Portugal's Object-Lesson to the United States
How A Small Country Raised A Powerful Army In One Year

By a French Diplomat

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, October 1917]

[This article is by a French diplomat who was in Portugal at the time of which he writes, who observed on the spot the recruiting and training of the Portuguese army now at the French front, and who heard daily the comments of the Franco-English Commission which reported favorably concerning that army.—EDITOR.]

Early in the summer of 1916 the Portuguese representatives at Paris and London took simultaneously, on the Quai d'Orsay and in Downing Street, a step which will be regarded as marking a historic date in the annals of Portugal. They proposed to M. Briand and to Mr. Asquith the actual participation of the Portuguese army in the war against Germany. They asked that an expeditionary force should be sent from Lisbon not only to East Africa—where a Portuguese brigade was already co-operating with the South-African army and the Belgian army—but to France.

The Quai d'Orsay and the Foreign Office received the suggestion with gratitude, but did not at once reply to it. At first they saw in this proffer simply one of those manifestations of sympathy to which Portugal had accustomed them ever since the outbreak of the war. Bound to England by an alliance centuries old, and to France by a political friendship which has impelled her to adopt the laws and the very formulae of the French Constitution, Portugal found every year some way of binding her cause more closely to that of the Allies. In August, 1914, first among the neutral countries, she had protested against the invasion of Belgium. In December, 1914, she turned over to the Belgian army—a touching example of brotherhood among small nations—a hundred or more entirely new 75-mm. guns, made at Creusot, which constituted two-thirds of her field artillery. In 1915, in order to free herself altogether from German influence, she did not shrink from the prospect of revolution. This revolution, which was more bloody than the one that overthrew the monarchy, placed the supreme power in the hands of a democratic party, whose first care was to declare war on Germany, to drive across the border into Spain the numerous Germans who were trying to revive the royalist party in Lisbon, and to seize the sixty-two German vessels in Portuguese harbors. The offer of Portuguese contingents at the very moment when Germany was about to resume at Verdun her irruption into France, was a fresh proof, and the greatest of all, of her desire to serve the cause of the Allies; but the Allies, because of its very importance, hesitated.

They hesitated because they had some doubt as to the usefulness of the Portuguese army. They knew that the Portuguese soldier is highly valued as a soldier. He is brave—he proved his mettle in the old days under Wellington. He has great staying power, and he is the only European soldier who can go about bareheaded, at noonday, under the Equator. The Portuguese, whose resolute, sallow face one remarked now and then in the grand manoeuvers of the French or German forces, is supposed to have inherited the penchant of his ancestors for adventures and danger. At Timor and in Angola, they had given proof of great energy.

But modern war demands not military qualities alone; it demands full military preparation. It is as hazardous to place an untrained brigade in the midst of an army as to put on a football team a young man who, although agile and fearless, has never played football. There was nothing to justify the belief that Portugal was prepared. Nor was it thought that she could supply a contingent of sufficient value to justify the employment, in transporting it, of those priceless things, ships—for Spain could not permit the Portuguese to pass over her territory. The reports of 1913—the last which the military attachés had been able to make concerning the Portuguese army, were far from encouraging. They set forth that it comprised barely twenty thousand men, most of whom were on leave; that the departure of the royalists had materially decreased the value of the officers. They emphasized also the pacifist spirit of Portugal, her unsanguinary temperament, which led her, centuries ago, to abolish the death penalty, even for animals, since the bull-fights, although very numerous in Portugal, are never brought to an end by a death blow.

Great Britain especially was inclined to give a dilatory reply, with an expression of gratitude, for she knew better than any other nation the difficulty of creating a force of all arms, or even a single division, a single regiment. But the Portuguese government persisted, and at the instance of France as well, who deemed it impossible to deny to any nation, even a small one, the right to shed her blood in the cause of small nations, it was agreed that an Anglo- French military commission should be sent to Portugal, to inspect the Portuguese army.

The commission started from Paris in the latter part of August. It was composed of three British and three French officers. The chief of the British group was General Barnardiston; of the French, Colonel Paris. The instructions given them were very precise—if the Portuguese effectives were top insufficient as to numbers, if their training was not completed, or not far advanced, then, despite every desire to accept the gallant offer, it would be necessary to abandon the idea of inviting them to take part in the European war.

