Portugal’s participation in World War I

Despite being a small and peripheral country, Portugal played an active role in this conflict both in European soil and in Africa, where its colonies had to be defended. Heated controversies and hesitations conditioned the social and the political life of the country. Since the implantation of the Republic on the 5th October 1910, social, religious, military and political instability determined the general atmosphere.

Borrowing Fussell’s concept of the “versus habit” (79), created during this war period, there were republicans vs. monarchists, pro-Allies vs. pro-Germans, belligerents vs. non-belligerents, radical republicans vs. Catholics. Lead by Afonso Costa (1871-1937),1 the belligerent sector gained position. Later, however, with Sidonio Pais (1872-1918),[1] [2] the non-belligerent and anti-German sector would prevail. According to some historians, the disadvantaged position of Portugal by the end of the war can be attributed to this change in the war policy.

Those who were for a participation of the country on equal terms as the great world powers believed that that was the only way to assure the possession of the colonies and hoped that war could become the large national project, gathering all the people in that common effort. In 1916 a group of soldiers, poorly trained and poorly equipped - the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (known as CEP in Portuguese) was eventually sent to Flanders. These soldiers would remain there for two years, forgotten by the Portuguese government, without ever being relieved, as a consequence of the turn taken by the so called “war conduct”.

Most of the Portuguese population was not expecting the participation of the country in the war on European soil. On the one hand, because they were excluded from any political participation (around 70% of the population was illiterate); on the other, it was felt that the war effort should be placed in Africa, where Portuguese soldiers were already fighting. Also war censorship between 1916 and 1919 helped to keep the population’s minds away from the conflict in the European territories.

The outcome of the conflict was far from advantageous for Portugal. Instead of being solved, the internal dissents became even sharper; the image of Portugal abroad was impaired by Sidonio Pais’s policy and the CEP survivors came back home with the bitter feeling that all their effort had been in vain, except for the benefit of a very few. In fact, this feeling was common to soldiers of other countries, having its expression in the many accounted desertions and mutinies.

Once the conflict was over, and according to the Portuguese historian Severiano Teixeira, it was necessary to find “a patriotic interpretation and a heroic image of the Portuguese participation in the 1914-1918 war. The Great War was thus included in the gallery of the national myths” [“uma interpretaqao patriotica e uma imagem heroica da participaqao portuguesa na guerra de 1914-1918. A Grande Guerra entrava, assim, na galeria dos mitos nacionais”] (Teixeira 19).[3]

  • [1] Costa was a lawyer and a prominent member of the first Republican government inPortugal.
  • [2] Pais was an Army officer, who became President of the Portuguese Republic in 1917.
  • [3] Unless stated otherwise, the translation of all the quotations is of my own responsibility.
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