Here’s something the English-speaking world tends to ignore: a century ago today Germany declared war on Portugal. Taking part in the First World War went on to wreck Portugal, but though peace treaties and posterity have given Germany the blame, the real culprits were Portugal’s allies, especially the British. Here’s why.
Portugal in 1916 was a turbulent republic with a population of around six million, a fragile economy and an unstable government. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1910, after it blundered into a dispute with Britain over Portugal’s African colonies, and by the time war broke out in August 1914 the republican government of President de Arriaga had survived royalist uprisings, military plots and serial changes of prime minister.
Portugal’s foreign policy was dominated by Britain, its ally since the fourteenth century and its regular protector against outside attack, and was largely motivated by the desire to hold on to its African colonies. Apart from uprisings against notoriously harsh European administrations, the biggest danger facing those colonies – Portuguese East Africa (Angola) and West Africa (Mozambique) – was encroachment from neighbouring German colonies, so Portugal’s wartime sympathy for the Entente was never in doubt.
On the other hand, a small army of 33,000 ill-equipped and poorly trained troops, along with internal instability and economic disarray, meant Portugal was in no position to actually fight a war, so the government adopted what the British called ‘quasi-neutrality’. This amounted to remaining technically neutral while obeying the instructions of Sir Lancelot Carnegie, the British minister in Lisbon, an attempt to have it both ways that eventually came home to roost.
If that sounds harsh on a struggling Portuguese government trapped by a Great Power conflict beyond its control, bear in mind that stricter neutrality might have been possible if Lisbon had been less determined to defend its colonial possessions. When German border raids hit Mozambique in August 1914, and Angola later in the year, Portugal did manage to send some 1,500 troops to Mozambique. Poorly supplied, ill-led and without clear orders, the expeditionary force had no real impact on German operations on or around the frontier with German East Africa.
Arriaga resigned the presidency when his term of office ended in 1915, and from August of that year Dr. Bernadino Marchada held a shaky grip on power in Lisbon. By that time the British, still vexed by their inability to winkle the Germans out of East Africa, were losing patience with the situation in Mozambique. After the dispatch of another 1,500 Portuguese troops to the colony in November 1915 had changed nothing on the ground, London decided that what little military value Portugal had to offer was worth extracting after all.
In return for a desperately needed loan, and a call from exiled ex-King Manoel to end royalist rebellion for the duration, the Marchada government agreed to Britain’s demand for the removal of all German shipping from Portuguese ports. Rather than attempt negotiation with German ships in its ports, the Portuguese regime chose to seize them in a series of surprise raids during February, effectively guaranteeing that war would follow. The rationale behind this sudden flush of aggression was simple: by entering the War as an active ally, complete with ships seized for Allied use, Portugal could be sure of British protection from reprisal attacks.
Sure enough, Germany declared war on 9 March, followed a week later by Austria-Hungary, and the British set about making the most of Portugal’s belligerent status. They began training Portuguese divisions for France at once, and the Portuguese Army mushroomed, eventually mustering 335 big guns and about 180,000 men, of whom about 100,000 saw active service on the Western Front or in Africa. After final training in Britain, the first two Portuguese divisions – about 40,000 men – reached Flanders by mid-1917, and fought with the BEF until their withdrawal in the spring of 1918, while increasing numbers of troops blundered around the African colonies upsetting the natives but making no progress against German incursions.
In total the Portuguese Army suffered about 21,000 wartime casualties, almost 8,000 of them killed. Meanwhile the small Portuguese Navy, headed by one venerable old pre-Dreadnought battleship, was too busy taking part in factional squabbles at home to make much contribution to the war effort, and though the tiny Portuguese Army Air Service did add a couple of old British machines to its collection of three obsolete biplanes, none of them saw active service.
So apart from providing a few small German ships and a smattering of strategically insignificant cannon fodder, Portugal’s War was a non-event – but the cost of token military involvement was enough to tear down the country’s society and economy. Internal unrest worsened as severe shortages of basic foods and fuel hit the civilian population, and a military coup in December 1917 drove Macheda into exile. Never comfortable around revolutionaries, Britain withdrew financial aid to Portugal a couple of weeks later, having provided £23 million since March 1916, and shortages had worsened by the Armistice.
Peace brought an immediate resumption of royalist agitation, and the assassination in December 1918 of the new president, Major Sidonio Paes, triggered a year of civil war and economic chaos that saw inflation reach 440% by the beginning of 1920. Meanwhile, as a reward for a shabby African campaign that had killed an estimated 100,000 natives, Portugal qualified for a seat at the post-War Paris Peace Conference, got to keep its colonies and was allowed to add some 500 square kilometres of former German territory to Mozambique.
I’ve got two more things to say about Portugal’s pointless and largely forgotten First World War. First off, Portugal had little choice about being bullied into war as a notional aid to Britain’s failing East African campaign, a reminder of the enormous clout and willingness to use it that characterised Great Power relations with little countries in the early twentieth century, and of how desperately the greatest of the Great Powers needed any help it could grab by 1916.
Secondly, the fact that Portugal’s economy was ruined by the strain of adding a tiny pinprick to the Allied war effort highlights the vast difference in scale, shocking at the time, between the First World War and anything that had gone before. This was (literally) war on an industrial scale, and only the most efficient societies could handle it. To a greater or lesser extent every small European nation that mounted a War effort, and all the big ones except Britain and (arguably) France, suffered social and/or economic breakdown as a consequence. Beyond Europe, it was possible to emerge from the War altered but essentially intact. The United States and Japan managed it, along with most of the ‘white’ British colonies and those opportunist nations, like Brazil, that joined the Allies late on – but only because they were far from the imperial battlefields and engaged in less than what we now call total war.