A guerra que Portugal quis esquecer
"The disaster of the Portuguese army in Mozambique in the First World War"is the book of Manuel Carvalho recalls however forgotten episodes.
A manuscript lost inside an ark inspires Manuel Carvalho to research the Portuguese campaign in Mozambique during the First World War. The articles he wrote for Público were awarded with Prize Gazeta.
The research is published under the name "A Guerra que Portugal quis esquecer", dedicated to the "faceless war" waged by the Portuguese in Mozambique, recalling an episode of our history that remained in the dark.
Among the reported episodes, highlighting the ephemeral winning of the most valuable trophy that African campaign: the Fort of Nevala.
"Departure of the expeditions to Africa," announces Diário de Notícias in its headline on the 12th of September, 1914. "The popular enthusiasm reaches delirium –The acclamations to the crusaders are successive – In the path of duty."
In September 1914, the first Portuguese troops depart for Africa, in order to defend the national colonies.
Between1914 and 1918, more than 20 thousand soldiers are sent to Mozambique.
In Africa, the Portuguese army suffered the heaviest defeat since the Alcácer Quibir battle.
The siege has started
“The column of operations on the left flank, after [...] beating the enemy and occupying advanced defence points in Nowala, took this position”.
In the 30th of October, 1916, “the Portuguese victories in Africa” are featured on the cover of A Capital.
The Portuguese soldiers cross the Rovuma river, beating the German resistance in their own territory and going to Sierra Nevala.
The fortification is conquered to the German forces and becomes the greatest trophy of the national troops in the African territory.
One month. That’s how long the domain of the fortification lasts.
The Germans want to recover the fortification that the Portuguese had conquered.
The German troops are closer and closer; on the 22nd of November, they were near the fortification of Nevala.
“The circle closed in a roaring, angry, fierce ring of fire. In short, we were surrounded,” says official António de Cértima.
The Germans repeat the strategy used by the Portuguese and attack the creek of Nevala, the point where it was possible to access to drinkable water.
The combat lasts 12 hours.
The Portuguese are forced to retreat because they are short of ammunition.
The siege has started; the Germans don’t go away.
Official Gil Ferreira warns the Government that “the Germans have concentrated forces against Nevala having cut communications” and asks for the boarding date of the 1917 expedition, “in order to reanimate troops”. From Lisbon, there’s no reponse.
The national ambition of conquering German territory begins to falter.
In Palma, General Ferreira Gil asks for volunteers for a “help column to Nevala" but the mission was stopped by the Germans.
Inside the perimeter fence, the Portuguese troops try to resist.
“The infantry slept, ate, lived in the trenches the entire time, without being able to lie down or move an arm out” remembers official Carlos Selvagem.
On the 27th November, the decision is made: the survivors will leave the next day.
Wounded, hungry and thirsty, the Portuguese go down the sinuous cliff and advance through the jungle, hidden by darkness.
Weapons and supplies that cannot be carried are destroyed.
“Jumping to the side of the cliff, the column wriggle out in the darkness of the night, getting tattered in the acute branches of the bush, ripping the flesh, hands and faces, crouching down, with no destination, no compass, randomly, searching for the white sands of the river”, he writes.
The escape of Nevala, a measure as desperate as enlightened, is considered an achievement of the Portuguese army.
The operation, decided only on the day before and carried out by exhausted troops, went down in history as one of the most well-prepared and implemented national missions in World War I.
The next morning, the Germans bombard the fortification and are surprised by the lack of reaction.
When they realise the Portuguese had escaped, they start chasing the Portuguese troops.
A few hours ahead of the enemy, the survivors of the Nevala siege begin to reach Nangade with the Germans on their trail.
From the other side of the Rovuma river, the Germans shoot with such precision that the official Azambuja Martins begins to suspect that "the opponent was close" and that “the fight would be held in unfavourable circumstances for us, due to the exhaustion of our forces and the action of surprise that we suffered.”
Panic is spread; many Portuguese were trying to escape to the base of Alto da Serra.
Before the attacks, the survivors of Nevala column were trying to escape again, this time to Matchemba.
They remain there for five days until new rumours of the German being closer lead the Portuguese to leave, some to Pundanhar, the only base left before Palma, others to Mocimboa da Praia.
An exhausted army
"It's indescribable the state of misery in which they arrived; tattered uniforms, dented helmets, you could see his feet through the holes of boots, sunken and emaciated cheeks, bright eyes from the fever, they inspired pity even to the most hardened,“ says the chief medical Pires de Lima.
The German threat continues to loom over the Portuguese.
“In the morning lightness, Palma wakes up livid in the anxiety of what will happen that day, how will that day end,” notes official Carlos Selvagem.
What national troops ignored was that, on the German side, physical attrition caused by the war had also became evident.
After destroying Nangade and spreading panic in the Portuguese stations, the Germans spread out in small units within the Portuguese territory with the intention of restoring, symbolically, the German domain in the triangle occupied in April.
"Pursuing the enemy in Portuguese territory was impossible in that situation," given the "state of tiredness of the troops that had been in operations for 14 days," writes the German official Max Loof.
In Lisbon, the operations in Mozambique are followed with optimism.
A sentiment that can be seen in the note from the Presidency of the Ministry, published in Diário do Governo on the 17th of January, 1917.
“Soon, our troops recover all the territory they had to abandon because of a campaign incident, they will make further progress and they will completely beat the Germans in their own territory, and hoist there, definitely successful, the flag of Portugal.”
The difficulties encountered in Africa are removed from the press: the tone is patriotic and military censorship excludes from the coverage any strategic data or which may undermine the morale of the troops.
In Mozambique, the picture is quite different.
«Frazzled seven to eight thousand men, a thousand of “contos” [currency] of war material abandoned to the enemy, the melancholy certainty of decisive setbacks», describes official Carlos Selvagem.
During World War I, more Portuguese soldiers were killed in the Portuguese colony than in Flanders.
Nevala is proof of the distance between the colonial aspirations of the Government and the reality of the battlefield; a greater distance than the kilometres that separate Lisbon from Mozambique.