French Flanders: Neuve Chapelle Part Six – Richebourg; The Portuguese Military Cemetery

Just a hundred and fifty yards down the road from the Neuve Chapelle Memorial, this is the only Portuguese military cemetery in Flanders. 

Located in what was once No Man’s Land, it contains the graves of 1,831 soldiers of the 2nd Portuguese Division,…

…and who knows,…

…maybe some of these men are among them.

England’s oldest ally, the treaty between the two countries dating back to 1386 and the Hundred Years War, Portugal remained neutral on the outbreak of the Great War, although there were skirmishes between German and Portuguese colonial troops in Africa.  In March 1916, after Portugal acceded to a British request to intern several dozen German & Austro-Hungarian ships in Lisbon harbour, Germany responded by declaring war on Portugal, with Austria-Hungary following suit a few days later.

Cemetery entrance.  The inset aerial photograph of the cemetery – there is no cemetery plan easily available that I can find – shows the cemetery divided into four plots, the road and entrance bottom left.

‘Portuguese Military Cemetery’,…

…and the view on arrival.  The two closest headstones beyond the closed half of the gate…

…give a good idea of what we will find within.  Some of the headstones are suffering from serious erosion, while others would seem to have been replaced at some time,…

…and most have a small metal label attached to the top of the headstone with the name of the casualty thereon,…

…these added not so long ago, as the original headstones became less legible.  And a good job too.

View from the cemetery’s eastern corner (above & below),…

…the cemetery entrance on the right.

We’ll take a look at the tablets on the wall later on, but first we’ll cross the cemetery,…

…passing graves mainly from March & April 1918.  Incidentally, a careful look at the two central headstones in this picture…

…reveals a date inscription error at the base of both.

Further along, the casualties buried in the front row here are all from February 1918,…

…there’s a man who died a couple of days after the Armistice in the row behind, and the burials in the third row appear to be from 1917.

Reaching the cemetery’s northern corner, this view shows the whole cemetery looking south, the open cemetery gate now on the far left (and below).  Five rows back, beneath the tree,…

…another of only a very few personal tablets to be found at the base of headstones in this cemetery, perhaps a sign of a lack of visitors over the years, but in particular a sign of the financial strictures faced by many of these soldiers’ families in the early days of the cemetery – they simply couldn’t afford such luxuries.

The most frequent date to be found on the headstones here is that of 9th April 1918, as seen on the two headstones above, on the left an unknown soldier, on the right an identified man,…

…and indeed most (possibly all – I could hardly check every single one) of the 239 unidentified Portuguese burials here,…

…have been given a date of death of 9th April 1918 (above & below).

‘Desconhecido’.  Unknown.

There are quite a number of 1917 burials here, such as the centre headstone in the second row, inscribed with a date of 3rd July 1917 with, in the foreground, more unidentified men killed on 9th April 1918.

The Portuguese Expeditionary Force (Corpo Expedicionário Português – CEP) began arriving in France in early February 1917, establishing their headquarters at Air-sur-la-Lys, around twenty two miles west of Armentières, under the control of the British First Army.

After receiving British equipment and training (above & following),…

…note that two of these three Portuguese soldiers are wearing British Brodie helmets, while the man closest to the camera, and the man in the inset, are sporting the Portuguese Mk1 type helmet, based on the Brodie, but more basin-shaped, and with a fluted crown,…

…the first units would be sent to the front line on 11th May 1917,…

…facing their first German attack, which they repelled, on 4th June.

By November 1917, close to 60,000 Portuguese would be responsible for some eleven miles of front line here in French Flanders,…

…although the ‘Portuguese Sector’, as it was referred to, was subsequently reduced to around seven miles in length in December.  The winter of 1917, however, proved hard for the Portuguese.  Sickness, just as much as any kind of violence, constantly reduced the number of men manning the front lines, and, unlike their British allies on either flank, there were no reserves to plug the gaps, no rotation of troops in and out of the trenches, just fewer men working longer hours through the winter months.  Numbers of active fighting men dropped by a quarter.  Leave was almost unheard of, partly because, of the 2,000 or so officers who were granted leave during the war, over half apparently failed to return to duty (of the mere hundreds of ordinary soldiers who somehow managed to obtain a leave pass, all returned)!

The early months of 1918 saw rumours of potential mutinies as morale among the Portuguese troops sitting in their muddy trenches through the bleakness of a Flanders’ winter plummetted.  By early April, the British had decided it was time to pull the CEP out of the line to rest and regroup, and you do wonder whether the Germans were aware of this when they attacked on 9th April (the two legible headstones in the shot above are dated November 1918 & February 1919, the centre headstone below October 1918).

