Worth Fighting For? Portugal's role in World War 1

Lynne Booker


Britain´s 1890 ultimatum of either giving  up the dream of a transafrican empire linking Angola and Mozambique or facing war with Britain (see Get Real  16 September 2008)  led to the downfall of the Portuguese monarchy.


In 1914 the fledgeling Republic had no choice but to fight to hold on to her African empire.


Portugal on the Ropes

At the Treaty of Berlin in 1884 Portugal was required to ´effectively occupy´her African colonies or they would be lost.  Further indignity followed when British ships threatened Portugal and her African colonies to accept the 1890 ultimatum.  Against a background of European powers fighting for chunks of the African cake, Portugal was rightly suspicious of the threat to her empire.  At a time of escalating tensions in Europe Britain and Germany right up to the outbreak of war were on the verge of negotiating how they would share Belgian and Portuguese colonial possessions.  A new, unstable Portuguese government battling to keep internal control had to face dealing with war in Europe, a pro-monarchical Spain looking for a united Iberia and the defence of colonies thousands of miles away.  Neither could Portugal rely on her oldest ally, Britain.  Cynically, with the end of the Portuguese monarchy, Britain declared that the clauses of the old treaties were obsolete and that neither the Portuguese Army, nor Treasury, had any effective war value.  And, strategically, ´if Britain had to choose between the friendship of Portugal and the friendship of Spain, that of Spain is of the greater value.´ (British Admiralty War Staff memo).


Portugal´s Unofficial War in Angola and Mozambique (August 1914 - March 1916)

Republican Portugal was keenly aware of British attitudes but they felt that neutrality might prove catastrophic - not just in terms of Portugal´s possessions - but for her very existence.  Whitehall´s response was that Portugal´s best interests would be served by a ´quasi neutrality´.  What Britain failed to realise was the supreme importance of Portugal´s African possessions - they were symbols of Portugal´s glorious past and, as such, were a matter of life or death to the Government.   For the next 4 years, Portugal was ´run´by Sir Lancelot Carnegie, the British Minister in Lisbon.  

Germany delivers the first punchOn 24 August 1914, German troops attacked Maziua in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) killing the commanding officer and a dozen Portuguese local troops. Dr Weck, the German commanding officer´s excuse was that he thought Maziua had been overrun by rebels.  The German government made an official apology but there was outrage in Portugal.  Particularly as more German troops were brought to the Mozambique border in case of reprisals.  In Portuguese West Africa (Angola), the Germans attacked a frontier post in late October and in December there was a full scale battle inside Portuguese territory at Naulila.  

Tradição de heroismo:  Portugal sends troops to MozambiqueThe First Portuguese Expeditionary force of 1500 troops arrived in Mozambique on 1 November 1914.  They were badly trained and badly equipped and following a long sea voyage they arrived in Porto Amelia to a cyclone-damaged port that had not been repaired.  To cap it all, the expedition´s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Massano de Amorim,  did not received any military commands until the overthrow of General Pimenta de Castro´s government in May 1915 when he was told to invade the German held Kionga triangle to the north of Porto Amelia and to reinorce the 600 mile northern border of the colony.  Having lost 20% of his troops to disease, Amorim needed more support.  In November 1915 a further 1500 Portuguese troops arrived under the command of a political appointee with no military experience, Major Moura Mendes.  An added difficulty was that orders from the fifth government of the year in Lisbon, was directed through the colony´s new Governor General, Álvaro de Castro, who was 1000 miles away in the colony´s capital, Lourenço Marques.  It was not suprise that the Germans did not take the Portuguese seriously and they continued to operate in northern Mozambique. Despite Portugal´s glowing situation reports, the British Foreign Office was seriously concerned at the continued German presence in Mozambique. 


Portugal´s Official War in Angola, Mozambique and Europe (March 1916 - November 1918)

Germany declares war on PortugalGermany´s continued strategic use of Mozambique, led the British to demand that  Portugal seize all German ships sheltering in neutral Portuguese harbours.  Portugal agreed in return for a loan.  Germany reciprocated by declaring war on Portugal on 9 March 1916.

The highs and lows point of of Portugal´s involvement in MozambiqueOn 10 April 1916, the 215 square miles known as the Kionga Triangle that had been a bone of contention between Portugal and Germany for 2 decades was captured by the Portuguese. The Governor General, flushed with this success took command to prepare to clear the north bank of the Rovuma delta of German troops.  They failed miserably despite an overwhelming superiority of numbers at what was known as the battle of Namiranga.  Meanwhile, a Third Expeditionary Force under the command of General Ferreira Gil set off from Lisbon with a new set of grandiose plans for advancing to the Makonde Plateau in German territory.   They reached Newala The plan failed when Gil, believing he was surrounded by a larger force, decided to retreat leaving all their equipment and supplies behind - much to the delight of the Germans.  The ´spin´in Lisbon turned the ignoble retreat into a battle that ´assumed a major importance for the nation in order to save its colonies´. 1917 proved to be a disastrous year for the Portuguese with local tribes revolting against the increasingly harsh Portuguese rule.  The rebellions were forcefully suppressed for fear of losing the colonies if they couldn´t control them.  In fact the Germans saw themselves as the natural inheritors of Africa in which their drive westwards to German West Africa and Angola, would continue further to the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde and Principe and São Tomé.  (Quoted by Ferreira Martins, ´Verdades Esquecidas E Ingoradas:  Portugal De 1914-1918 in Républica, 31, March 1956).  In November the Portuguese were overrun at Negomano leaving the grateful Germans with yet another gift of a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition and several hundred modern rifles. The British and the Portuguese fought together at Nhamacurra and they then had to fall back to Quelimane where the proximity of German troops caused the locals to rebel.  Sousa Rosa was sacked and Partugal´s campaign in East Africa was over.  


The Portuguese in France and further political discontent at home

A decision to send 55.000 Portuguese troops to fight on the Western Front caused a further political crisis.  Strikes broke out all across the country and martial law was imposed.  The União Sagrada government fell and the hand of the anti-war lobbies and anti-British lobbies was strengthened.  However, no Portuguese government was willing to abandon the fight in either Europe or Africa as it would be an admission of failure that would further damage Portugal´s brio nacional (national pride).  In the anti war spirit, the new President, Sidónio Pais, allowed his officers to abandon their troops in France and it was left to the British and French to lead a dispirited Portuguese force.  Rumours abounded about Pais being pro German and willing to conclude a separate peace with Germany.  


Worth fighting for? 

Portugal mobilised 89.000 combatants:  7989 were killed. 100.000 Africans were killed.  Portugal was in no position politically to go to war in 1914 and by 1918 she was on the verge of collapse.  Britain had been deceitful in her attitude towards Portugal before the war, but had fought alongside her in Africa:  effectively ensuring that indigenous revolts were put down in to further British war aims.   Following the war,  Portugal suffered shortages of coal, matches, fish, meat, flour oil, milk, rice, beans, sugar, butter.  Britain cut off her credit and inflation from January 1918 to January 1920 reached 440%.  Emigration from the country between  1918 to 1920,  mostly to Brazil,  was in the order of 65.000 per annum.  Portugal got a seat at the Treaty of Versailles - albeit a back one. One Portuguese delegate said to Clemenceau, Portugal was owed something for ´its unforgettable services to Humanity and Civilisation above all in Africa, which it has watered with its blood since the 14th century´.  In terms of reparations, Portugal got nothing.  She kept her colonies,  gaining the Kionga Triangle - the Peacemakers In Versailles felt this was enough.  The Portuguese Republic survived its baptism of fire.