Describing the daily life of the Portuguese troops on campaign during the Great War raises several issues of a historical nature, for they acted on three theatres of war, each one with different geographical and tactical characteristics. In southern Angola military operations took place before war had been declared on Portugal and continued after the German forces had surrendered to South Africa, for what in fact happened was a pacification process of the rebellious natives, involving a military force which had to be constantly on the alert against attacks by the natives. In north and central Mozambique the Portuguese military forces, sometimes operating in conjunction with the British troops, had to fight German military forces that acted in a manner that was hardly conventional for they conducted a campaign with guerrilla characteristics whilst constantly on the move, sacking whatever they could to survive inside the territory of that Portuguese overseas province. In France, on the other hand, conditions were completely different, for in actual fact the campaign took place with no alterations to the front line and no movement of troops, who lived for nearly a year in the trenches opposite the enemy.
In the European theatre of war it was the duty of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (PEC) to defend a small sector about twelve kilometres long between Armentières and Béthune in French Flanders, almost opposite the city of Lille. On the terrain, the army corps, consisting of two divisions, was placed both in depth and extension. There were thus two brigades on the front, four battalions along lines A and B, with the remaining four battalions providing support for line C. Of the two remaining brigades one provided support for the entire sector and the other was in reserve. All the defence was centred on the eight battalions spread along lines A, B and C, with the greatest effort being required in the first two.
Life in trenches A and B alternated between keeping watch over the trench parapet and life in the shelters. Only in situations of alert did all the soldiers occupy defensive positions. Between trench and shelter the men ate, slept and carried out all types of activities. Food was brought from the rear in huge cauldrons which reached the lines and the shelters via the communication trenches. Basic necessities were carried out in properly prepared septic tanks. Medical treatment and doctors’ consultations took place at the first aid posts between lines B and C. At dawn and dusk, at fixed times, the soldiers of the battalions occupied their positions and the respective commandants inspected the ranks to check whether they had enough ammunition and knew the necessary orders.
The support and reserve battalions of the sector spent the night in improvised shelters, farmyard barns or ruined buildings. During the day they cleaned their weapons, received military training and cared for their personal hygiene. However, at night, the support battalions were used to go to the front to repair and strengthen the barbed wire defences and repair shelters, walkways and parapets. This was hard work for the men lacked any protection from the trenches.
The battalions of the support and reserve brigades spent their time during the day listening to theoretical instruction and resting from their efforts on the front line. This was the situation that was most to the liking of the troops for it entailed little or no risk. Life consisted of eating, training and practising some type of sport or playing group games. This was the time to write home and read letters, enjoy the hot food which was served on time, shave, have a haircut, take a bath, change clothes and look after weapons and uniform.
After 9 April 1918 the remainder of the national troops, especially the infantry, were used on engineering works by order of the British High Command. They opened roads, repaired tracks and built fortifications. Their daily life changed drastically. They now lived under canvas, in zones that were further removed from the front line and they were engaged in what could hardly be considered a noble occupation. The turnaround only occurred in September 1918 when four battalions were organised and ordered to advance to the front lines.
The daily life of the troops in the African theatre of war varied in particular depending on whether they were on the march or stationary, whether quartered in actual buildings or under canvas. In all circumstances the troops were always victims of bites from mosquitoes, one of the greatest causes of the casualties due to malaria.
The fiercest enemy in Africa after the malaria mosquito was the distance between the various forces’ disembarkation and mustering points and the zones where they were deployed. So, both in Angola and in Mozambique, stages were established, that is intermediate camps for the supply and rest of the columns on the march to the areas of strategic engagement. In Angola, command was established on a plateau area to conduct operations against the rebel natives, compelling the creation of intermediary stations between the port of Moçâmedes, the headquarters in Huambo and the various incursion areas. In Mozambique the command post set up near the mustering and disembarkation area, the entire north and centre of the territory having to be supplied, where possible reaching the Indian Ocean, Lake Nyasa and Quelimane. Only by understanding these vast distances can we understand how different life was in the various military camps.
Hygiene and food conditions were always difficult but they were always worse in Africa than in France. Improvisation reigned in African operations, so that in their daily life the troops were almost always subject to major food restrictions, severe lack of drinking water and total lack of any type of primary hygiene. Thirst was also one of the major torments of the soldiers, especially when on the move. They often drank water from puddles, using their handkerchief, even if filthy, as a filter. Medication was always in short supply and often inadequate to treat the various types of tropical diseases, so that soldiers’ health was precarious, as proven by the high number of deaths in Mozambique – men who often never actually engaged in military operations. The uniforms were not suited to the climate and caused the greatest possible discomfort. The long marches the troops had to undergo were done in difficult conditions, on foot, equipped to go into combat, poorly shod and suffering the hardships of the heat and the climate. Letters to and from their distant families were few and far between.
Given the discomfort of the campaign, this day-to-day life caused a direct drop in the morale of the troops engaged in the worst combat missions. It was left to the efforts of the officers, who were thus often able to prevent the total collapse of the soldiers’ bellicose capacity.
Eça, General Pereira d’ — Campanha do Sul de Angola em 1915: Relatório. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1923;
Fraga, Luís Alves de — Actividades nas Linhas – Quotidianos. In Afonso, Aniceto; Gomes, Carlos de Matos (Coord.) — Portugal e a Grande Guerra: 1914.1918. Vila do Conde: Verso da História, 2013, p. 352-355;
Martins, General Ferreira — Portugal e a Grande Guerra. 2nd vol. Lisbon: Ática, 1935.
Luís Alves de Fraga