At dawn on 9th April 1918, after an intense artillery bombardment on the Allied lines along a twelve mile front from Armentières in the north to Festubert in the south, eight German divisions left their trenches and attacked.  The heaviest assault fell on the Portuguese sector, where the overrun defenders began retreating towards the River Lys.  Further north, the British 40th Division likewise retreated, although the British 55th Division would, with a few adjustments, hold their positions to the south of the Portuguese for the whole battle.  But the line collapsed all along the Portuguese sector, and despite British reinforcements being rushed in to help, and a last stand by British & Portuguese troops at Laventie, there was no holding the Germans.  The day saw one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the Portuguese military.  Somewhere in the region of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers became casualties that day, most captured, although around four hundred were killed.  In a single day, the CEP’s participation in the Battle of the Lys had ended.

Although much has been written about the Portuguese retreat, often in terms of a rabble fleeing the battlefield, there were some remarkable acts of bravery shown by individual soldiers, the most famous by the man featured in the collage above.  Private Aníbal Milhais repulsed two German attacks firing his Lewis gun from the hip (top left inset) whilst covering the retreat of Scottish & Portuguese troops.  The Germans had by then had enough of him, so they continued their advance by outflanking him, leaving him some way behind German lines by the end of the day.  Three days later, having survived, so the story goes, on a packet of sweet almonds sent by his family that happened to be in his pocket, Private Milhais, along with a Scottish major he had rescued from a swamp, and still clutching his Lewis gun, made his way back to the Allied lines.  He was showered with honours (remaining insets) for his bravery – which he had never mentioned, the Scottish major and other British & Portuguese observers being the ones to tell of his exploits – and became known as ‘Soldier Millions’, after a Portuguese officer referred to his actions as ‘having been worth a million men’.  He would eventually die in 1970 at the age of 74.

Unlucky German prisoner flanked by his Portuguese & Scottish captors.

Late March 1918 casualties,…

…but always we return to men killed on 9th April 1918 (above & below).

This is the sector that the Portuguese were defending when the Germans attacked in the early hours of 9th April 1918 (the map is dated June 1918, the whole area at that time behind German lines).  The north of the sector ran from Estaires (beneath the blue circle), on the River Lys, to Laventie (beneath the pink circle) and on to the front lines a short distance further east, the south of the sector roughly corresponding with the bottom of this map extract.  Neuve Chapelle is marked in purple, and La Couture, where another brave but unsuccessful defence was put up by a combined force of Portuguese & British troops on the morning of the 9th, is marked in green.

As you will have seen on the earlier aerial view, there’s an open space not quite halfway down the cemetery,…

…after which the 9th April 1918 burials continue (above & below),…

…and as we make our way towards the far end of the cemetery, it’s time for another of those myriad little personal tragedies that litter the course of the Great War.

The Portuguese Army had abolished the death penalty in 1911, over fifty years after it had been abolished for civilian crimes in Portugal (1867), and yet there was a single Portuguese soldier who was executed during the Great War, and today he lies somewhere in this cemetery – I have no idea exactly where.

His name was João Augusto Ferreira de Almeida, and he fell foul of the restoration of the death penalty in 1916 for military crimes carried out abroad during time of war.

Having arrived in France in March 1917, and having already served a sixty day prison sentence for, apparently, absconding with the unit’s water carrier and driving it to Wavrans, over thirty five miles away, on 29th July 1917, Ferreira de Almeida was arrested for offering fellow soldiers money to take him across to the German lines, where it seems he intended to pass maps of the Portuguese positions to the Germans.

He was sentenced to death at his court-martial on 12th September, and executed by firing squad in Laventie on 16th September 1917, aged 23.  Originally buried in Laventie, he was later exhumed and reburied here.  In 2017, although not officially pardoned, the Portuguese President released a statement in which Ferreira de Almeida was accepted as having received a punishment ‘contrary to human rights’, asking for his ‘moral rehabilitation’.  Ferreira de Almeida was the last person to be executed by the Portuguese state.

Moving on, passing the grave of Private Manoel Coutinho, the writing on the heart at the base of the headstone roughly translated as ‘We don’t forget to smile’.  I think.

The memorial features a large shield…

…the smaller shields on either side containing the names of the eight old Portuguese prefectures (or provinces).

