Restoring the Army of the Kingdom of Portugal
When one thinks of the glory days of Portugal it is only natural to think of the “Age of Exploration” when the Portuguese were truly leading the world in new discoveries in navigation, cartography and the opening of new trade routes which made Portugal the first “global” power as well as, for a time, probably the wealthiest country in Europe. However, as competition for Portuguese dominance in trade increased, first from the Dutch and later from the Spanish, French and English, the fortunes of Portugal understandably declined.
Too many, however, tend to view
that decline as permanent. As with many southern European nations,
Portugal also tends to be discounted as a military power. However, the
soldiers of the Kingdom of Portugal came to enjoy a very high reputation
and at a time when, on the surface, it would have seemed the least
expected and that was during the period of the French
Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. The monarch, Queen Maria I, had lost her
senses, her uncle and consort King Pedro III predeceased her and her son
and heir (later King John VI) was beset by difficulties. The military
had fallen into disrepair and the ruling Council of Regency was
notoriously corrupt and inefficient. Yet, great changes took place that
brought the Portuguese armed forces to a new level of proficiency.
When Beresford was put in command of the Portuguese forces, he faced a monumental task as the Portuguese civilian government and the previous (also foreign) commanders had left the army in a chaotic state. Troops were poorly trained, officers were poorly educated, discipline was erratic and the regular issuance of pay, food and uniforms was abysmal. Morale was, not surprisingly, terrible as a result and it is only amazing that the Portuguese army had not fared even worse in the French Revolutionary Wars up to that point. However, Beresford and others who arrived to reform this mess found one element that had potential and fortunately it was the one element indispensable for making a good army and that was the quality of the average Portuguese soldier or potential soldier himself. When the Portuguese were conscripted to construct a major fortified line across the country, the British officers of the Royal Engineers were amazed by their fortitude. They worked tirelessly for long hours, with little pay, far from home and yet never complained or made any difficulties. Other British officers described the Portuguese troops as invariably, “patient good-tempered people, therefore very susceptible of discipline under good officers; and when so are very steady under arms…”
The previous, lackluster performance of the Portuguese military was attributed almost entirely to the fact that they were poorly fed, poorly equipped and poorly disciplined and so, not surprisingly, performed poorly as a result. However, once they were kept properly fed, clothed and paid, they performed extremely well and keen observers of military quality were astounded by the sudden change. There were still the occasional problems as with any army but by 1812 the Portuguese military had gained a great reputation as one of the best fighting forces in the field at the time. The Duke of Wellington, in overall command of the forces allied against France on the Iberian peninsula, was quite proud of the Portuguese and their solid reliability on the battlefield, famously referring to them as “the fighting cocks of the army”. The infantry was dependable, the light infantry was quite good, the cavalry less so and the field artillery improved considerably. The militia, as was almost universally true, was not considered front-line capable but were well used for defending fortified positions, “being possessed of innate courage” as one British officer noted of them.