1914 - 1918




“It is not the cruelty related to all those killed and wounded, the sacrifice of all those who die fighting, or that are killed without ever even taking part in any fighting, which weighs heavily on the soul: it is the stupidity of the sacrifice of lives and possessions to anything that is ultimately useless. All ideals and all ambitions are the wicked chimera of male old hags.” 

Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), Livro do Desassossego (Book of Disquiet).

World War I was, in all senses, a breaking point of multiple dimensions, and determined a turning point from which the world, including Portugal, changed forever.

Initially neutral, and formally belligerent after 1916, Portugal participated in the Great War by mobilizing more than 100 000 men. Among these, about 8 000 lost their lives in the trenches of Flanders or on the battlefields of Africa.

The war erupted shortly after the transition of political regime that had placed Portugal alongside France and Switzerland as the only republics in Europe, and it had great influence in the outcome of that political experience. Its impact was pervasive and brutal, with persistent effects in the history and in the heritage of the Country; it gave rise to intense social, cultural and artistic reactions and became an essential part of the history of those who lived it directly or indirectly.

The role that Portugal occupied during the Great War, peripheral within the European context, assumed a certain centrality due to its geo-strategic position.

The Portuguese territory, spreading through several countries, included the colonies of Macao, Timor, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea, Cape Vert, São Tomé e Príncipe and the state of India.

In addition the location of the colonies in Africa, the Azores, where it was established an American naval base, are relevant positions in world connections and in particular in the context of the war in the Atlantic.

Chapter 1. Between neutrality and belligerence

On August 4, 1914, the news of the declaration of war by England to Germany arrived in Portugal.

Soon after, on 7 August, Bernardino Machado, Prime Minister, submitted to Congress, which had met extraordinarily, a statement of principles on the conduction of Portuguese foreign policy. Portugal would not fail to comply with its international obligations, in particular those imposed by its alliance with Britain. Under pressure from the Foreign Office, Portugal could plead neither belligerent nor neutral regarding the war in Europe.

Days later, it was decided that two mixed units (mountain artillery, cavalry, infantry and machine guns) would be sent to Angola and Mozambique. The first Portuguese troops left for Africa one month later.

“If we go to war, we will show the world that we are ready to die for the fatherland, that we live because we want to live.” 

Teixeira de Pascoais, writer. A Águia, 1914, p. 161-168.

The division between interventionists and non-interventionists would soon become installed in Portugal, even within the Government itself. Desired and sought after by a few, avoided or rejected and criticized by others, the participation of Portugal in the war and the specific involvement of military forces on the European front triggered intense, truculent and generalized debate, opposing different ideas, arguments and extreme political positions, and raising growing unrest within a significant part of the Portuguese society.

Although neutrality would remain until March 1916, the impacts of a world conflict extending over a period far beyond that which was originally imagined, were very intense, resulting in the scarcity of essential goods to the sustenance of the population, which grew progressively more restless.

Chapter 2. War in the Portuguese colonies in Africa

In 1914, with the exception of Ethiopia, Liberia and the South African Union, which were independent, and of Libya and Morocco, which had not yet been “formally conquered”, the rest of the African continent was occupied and divided among the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium. Britain had the largest empire in Africa, controlling approximately 4/5 of the trade in the regions to the south of the Sahara. 

Germany, in turn, giving continuity to the policy initiated by Bismarck in the late 19th century, held a small, though strategically positioned Empire, stretching from Madagascar to the entrance of the Red Sea. Both empires bordered territories under Portuguese administration, and disputed those domains at the international level.

The geostrategic position of the Portuguese territories in Africa was accompanied with particular attention by the Portuguese Republic in the immediate aftermath of the assassination in Sarajevo.

Soldier of Africa! How many medals did they put on your chest ?

On August 21, 1914, Prime Minister Bernardino Machado decided to organize and ship away two mixed military units (mountain artillery, cavalry, infantry and machine guns) to Angola and Mozambique.

Between 1914 and 1918 Portugal mobilized about 30000 men to fight in Angola and in Mozambique. A significant part of the military contingent that integrated these expeditions arrived in Africa sick, as they were unable to resist the terrible hygienic conditions experienced during the trip.

Our existence as an independent State requires the maintenance of our colonial empire.” 

Augusto Casimiro, Naulila, Seara Nova, 1922, p. 6.

Chapter 3. Portugal at war: in Europe and the Atlantic

Following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, a calculated number of 734 German ships took refuge in neutral waters; of these, about seventy (approximately 242 000 tons) were in Portuguese ports. Since 1915, Britain had been trying to force the Portuguese government to commandeer them, making the point that they ought to be placed at the Alliance’s service. On February 23rd, 1916, a Portuguese Armada platoon climbed aboard the German and Austrian ships anchored at the Tagus estuary and, with military honors, hoisted the Portuguese flag.

