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Battle of La Lys Honoured

Yesterday evening a military mass was held at the Sé Cathedral to honour the Portuguese Servicemen who died in the battle of La Lys which took place in Flanders, France on the 9th of April 1918.

The battle was part of the German Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) which ran from the 21st of March 1918 to the 29th of April 1918.  Not only did the Spring Offensive mark the most significant advances by either side during the whole war, but the German generals were also aware that their fortunes would drastically change once the Americans waded into the battle.  However, the Russian withdrawal from the war through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk meant that approximately fifty German Army Divisions were freed up from fighting on the Russian front.

The Battle of La Lys, which was code-named Georgette, took place on the 9th of April and was part of a general offensive that hoped to break through the Allied lines and outflank the British forces, whose territory ran from the Somme River to the English Channel.  By outmanoeuvring them, they could not only break the British Army but force the French into armistice talks.  Also, the Battle of La Lys was a diversionary tactic to draw British troops away from the main offensive on the Somme.

With plans in place, the Germans advanced on a weakly defended area, protected by a relatively weak and worn out British First Army and two divisions of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps who had been posted to what was considered a ‘quiet sector.’  Unfortunately, the Portuguese force was severely undermanned, had lost half of their officers and morale was said to be at an all-time low.  Even worse they were expecting to be replaced on the day of the attack.

The allies were caught off-guard as at 4.15 am the German army unleashed a mixed barrage of explosives and gas shells, an intensity that the Portuguese Expeditionary Force had never experienced before.  Disorientated the allies fought in small groups as communications were lost and things became ever increasingly confused. Although some of the Portuguese front lines survived, despite heavy losses, many soldiers retreated from the ruthless overwhelming onslaught to the River Lawe and River Lys for safety. The number of Portuguese casualties is thought to be in the hundreds while over 6,000 men were captured.  Many later dying from their wounds.

However, there were remarkable acts of bravery by some of the Portuguese soldiers.  One such man is Anibal Augusto Milhais (9th of July 1895 – 3rd of June 1970), often known as the Soldier of Millions, who managed to single-handedly repulse two German assaults with a Lewis gun, ensuring that Portuguese and Scottish troops were able to retreat to safety. Several days later he managed to reach his comrades and was baptised the ‘Soldier of Millions’ for his bravery. He also saved a Scottish Officer from drowning.

He is the most decorated Portuguese First World War I soldier and the only soldier to receive the Military Order of the Tower and the Sword for Valour, Loyalty and Merit on the battlefield instead of a ceremony in Lisbon.

Samantha Gannon

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