The commission inspected the barracks and the arsenals; traveled all over the country; visited Oporto, Thomar, Coimbra, and their garrisons; directed manœuvers on the very spots where the Portuguese troops in alliance with Wellington's had fought the French in 1809; and sent in its report at the end of September. On the 15th of October the offer to send a Portuguese army was accepted with much cordiality by England and France. On January I, 1917, a full division, preceding a second division—practically the equivalent of General Pershing's force—landed at a French port.

Never, in any European country, has the problem of the army and democracy—the same problem which the United States has to solve to-day—been propounded more clearly and in a more theoretical guise than in Portugal. No nation had in like degree every reason to set aside military burdens and obligations. Portugal has neither external nor internal enemies to fear. The republic is very firmly established; the royalist factions have definitively abandoned the struggle. The war itself seemed to encourage them to devote themselves to toil, since-they could not at the outset claim to play a military role. The Allies urged them to specialize in the production of wine, steel, meats, and dried vegetables. They asked them, not for troops, but for a detachment of workmen (for the Portuguese workman is diligent and of a compliant temper, as is well, known in the United. States, where one of the best foreign colonies is that of the Portuguese in Massachusetts); and France received some thousands of them, whom she distributed among the factories in the Center.

But, at the very moment when participation in the conflict seemed certain to be most costly, hazardous, and formidable; at the moment when Portugal was beginning to earn a little money in her capacity of purveyor; at the moment when a more democratic government came into power—Portugal announced that her chief ambition was to create an army and send it to France.

It was in June, 1915. The first offensive of the Allies, in Artois, did not yield the hoped-for results. The Dardanelles expedition already appeared dubious. The Russian retreat abandoned Poland to the foe, and the possibility of a separate peace between Russia and Germany was already looming large. It was the period when all the small nations neighboring to Germany became more fearful than ever, and to beguile their terrors, gave themselves up to the passion for commerce and profit. Everything seemed to counsel the abandonment of military reorganization in a country which could not expect, by its assistance, to improve the fortunes of the Allies. Great Britain refused to make any loans, and the chargé at Lisbon became every day more ill-disposed to the republic, Germany, on the other hand, made all possible advances to the politicians; the German minister, an ardent collector of furniture, and the Austrian minister, an ardent collector of porcelains, deserted the second-hand dealers for the deputies, and promised especially favorable treatment at the hands of the Central Powers.

But the leaders of the revolution did not palter with them. Under the direction of Alfonso Costa, Minister of Finance, they declared to the Congress that Portugal could not be content with mere passive sympathy for the Allies. "Conscription is the fairest method, not only for individuals among themselves, but for nations among themselves. Portugal must make her service effective. The small nations, if they allow the great nations to fight for them, would become slaves of liberty."

From the three cruisers which guarded Lisbon, Leote da Rego, the revolutionary commander of the fleet, directed the Francophile propaganda with an unfailing vigor. The officer-deputies and senators—for the Portuguese law gives officers the vote and makes them eligible to the Chambers—were the first to vote for the reorganization, and it was from their number that the new Minister of War was chosen—Norton de Matos, formerly governor of Angola, and a passionate supporter of the war. "I give you full powers," said the president of the Council to him when he took charge of the department. Thus it is that logically the most revolutionary and unmilitary government that Portugal has ever known has supplied her with the armed force which militarism had never succeeded in giving her.

I was so fortunate as to meet lately Lieutenant Giraudoux, who has been acting as one of the French instructors in the Harvard regiment and was a member of the French mission in Portugal. Lieutenant Giraudoux gave me a very detailed account of the reform of which he was a spectator—an account that confirmed the observations I made personally on the spot, and also the information I drew from French and English members of the Anglo-French Commission. The problem that the Portuguese Government had to solve, in Lieutenant Giraudoux's opinion, was threefold:

First, it was necessary to create a national army by new laws.

Second, it was necessary to create officers for this army; the number of former officers was insufficient, and, besides, many royalists had withdrawn from service.

Lastly, when the army and its cadres were once formed, it was necessary to transform that democratic institution into an instrument of war, and to give it the instruction and equipment which present-day battles demand.

Lieutenant Giraudoux insisted on the fact that these three reforms had to be achieved with absurdly small credits, as the financial situation was not specially encouraging, and the war budget could only count upon something less than ten million dollars—that is to say, half of the cost of a single battle-ship.