On March 9, 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal. The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (CEP) and the Independent Heavy artillery Corps (C.A.P. I) were then created.

Throughout 1917 and 1918, the CEP participated in several skirmishes. Its intervention was indelibly associated to the battle of La Lys, on April 9, 1918, which was the date set for the replacement of the Portuguese military. The CEP was devastated by the German army and a number of many of its members were taken prisoner.

With Portugal’s entry in the war the sea, stretching itself along the coasts of continental Portugal, Madeira, the Azores and the colonies, particularly the Africans, became a third operations theatre.

Portugal’s geographical location made the country a mandatory stopping point to all routes between the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. German submarines knew it, and did not hesitate in approaching the Portuguese coast where they became an easy prey, in addition to large cargo steam ships, and to fishing and coastal sailing.

In all 100 Portuguese vessels were sunk, not only in territorial waters, but is such places as the Azores, Madeira, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel or the North Sea.

Roberto Ivens and Augusto Castilho were the only two Portuguese military ships lost as a consequence of war action.

Chapter 4. In the trenches

We know this war by heart

The trenches were a paradigmatic and striking element in the history of World War I. Front line, conquered territory, space to defend, confrontational zone and refuge zone. They were a place of common living, imposed residence, both surprising and dull, always prolonged… They were a stronghold of conviviality and sharing for thousands of soldiers, on both sides of a sometimes blurry line, dividing a disputed, inaccurate and insecure area.

André Brun’s (army officer, writer, humorist and playwright) depiction was perfect: “we already know this war by heart. When we’re on the line, every night we shake off the patrols that to come to pinch us; every night we wander about through no man’s land “. André Brun, A malta das trincheiras, ed. 1983, p. 89.

In this eerie space, small and suffocating, death, disease and survival all coexisted. First aid stations were organized, as well as artillery shelters, kitchens, latrines and resting places. The living conditions were precarious; sometimes worsened by the rain and snow that rushed into the trenches, filling them with mud, hindering the soldiers’ movements even more.

The trench routine prevailed over everything else, only interrupted by gunfire, bombings and night raids. The soldiers dug, cleaned and took care of communications. The sentinels watched out for the enemy.

The days were always similar, filled with repetitive and exhausting chores. The nights were long, and spent permanently on hold, in a watchful and fearful state.

Chapter 5. Body and disease: Portuguese medicine during the Great War

Medical schools faced great challenges during World War I. The arms and technological innovations resulted in thousands of dead, wounded and maimed victims. Medicine had to develop new methods of diagnosis and treatment. The war fostered the use of x-ray, gave rise to shell shock and reconstructive surgery and accompanied the development of female nursing.

Pale, skinny, exhausted, lungs ravaged by gases … a miserable legion of abandoned souls.

Jaime Cortesão, Memórias da Grande Guerra

In Africa, the combatants were accompanied by medical officers and received medical help mostly in major colonial towns. Diseases such as malaria and dysentery produced more casualties than the war activities themselves. In France, the Portuguese army developed a complex Health Service, redirecting the patient from the trench to the ambulance or hospital, in a health care network that relied greatly on the British. Once they were returned to Portugal, patients received treatment in military hospitals and temporary hospital facilities. The mutilated were cared for and reintegrated into society by institutions such as the Arroios Institute and the Institute of Saint Isabel, both in Lisbon.

Doctors and nursing staff dealt with the physical and emotional consequences produced by technological advances, in particular those resulting from the effects of the weapons used and of the introduction of poison gas during the bombings. New weapons, new injuries. Thousands were mutilated and maimed, became sick and psychologically troubled.

The social reintegration of war amputees was discussed, as well as the production of prostheses, the methods of blood transfusion and vaccination of the combatants. The end of the war was also marked by the rise and spreading of the most deadly epidemic that had been witnessed until then: the pneumonic fever, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide, boosting the already gloomy trilogy of misery, war and death.

Chapter 6. The Republic at war

Germany’s Declaration of war on Portugal brought about the Portuguese intervention in the European front, giving way to the agreement between the Democratic and Evolutionist Parties in for the formation of the Government of Sacred Union. The Constitution of a Portuguese Expeditionary Corps became an absolute priority, thus beginning the so-called “miracle of Tancos”.

The country's mobilization for war, gathering all possible human and material resources, was far from consensual, and there was much outcry against the Government of Sacred Union and the shipment of troops to France, as internal divisions grew at all levels, including within the armed forces.

