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Belligerents and Participants
Great Britain was Portugal’s oldest ally, but when territorial disputes rose between their colonies in Africa, Britain imposed a humiliating settlement. The unrest this caused would spur a coup in 1910 that overthrew King Dom Emanuel II. Afterwards there was much animosity between the new republican government and the monarchists who were backed by Spain. In July 1912 they initiated an armed uprising at Chaves but it failed to rally popular support. While the Republic held, there would be no political stability in the republic throughout the Great War, and questions of legitimacy remained.
In order to secure peace in Europe, Britain had been secretly negotiating Portugal’s colonies away to Germany. A treaty was ready by the summer of 1914 but other circumstances intervened before it was signed. When the War started, Portugal maintained an uneasy neutrality fearing Britain might use it as an excuse to dismember their overseas empire. There was already some doubt about the reliability of the Portuguese army due to the pro-German sentiment of its officer corps.
Although Portugal’s new government was courting the favor of Great Britain who disapproved of the overthrow of King Emanuel, a relative of the British royal family, the prospect of entering the War remained unpopular. Its army, badly trained and poorly equipped was also in no shape to take on a combat role. Little was done to improve this situation since the republican government feared its ranks were full of loyalists. Public sentiment began to shift against Germany when its U-boat blockade of Great Britain increasingly disrupted Portuguese trade.
The Portuguese government may have taken a neutral stance when war broke out but publishers expressed their own points of view. This was especially true after the public was enraged by reports of atrocities in Belgium. Few postcards relating to the war were produced in Portugal in these early years, but it is difficult to say if this was due to official pressure or just the nation’s small printing industry.
Though technically neutral, violent clashed erupted between Portuguese solders stationed in Angola and Mozambique, and their neighboring German colonies. These rising tensions combined with the U-boat war caused Portugal to finally acquiesce to British demands, at seize all interned German and Austro-Hungarian ships in Lisbon’s Harbor in February 1916. In return Germany declared war on Portugal on March 9th.
By August 1916 the first elements of the Portuguese Expeditionary Force (Corpo Expedicionario Portugues) began to arrive on the Western Front. In January of 1917 their two divisions begin to be integrated into the command of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. While the troops took up front line positions in the trenches, the political situation at home was changing. By the end of 1917 a conservative pro-German government headed by Sidónio Pais took power. The Portuguese’ Army had been reformed back in 1911 to better serve the new republic, but this experiment had not gone well. The conscripts deployed to Flanders were not only dependent on the British for most of their basic equipment and support, they seem to have arrived with the same antiwar sentiments they maintained back in Portugal. The unsuitability of these troops for front line action was largely ignored because their sector was relatively quiet with little fighting.
Unlike British soldiers, Portuguese troops were not rotated out of the front lines at intervals for rest; they served their full tour of duty without breaks. The exception was their officers who could rarely be found at the frontline. Bad food and a harsh winter further contributed to their plummeting morale. The government at home and absentee officers did little to correct this situation as they had basically given up on the War. In early 1918 the first deteriorating Portuguese units began to mutiny. One division returned to Portugal but the was left to face the Germans when they launched their spring offensive. At the Battle of La Lys (Estaires) the Portuguese suffered tremendous casualties after their entire line collapsed. Many just surrendered to the Germans without a fight. The British largely blamed their cowardice for the German breakthrough, and assigned the survivors to labour battalions as punishment. Troops returning from Portugal were still assigned to the front lines, mostly out of need than confidence.
Although Portuguese colonial troops in West Africa became engaged in fighting with the Germans in South-West Africa in late 1914, most colonial troops only wound up dealing with the Germans in 1917 after their invasion of Mozambique. Starved for supplies by the British occupation of German East Afrika, the German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck crossed the border into Mozambique where he pillaged military garrisons. Two attempts were made to dislodge him but both ended in defeats. He finally left on his own accord in the fall of 1918 to invade Northern Rhodesia.
Portugal’s president, Sidonio Pais was assassinated in December 1918, and the political crisis it created led to a renewal of the civil war between republicans and monarchists. After the Versailles Treaty was signed, the contested Kionga region of Africa was added to Portuguese Mozambique.
Portugal was never a large producer of postcards in peacetime, and their war output is scarce. The few postcards that depict Portuguese troops on the battlefront were usually created by French publishers even though they fought under British command.