In the colonnaded department building, which overlooks the Tagus and the spot from which the great Portuguese conquerors of old set sail for the southern seas, the preparations for the crusade to the north were begun with feverish haste. As in the United States, the first step was conscription. In the days of the monarchy the army, comprising some thirty thousand men, had been recruited in large part by voluntary enlistment. The republic established genuine, obligatory military service. Every Portuguese citizen, whatever his station—student, lawyer, or gentleman of leisure—was held to service between the ages of twenty and forty-five years. No man who was eligible and declared to be a proper subject for the army was at liberty to leave Portugal while the war lasted.

On the anniversary of the Portuguese revolution, October 5th, Lieutenant Giraudoux noted with surprise, in the rear of the marching Portuguese troops, thousands of 'boys from fifteen to eighteen years old; they were the school and college pupils, who were obliged henceforth, beginning at fifteen years, to attend every Sunday a course of military gymnastics and instruction. Fed by this threefold supply, and especially by the prohibition of emigration, which had taken from Portugal more than ninety thousand of her people in 1914, the mobilizable contingent of that little country of barely four million people rose at a bound from fifty thousand to three hundred thousand men. Her slender financial resources made it impossible for Portugal to keep so large a force under arms. Naturally she was led to adopt the method which recreated the Prussian army in 1810, and which is the basic principle of the Russian army today—the principle of a militia. Jaurès's book on the modern army—a socialist book if there ever was one—became the breviary of some Portuguese generals. Like Jaurès, the reorganizers at Lisbon declared false the age-old theory that it requires years to train a soldier; the thirty regiments of the republic ceased to be garrisons with fixed effectives, famous chiefly for their musicians with their red stuffed shoulders and their parade, but became cadres of instructors in which the new recruits, summoned in turn, succeeded one another without intermission. The cadres of sergeants and corporals were made up of old soldiers or of volunteers on high pay. The course of instruction of infantry was fifteen weeks in length; of cavalry, twenty weeks; and of artillery, thirty weeks. After this short term the men seem sufficiently trained, and when I inquired of a Portuguese officer if they were fit for a campaign in France, I got the answer—"Without doubt, if they only can get lemons in France." Every year there were to be manœuvers which would bring together in divisions and brigades the men who were under instruction and take them into the country for two months of genuine drilling.

Eight divisions were organized thus. Only one corps, the Republican Guard of about six thousand men, was kept in reserve, being more particularly intended as a guard for the government and to maintain public order in the two largest cities, Lisbon and Oporto. This corps d'élite, which was very proud of its green kepi, would form an excellent reservoir of future non-commissioned officers for the militia. Thus the supply of men was assured. The recruiting of officers seemed a more difficult matter. In democratic countries the inadequacy of the officers' pay is not made up by the prestige of the uniform. The number of Portuguese officers had been decreased by the retirement, voluntary, or forced, of the royalists, and in that young republic, as in the United States or France, the younger men were more attracted to the liberal or industrial professions.

The initial reform was aimed at a better distribution of the officers on the active list; they reduced the staff and the number of officers on detached service. Whereas the Spanish staff included, at Madrid alone, more officers than were included in the staffs of Paris and Berlin combined, there were left at Lisbon only a score of staff officers.

The second reform created a corps of reserve officers; every student, deputies, mayors, Government officials, even to important Government functionaries, were required to obtain a lieutenant's commission. All doctors were subject to be called upon. Lastly, in order to fill up the cadres every year, the School of Cadets was reorganized. This military school, which led a placid life in one of the ancient pink-and-white palaces in Lisbon, found the number of its pupils increased tenfold. A whole series of new wooden buildings—like those which are springing up in Paris about the École de Guerre—were erected and filled. More than five hundred young men attended lectures delivered, not by officers alone, but by professors of the university, on tactics, administration, history, horsemanship, physics, and chemistry. Lieutenant Giraudoux remarked that the dormitories and dining-rooms installed in this school reminded him of the Freshman buildings at Harvard. The cadet's costume, which is not unlike American uniform — blue-gray trousers with red stripes, and black dolman—became the essential adornment of every young Portuguese; and from their upper windows the lovely and melancholy Portuguese damsels manifested so decided a preference for them as to make straw hats and Billy-cocks more infrequent than ever. The army became popular in a country where it had been looked upon merely as a police force or as the escort of a haughty petty monarch.

