The Forgotten Armies of the Western Front – 1914 to 1918

It wasn’t only the French, Americans and soldiers of the British Empire that fought against the Germans on the Western Front of the First World War. More than 40,000 Russian troops (like those pictured here) actually saw action there too. So did smaller armies from Portugal and Brazil. The Germans were helped by troops from Austria Hungary.

(Originally published October 2012)

EIGHT MILLION MEN fought in the British Army during the First World War. More than half of them (5 million) served in France and Flanders on the Western Front. [1] These men came from the U.K. as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and even the West Indies. Another 8 million soldiers fought for France. [2] The United States sent 4.7 million to war with Germany in the last two years of the war [3] and as many as 11 million Germans fought in France and Belgium as well between 1914 and 1918. [4] Interestingly enough these weren’t the only nations’ armies to have taken part in the fighting. There were other, smaller, often overlooked contingents to the Western Front that history has largely forgotten. Here are their stories.

Portugese troops fighting Germans in France using British equipment.

When war between the powers of Europe erupted in the summer of 1914, Portugal remained officially neutral. A long-time ally of Great Britain, Lisbon was initially eager to jump into the struggle and hopefully gain some clout and a share of the spoils in what was hoped would be a swift Entente victory. However, the British doubted its partner’s readiness for war, with some going so far as to declare the Portuguese as “worthless allies” [5]. Caving to diplomatic pressure, Portugal remained on the sidelines, and aside from some minor clashes in its territories in southern Africa against German colonial units, it would remain there.

Things changed in 1916 when Portugal, yielding to the demands of Britain, impounded 36 German and Austrian merchant vessels in Lisbon harbour. Judging the seizure to be a violation of the rules of neutrality, Germany declared war on March 9, 1916. Nationalist fervor swept Portugal and the government in Lisbon immediately made preparations to send an expeditionary force to the Western Front.

A force of 30,000 troops was assembled within three months, an amazing feat that went down in history as the “Miracle at Tancos’ — the location of the Portuguese training facility. [6] The troops were quickly sent to France; more would follow. By the beginning of 1917, Portugal had 55,000 men in France attached to the British army. The Corpo Expedicionário Português (CEP) as it was known was equipped with British helmets, rifles and machine guns, as well as Tommy rations. The contingent was assigned a 12 km stretch of the line in Flanders to defend. [7]

As 1917 wore on, both the CEP’s strength and morale were worn down by the horrors of trench warfare. Exposure to the elements also took its toll on the unit’s spirits, as did the poor quality of the British food. An inability on the part of the home government to replace the CEP’s losses further sapped the contingent’s élan. Things were only made worse when the Portuguese government collapsed in 1918. It was replaced with a more German-friendly authoritarian faction that was less than enthusiastic about fighting a war for British interests in distant France. It was a sentiment that began to resonate in the trenches of the war weary CEP.

Tensions reached a breaking point in April 1918 when Portuguese soldiers mutinied and were pulled from the lines to regroup. Three days later, the Germans launched the infamous Spring Offensive and smashed through the British lines. During the onslaught, a force of 20,000 from CEP was rushed forward to face off against more than 100,000 enemy troops at La Lys. No match for the German storm troopers, the Portuguese scattered, suffering 35 percent casualties in the process.

The CEP was effectively broken. The remaining troops who were still fit for battle were folded into other British units. By war’s end, Portugal had suffered 8,000 dead and 13,000 wounded. A further 12,000 had been captured. [8]

Like Portugal, Brazil was a neutral power in 1914. While Germany’s naval policies, like unrestricted submarine warfare, threatened Brazilian maritime interests, the government of the South American nation balked at the prospect of fighting Germany. With a sizable German immigrant population within its borders and even a German-born cabinet minister serving in the government, a war on the Kaiser would likely have been unpopular. [9] Then on April 5, 1917 a German U-boat sank the merchant vessel Parana off the coast of France killing three. In retaliation, enraged Brazilians burned German businesses and were howling for further revenge. In October, Brazil declared war. While the country made its largest contribution to the allied war effort at sea, Brazil did organize an expeditionary force to join the ground war. Although the fighting would be over before the force could be sent into action, Brazil still managed to contribute personnel to run a field hospital on the Western Front. It also sent a contingent of aviators to the Royal Flying Corps along with the equivalent of a full army regiment that fought the Germans under the command of the French army. [10]

With its army being bled white on the Western Front and its very existence in jeopardy, France appealed to all quarters for help in 1915, even to its ally in the east, Russia. Desperate, the French pleaded for more 300,000 Russian troops; the Czar offered four Brigades totaling 40,000 along with another contingent to serve on the Macedonian front.

Of those headed for the trenches of France, one contingent was sent via the Arkhangelsk to Brest, another was shipped from the Far East across the western Pacific and Indian oceans, up through the Suez and into Marseilles. By mid-1916, the combined force, dubbed the Russian Expeditionary Force, was in action along the Western Front, where by all accounts, they performed well. [11]

Although largely isolated from the unrest brewing in their homeland, when news of the 1917 revolution and Russia’s withdrawal from the war reached the contingent in France reactions were mixed. Brigades from rural Russia largely professed their continued loyalty to the Czar, while those assembled from urban areas like Moscow toasted the success of the uprising. Wary of the spread of Bolshevism, French authorities placed all suspected pro-revolutionary units under guard and assigned the men to work details. Many of the troops mutinied. French commanders ordered the Russian units to suppress the uprisings. An artillery barrage on the rebel camp killed 10  and left 44 wounded. [12] In the aftermath of the crackdown, thousands of the dissident soldiers were deported to penal camps in North Africa or sent home.

Those Russians still committed to the defeat of Germany were reorganized into a French army unit known as the Russian Legion and sent back into action. Placed into the line with a French Moroccan contingent, the Russians continued to fight fiercely. In fact, during the German Spring Offensive, the unit suffered 85 percent casualties. [13] The remnants of both the Moroccan and Russian outfits were integrated into a single unit that continued to serve until the end of the war. By the armistice, there were fewer than 500 Russians in the French army. After the war, with their Czar dead and communists running much of their homeland, many of these veterans stayed in France.

Austria Hungary
Germany’s principle ally in the war, Austria Hungary did most of its fighting on the eastern, Italian and Balkan fronts. However a small number of units from the Dual Monarchy did fight in France and Belgium along side their German cousins. These token contributions came at the war’s outset as well as in the final weeks of the conflict.

In 1914, Austria sent four batteries of heavy artillery to take part in the invasion of Belgium. [14] These batteries would go on to see in action at Namur, Antwerp and even the first battle of Ypres. They were withdrawn in the spring of 1915 and sent east to fight. Austrio Hungarian troops wouldn’t see the Western Front again until 1918.

In the final year of the war four Austrio-Hungarian infantry divisions were dispatched to help shore up its ally’s defences. [15] However, German high command, unsure of the fighting ability of these new units, split the regiments up and placed them under control of German generals. The Austrio-Hungarian infantrymen, already veterans of other actions, were even required to undergo German basic training to ensure their fighting ability was up to scratch. [16] It was a failed gesture it turned out. Once placed in the Verdun sector, these retrained troops were decimated by a combined American and French assault that included tanks. [17] The remnants of these units would soldier on until November 1918.


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6. Ibid


8. Ibid


10. Ibid.


12. Ibid

13. Ibid

14. Jung, Peter. The Austrio Hungarian Forces in World War One. Osprey Publishing. 2003.

15. Ibid

16. Ibid

17. Ibid

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