The memorial has changed slightly over the years.  The inset photos (thanks to Simon and his wonderful website for these two images – you’ll find his site here) show two large black panels flanking the main memorial panel, and more panels at the memorial’s base,…

…these the same ones we saw briefly at the start of this post now positioned on the inside of the wall next to the cemetery entrance, and seen here in the background,…

…as we look back up the length of the cemetery.

From one side of the cemetery,…

…to the other, this the view from the western corner, looking south east.  Behind us,…

…what at first glance appears to be an individual memorial, probably because of the photograph left on the ground nearby at the time of visiting,…

…but on closer inspection is inscribed with what translates roughly as ‘A Tribute to Portuguese soldiers who died in the Great War’.  Portuguese soldiers originally buried in other areas further north of here would later be moved to this cemetery; perhaps this memorial came with some of them.

The photograph shows a face – we know not whom – and I wonder whether some previous visitor had found it, blown by the wind across the cemetery, and left it here at this memorial.  I like to think so.

It looks to me, from the unfinished reverse, that this memorial was likely designed to abut a wall, another clue that it likely once stood elsewhere.

British & Portuguese prisoners-of-war pose for their captors (above & below), the smiles we saw earlier long gone, probably on 9th April 1918.

By the time of the Armistice, the CEP had lost 2,160 dead as well as 5,224 wounded,…

…along with 6,678 taken prisoner,…

…around 14,000 out of the CEP’s total of 60,000 personnel.

It’s impossible to read the dates on many of these headstones,…

…indeed the only date I can read on any of those pictured here is 17th November 1917.

Heading back towards the cemetery entrance, looking north west,…

…and panning right, now looking west.  Along the wall in the background…

…are the tablets we saw earlier,…

…shown here, and following, in close-up.

Nope, you can translate them, should you wish, yourselves.

These are the two large plaques that were once placed on either side of the memorial at the other end of the cemetery, as seen in Simon’s inset photos earlier on.

Just outside the cemetery, as we leave,…

…there’s one of these,…

…which you can read, if you enlarge the picture.  Fifteen!!

A reorganised CEP would be involved in the Allies’ final Hundred Days Offensive,…

…Portuguese troops finding themselves in action until the very last morning of the war.

It seems sad that these soldiers, killed far from home in a war that most of them, working class, often illiterate (although not all – see below), would have had no idea why they were fighting in the first place, receive few visitors,…

…and, apparently, little tlc.

January 1917 map showing the Neuve Chapelle Memorial and the Portuguese cemetery on the right in orange & green respectively, and Neuve Chapelle itself in the top right corner.  Two and a half miles away to the west, off the above map, is the Le Touret Memorial, where over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in this sector of the Western Front, including at Neuve Chapelle, from October 1914 to late September 1915, and who have no known grave, are remembered, although I have yet to visit.

Looking north from cemetery to memorial.  This post ends our current time down in French Flanders, although you may have noticed that the sub-title of this post is ‘Richebourg; The Portuguese Military Cemetery’, and there are a couple of CWGC cemeteries with obvious links to Neuve Chapelle that are officially in Richebourg (and marked on the map in pink & blue) along with a war memorial (the red dot) that it would seem appropriate to visit in the not-too-distant future, but methinks we shall return to Ypres for the next couple of posts before we do so.

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4 Responses to French Flanders: Neuve Chapelle Part Six – Richebourg; The Portuguese Military Cemetery

  1. Morag Lindsay Sutherland says:

    thanks as always for the detailed report on this rather forgotten army- the cemetery was in an awful state the first time we visited maybe 2004- I wrote to CWGC and complained about the state of the grass which was HIGH – very nice reply to say it was not their responsibility to maintain a Portuguese cemetery . However on a return in 2007 the grass had been cut and apparently the decision had been made the the local CWGC would at a minimum cut the grass- I feel I helped a bit to get things tidied up although I suspect I was not the only one to contact them-

    • Magicfingers says:

      The whole ‘forgotten army’ story is exactly what I hoped to explain (without writing a book), and I shall take it from your comment that I have succeeded! Thank you Morag. And you may be right – or maybe you were the only one to bother to contact them?

  2. Jon T says:

    I never knew why Portugal had ended up in the War – but now I do ! Very interesting indeed.

    Sad to see the gravestones in such a sorry state – brings home what an amazing job the CWGC do to this very day.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yes, as Morag says, the forgotten army. And yet every one of them deserves the same remembrance as we give to our soldiers. Or at least that’s what I think.

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