In this way the problem of recruiting was solved. The solution achieved was, however, simply a democratic reform. The problem of national defense was settled, but for peace-time, and, unluckily, they were at war. It was no longer merely a matter of giving all Portuguese an excellent physical education, of turning the barracks into a school for the numerous illiterates in the country, of imposing obligatory camp duty upon the young lawyers of the Chi ado; it was a matter of building up an efficient army with all these raw recruits. A new question arose, the question which confronts every new ally of the Entente, which confronts the United States, namely—Was it better to send troops to France to receive their education in warfare, or to train them in Portugal?

Neither France nor England was in a position at this time to offer camps to the future Portuguese troops, and there could be no thought of sending them out of the country at once. On the other hand, the Portuguese staff realized that the officers could not by themselves complete the education of their regiments for actual war. They knew that not only the principles of warfare, but the weapons as well, are no longer what they were. In a French or British company the rifle is now only a secondary weapon. Of a hundred and fifty men, barely forty carry it as their principal weapon. All the rest carry either hand-grenades or rifle-grenades, machine-guns or automatic rifles, or are special telephones or trench-sweepers. Portugal saw plainly that she could not supply this education for special tasks except with the aid of France and England. But there remained the primary education, the general instruction of the soldier, training, discipline, target-practice—all the things which are done round and about the rifle, the spinal column of the warrior. Rather than train poor grenadiers and poor machine-gunners, she preferred simply to prepare sturdy, active, and physically fit recruits, being assured that the Allies would then, and gratefully, give them access to their specialties.

Three brigades were called at once. For a month the new recruits were taught the drill of the private, platoon drill. Then, in the spring of 1916, they were taken to an immense camp—the camp of Tacos. The idea of these immense camps for the militia was also suggested by Jaurès's book. Tacos is a picturesque little white town on the Tagus, a town which contained nothing of war-like suggestion save an old Arab castle planted before it, in the middle of the stream, whose name now personifies for every Portuguese the Portuguese army itself. It was in this camp that the efforts of the leaders were put forth, and it was there, too, that they had their first reward, the review of July, 1916, when they were able to exhibit to the amazed spectators their first army.

Bought at a figure which seemed high, the cost was actually covered by the sale of the wood that stood on the land—the only profitable operation, the Minister of War boasted to me, ever achieved by the purchasing department of any army on earth! The camp-ground was perfectly adapted to its purpose. Enormous barracks were built, not by contractors, but by the peasants of the region, for the Minister of War proposed that the laboring and agricultural classes alone should profit by all the expenditures made for the army. In the barracks I remarked many ingenious details of installation which might well be adopted by other armies, among them a kind of hammock invented by Captain de Castro. A reservoir of water was constructed, large enough to supply twenty thousand men. A vast terrain was set aside for the infantry, who were encamped at different points, and who every day executed a genuine march to attack under genuine artillery fire. A bridge four hundred meters in length was thrown over the Tagus and served as a school for the boutonnières. The ravines were reserved for the cavalry—the Portuguese cavalry, which beats even the Italian cavalry in reckless daring.

The first three brigades were followed by a second division, and the camp became a sort of city constantly occupied by new-comers, where all arms were mingled, for an aviation-field was shortly added to it.

While the soldiers were being trained the staff was not idle. Three commissions were sent abroad—one of combatant officers, who went to England and France to study the instruction camps; a second one, of fifty doctors and quartermasters, who visited the whole base of supplies of the French lines; and lastly, one charged with the duty of purchasing material, which was sent to America.

Meanwhile, in order that the war might catch no one unprepared, they were already making ready for the departure of the troops, although it was still uncertain. All the women were mobilized for work with the needle; workshops of footwear and equipment were installed in the abandoned palaces and churches of Lisbon and official factories of munitions and supplies were set up. Whatever had any other object in view than the war was put aside; dress uniforms, with their gold epaulets, gave way to a blue-gray uniform, much like the French blue; the pointed helmet disappeared before an English cap. From England came the vehicles required for the ambulance service of three divisions; from America a large number of motor-trucks.

In the complicated and serious question of munitions the Portuguese Government also showed true discernment. One of the first conditions of a reserve supply of munitions is that it must be homogeneous; that the bullets must fit all rifles, the shells all cannon, and that troops must not be compelled—as happened only too often at the beginning of the war—to remain inactive beside great heaps of ammunition which did not fit their weapons. Instead of speeding up the manufacture of Portuguese shells and rifles, the Government decreased it. It impressed upon the factory-managers that the general interest required them to sacrifice their stocks and their usual profits. Abandoning the manufacture of the national product, they willingly agreed, under the direction of a French engineer and a Belgian captain, to make nothing but shells for the French 75's and 155's. The fine old bronze guns which dated back to Albuquerque, emerged from the courtyards of museums, were melted, and, having long ago hurled stone cannon-balls at Indian savages, were themselves duly hurled at the Germans four centuries later.

