just: one Portuguese peasant with a machine gun.

He managed to extract himself and wandered back towards the rear lines where he was received to great acclaim.

His commanding officer Major Ferreira do Amaral described his action as having been worth a million men and the nickname stuck.

Milhais, a simple farmer by profession survived the war and lived until 1970 having spent some time in Brazil. His home town in Murça District erected a statue in his honour and he became a symbol for the new Portugal.