Belligerence is a matter of life or death for the Republic. 

Machado Santos (1875-1921), military serviceman. The Capital, 3-12-1914, p. 2.

Faced with increasing difficulties, repressive reactions from the political power and police, often unusually violent, the ineffectiveness or inadequacy of several measures taken at the national or municipal level, the population expressed its dissatisfaction and despair with outstanding intensity over the years of the conflict. The problems arising from the nature of the national productive system and the high degree of external dependence, added up to the effects of inflationary pressure, the financial efforts associated with war expenditure, the level of internal and external debt, dragging the country into an economic and financial crisis, whose consequences remained until well beyond the end of the conflict.

The war worsened economic vulnerabilities, accentuated political differences and deepened social cleavages. The situation evolved into a worse political and social situation in the country, providing the environment to the coup by Sidónio Pais and his authoritarian experience, which questioned the Republican-liberal institutions.

Chapter 7. The arts during the war: compromise and defiance

The world belongs to those who do not feel.

 Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), Book of Disquiet

The cultural mobilization of Portuguese writers and artists was not univocal, revealing the social divide in relation to war. Whereas the Portuguese Renaissance defended the country's active intervention in the conflict, with poets such as Augusto Casimiro distinguishing themselves as soldiers and writers of memoirs from the Flanders front, the modernist movement, which had emerged publicly in 1915, had virulent and contradictory positions vis-à-vis the conflict. Its flagship magazine, Orpheu, featured seminal names such as Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, proposing a poetic line that dialogued with the recent European avant-garde movements. The cultural provocation was further radicalized shortly after with futurism, proclaimed through the controversial manifestos by Almada Negreiros. Meanwhile, once Amadeo de Souza Cardoso returned to Paris, he presented an exhibition of paintings in 1916 that confirmed his place at the forefront of international art.

Other artists marched with the army to the front in France and produced crucial works, such as Sousa Lopes and Cristiano Cruz.

In the fast-paced years of the Great War remarkable episodes of dialogue and cultural advance took place: the stay of artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay in Minho and the performance of the Russian Ballets in Lisbon.

Chapter 8. Memories

In the postwar period memorial rituals appeared in all countries involved. Portugal installed its two unknown soldiers from Africa and France in the monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, in Batalha, on April 9, 1921. They can still be found in the Chapter Room, under the gravestone that reads:


The Great War, its echoes, perpetuated in art, in literature, in reports and stories, can be still heard today. Some share the same longing, fear or desire to return to the motherland. Others recall political upheavals, social problems, doubts and uncertainties regarding the days to come.

The narratives of war are many and diverse. There are those of the great military officers and statesmen, those of the fighters who experienced the trenches, of the prisoners sent to German camps, and those of doctors, observers of the evils inflicted upon bodies and souls. All of them are essential to the construction of the memory that we intend to revive.

Was it the war? […] It was evidently the war – it was death. It was death that approached suddenly to us all, to the poor souls and the others, and posed us the problem of life like a knife pointed at our chest. Death became impossible to miss. Raul Brandão, Memórias.

The exhibition We Know this war by heart. Portugal and the Great War is an initiative of the Institute for Contemporary History of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, the Assembly of the Republic and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It is included in a broad project dedicated to the study and dissemination of the history and impact of the Great War in Portugal and includes the organisation in Portugal of an initiative that aims at collecting memories and objects ceded by relatives of soldiers or other persons that lived and witnessed the Great War organized within the project Europeana 1914-1918.

In Portugal, this activity has been promoted through the internet and through the organization of road shows under the name “Dias da Memória”. The first initiative took place in October 2014 in the Portuguese Parliament.

This exhibition proposes a narrative of the main events of the history and impact of the Great War in Portugal developed essentially with images and testimonies collected in the “Dias da Memória” through Europeana 1914-1918.

For more information please visit www.portugal1914.org or access the digital World War I material in Europeana.eu


Organized by Instituto de História Contemporânea da Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa (http://www.ihc.fcsh.unl.pt), Assembleia da República e Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros.

Project management: Maria Fernanda Rollo


Assembleia da República

Câmara Municipal de Lisboa

Europeana 1914-1918

The Institute for Contemporary History is thankful for the support granted by the Portuguese Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Credits: Story

Curational Team —
Maria Fernanda Rollo
Ana Paula Pires
Margarida Portela
Maria Ines Queiroz 
Research and Text —
Ana Carina Azevedo
Ana Paula Pires
Angela Salgueiro
Aniceto Afonso
Carlos Silveira
Joana Dias Pereira
Joao Moreira Tavares
Jose Luis Assis
Margarida Portela
Maria Fernanda Rollo
Maria Ines Queiroz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.