The First World War inaugurated a process of mass death never before experienced. The dead soldiers piling up on the battlefields, in no man’s land, were initially buried in civilian cemeteries close to the front, but these rapidly ran out of space and aroused the necessary reaction from the leading forces involved in the war. Rapid steps were taken to regulate and create military cemeteries in order to avoid the conspicuous presence of death, not only because of its effects on the troops’ morale and on deteriorating sanitary conditions at the front, but above all to avoid the return home of that visible mass of bodies.
The creation of these specifically military burial grounds cannot be separated from the particularity of this conflict or from the secularisation processes of the cemeteries, absorbing structure and symbolism. The generalised 19th century campaign of cemetery secularisation, in which Portugal is no exception – it was officialised in April 1911 under the First Republic – is marked by the strong appropriation of the Christian liturgy of death and resurrection, present in the formats of cult and rite, ranging from the minute’s silence to the placing of flowers, the concern with the individualisation of the dead person, either through identification, or the architectural or sculptural specification of the tomb (Catroga, 1999, p. 267). The context of the secularisation of death is thus conducive to arguments concerning the regulation of military cemeteries, the transposition of Christian symbolism; individualisation with the end of mass graves, the appropriation of nature and above all the centrality of the cult of the dead.
Although the United States already had military cemeteries, this phenomenon in Europe is inevitably linked to the Great War. For the first time legislation was created for the treatment of dead soldiers – the design and projection of military cemeteries. France was the first country to do so, in December 1915, when it sanctioned the right of each individual to a single place of repose, overcoming previous solutions when soldiers were placed in mass graves. The culturally diversified projects of the Allied nations for their military burial ground included the above-mentioned elements of the Romantic cemetery. An idyllic and metaphorical attempt to revalorise death with a religious, political and ideological meaning, attempting to overcome the basic biological aspect of mass deaths on the battlefield.
In Portugal, the first legislation for the treatment of the Portuguese dead on the European front emerged in 1917. The idea was to regulate this situation by structuring a service, in the future called the Portuguese War Graves Commission (CPSG), responsible for identifying, gathering and burying the bodies. Given its limited resources the CPSG had to make added efforts to gather the bodies scattered throughout Flanders into exclusively Portuguese military cemeteries, created for this purpose with the deserving and requisite monumentality. The fact is that during the conflict the commission’s efforts confronted the sanitary and spatial limitations imposed by the French authorities, so that the bodies remained scattered throughout various cemeteries (88 cemeteries in Germany, 23 in Belgium; 2 in Spain; 141 in France; 1 in Holland and 3 cemeteries in England)*.
The link between funerary, religious and patriotic cult extended to the official military cemetery projects, notwithstanding the greater or lesser laicization of the states involved. Their construction, mostly close to where the soldiers were killed, and given that it was impossible to repatriate the bodies, and seeking also to concentrate them in one single space, outlined consecrating phenomena of a new civilian liturgy, rather like the ritual of Christian tradition. The cross personifies the oblation of men on earth and the guarantee of eternal salvation through resurrection, and the Remembrance Stone – carved in the shape of an altar – the altar of the Nation – became the liturgical centre of a new religion, where the dead soldiers were equally sacralised because of the eternal collective sacrifice on behalf of the Nation. So, the only exclusively Portuguese cemetery was created - Richebourg l’Avoué.
The action of the CPSG was extremely important, despite the obvious limitations arising from the identification of the bodies or even the need for them to remain in cemeteries on Allied soil. Of the nearly 2086 dead, 206 were not identified or their bodies not found. Only at the end of the conflict was it possible to achieve the far from total concentration: a sector with 44 graves was organised in the Cemetery of Boulogne-sur-Mer and one with 7 graves in Antwerp, but most of the bodies were in one single exclusively Portuguese cemetery, Richebourg l’Avoué, containing 1831 dead, 238 of which are unidentified.
On Portuguese territory there are no military cemeteries dedicated exclusively to the dead of the First World War. Even the creation of sectors specially dedicated to such dead are few and some have no special format, similar to those original ones which sprouted throughout Europe after the war.
The fact is that repatriation of bodies was the exception. However, some local authorities have focused on creating spaces in local cemeteries exclusively set aside for the sons of the nation, mainly with the support, encouragement and patronage of the League of Combatants of the Great War (LCGG), designed on the lines of European military cemeteries, with regular spacing and the standardisation of white headstones bearing only the identification and the cross of war. The combatants buried here are those who died in Portugal and very often owing to lack of funds were buried by the League who provided the funeral and the burial plot.
As it was impossible to repatriate the bodies and it was necessary to remove them due to mass deaths, the demand grew for the creation of representative symbols legitimising the cult and above all the effort of war. The absence of the annihilating weight of the mass dead in large military cemeteries in Portugal, setting aside issues regarding the number of dead Portuguese soldiers, has a profound effect on the way society and the leaders of the First Republic deal with the victims of war and above all on the definition of the memory of the First World War in Portugal.
CATROGA, Fernando – O Céu da Memória. Cemitério romântico e culto cívico dos mortos. Coimbra: Minerva, 1999;
Serviço de Sepulturas de Guerra no Estrangeiro. Ministério da Guerra. Lisbon, 1937.
Text published in and adapted from Dicionário de História da I República e Republicanismo (Dictionary of the History of the First Republic and Republicanism);
* AHM, Division 1, Section 35, Case 1401 – List of foreign cemeteries with Portuguese war graves. Lisbon, 12 August 1937, p. 1-7.