In this wise did the Minister very skillfully develop his army to the point where it did not acquire different customs or create for itself different needs from those of the other Allied armies. And here I cannot do better than quote as accurately as possible what was the impression the War Minister's policy just alluded to made upon the Franco-English Commission.

"It was this," said Lieutenant Giraudoux, "that caused most surprise to the Commission on its tour of inspection. Instead of saying, as other small armies had said: 'Look at our rifle—it is perfect. Look at our guns—they are the best type. Look at these grenades—they are home-made,' the Portuguese staff introduced its army in words like these: 'It is not for ourselves that we are fighting; it is not to make money for our engineers and our manufacturers. We offer you an army—small, it is true, but with-no fixed routine which will interfere with making good use of it. You will remember that you refused to accept our ships because it would have been necessary to change the boilers. There is nothing to be changed in our little war-machine. Our men know how to handle the bayonet, they know how to shoot, and it matters little to them if they are given a new sort of rifle; in a week they will know how to handle it. They are sober fellows; we have accustomed them to live on the ration used by the French army, and they will not annoy your commissary department. We do not ask for interpreters, all our officers know French. We do not ask for ships to transport troops; we have confiscated German bottoms for that job. Do you a accept us?'

"Their offer," concluded Lieutenant Giraudoux, "was accepted with deep and cordial gratefulness."

In this world every effort is apt to be judged, not by the purpose behind it, but by the results. What are the results of the Portuguese effort?

First of all, a Portuguese division has been in France since the beginning of 1917. Led by two vigorous officers, General Tama nine y Barren and his chief of staff, Major Battista, it is at the disposal of the British army. A second division, commanded by General Teixeira d'etat, has followed, and a third is ready —and all this without having abandoned the colonial war. This country of five million inhabitants have therefore, in less than a year, prepared for the Entente more than seventy-five thousand men. It has more than one hundred thousand in reserve, trained.

The transportation of the troops was performed largely by Portuguese vessels and German ships that had been seized, convoyed by Portuguese cruisers. Lemons by the thousand, be it said, awaited them on the wharf—the gift of the French Government.

But there is another more important and far reaching result-—the change in the Portuguese people since this training for war. In two years the Portuguese soldier, the Portuguese student, who used to be rather slender and often round-shouldered, has developed. Obligatory military service, which has contributed so largely to the physical regeneration of the French, is already showing splendid results in Portugal. But the moral change is infinitely more appreciable, and the traveler from Paris to Lisbon is thunderstruck by it. One alights at Madrid in a city where the hotels are full to overflowing, where commerce and gold are piling up; but the eye is offended every instant by an unexpected spectacle—soldiers decked out in extravagant uniforms, whom the crowd disdains as playthings; newspapers in which nothing is said of anything but bull-fights; and, above all, one is conscious everywhere—in café, theater, or hotel—of the prevalence of a keen discomfort, in the heart of every Spaniard. The war, instead of being simple and clear, has become for Spain a sort of Dreyfus affair.

But if from Madrid one goes on into Portugal, the scene changes. One finds again, with delight, the loyalty and faithful toil of a people who, in such a crisis, are not thinking solely of enriching themselves. One finds Government departments full of life and cheerfulness, soldiers in practical uniforms, an eager populace which cheers its flag and its cadets; one is in a country which is no longer content to be glorious but decaying, and which is shaking itself free of sloth and mere idling in the sunshine. To such a degree is this true that, since Portugal has made ready to fight beside the Allies, she has acquired a sort of moral ascendency in the Peninsula. The Spaniards no longer display the same confidence in themselves, and an exalted Spanish personage did not conceal from us his fear that, in case of a conflict, Spain might not be victorious. An unnecessary fear, for Portugal has never thought of threatening her neighbor. Assured of the possession of her rich colonial domain, assured of her democratic regime, she is now the object of the sympathetic advances of the Liberals of Spain. Conscription has restored the future to a people who had almost ceased to dwell upon anything but their past.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury