Brazil: The only Latin American nation to fight in World War I

SÃO PAULO — As Remembrance Sunday is commemorated, people around the world continue to mark 100 years since the start of the First World War, honouring the millions of casualties, both military and civilian, and recounting the tales of death and destruction for new generations – lest we forget.

In Brazil, there has been little mention of the “war to end all wars” or the fact the country played a role in the conflict.

Although only a small military contribution, historians believe WWI was a turning point for Brazil, acting as a wake-up call that convinced the country it needed a more substantial role in global politics, as well as driving domestic economic and military reforms.

On 4 August 1914, a day after German troops entered Belgium and as Britain officially declared war on Germany, Brazil announced it would be taking a neutral stance in the war, in line with neighbouring South American countries and the United States.

Brazil WW1 Medical Mission

Brazil WWI medical mission to France. Photo: Brazilian government archive

Brazil was suffering the effects of a fragile economy: it relied heavily on coffee exports and had to import oil. As the war progressed, ports across the world were blockaded and countries, notably the United Kingdom – one of Brazil’s biggest markets – banned coffee exports in favour of more urgently-needed goods.

Related: Remembering Brazil’s forgotten WW2 soldiers

As sales plummeted, the country’s coffee exports soon came under physical attack: in 1916 and 1917 a number of Brazilian merchant ships were sunk by German submarines.

As the crews were chiefly non-Brazilians, the events had little impact back home. However, that began to change in April 1917 when a German torpedo targeted the 4,466-ton, coffee-laden steamship Paraná, killing three Brazilian members of crew, despite operating in accordance with rules established for neutral countries.

‘Wholly unprepared’ for war

News of the attacks sparked violent protests across Brazil, and attacks against descendents of German immigrants, particularly in the South of Brazil, where many settled:

“It was like the [anti-government] protests seen in 2013, which swept the country,” military researcher Colonel Luiz Ernani Caminha Giorgis told Globo. “They wrought destruction, damaging businesses and houses belonging to German descendents. It was this popular revolt against Germany that led to the country having to take a side.”

Over the next few months, more Brazilian vessels were torpedoed. Brazil responded by seizing 42 German ships moored in Brazilian ports. But despite the violent protests, public support for going to war was low. Nonetheless, it was clear Brazil was going to have to challenge Germany, and side with the Allied Forces.

Brazilian Soldiers WWI

Brazilian cavalry soldiers in WWI. Photo: Brazilian government archive

Accordingly, on October 26, 1917, President Venceslau Bras formally declared war on Germany and the Central Forces — the only South American country to do so, and the only Latin American nation subsequently to play a military role in the conflict.

“Brazil was reluctant to join the war. It had strong economic ties with the British and the Americans – the financial centre of London was giving Brazil loans, and the U.S. was the biggest buyer of Brazilian coffee. It was also culturally very strongly linked to France. In a sense, Brazil was forced to join WWI,” said Professor Clodoaldo Bueno, a leading Brazilian historian and academic at USP, UNESP and PUC in São Paulo.

However, despite having fought against Paraguay in the late 19th century and against rebels in the south of the country in the Contestado War just before WWI, Brazil was simply not ready to enter such a battle.

“Brazil was wholly unprepared militarily, with neither an army nor a navy of any real standing. And aside from the torpedoed ships and a drop in export sales, the war had not affected Brazilians. But in the end it was left with no other choice but to join and side with the Allied Forces,” Professor Bueno noted. “Even the declaration showed this reluctance, talking about ‘recognising belligerence with the Germans’ rather than ‘being at war’.”

‘Modest role’

Brazil went on to patrol the Atlantic, as well as sending a medical mission to France and pilots to Britain, to be trained and help the war effort.

A small preparatory military mission from the Brazilian army was also sent to France in 1918, which fought alongside British and French forces in what was more a learning exercise than any major military intervention.

Five pilots were killed in action, but Brazil’s biggest loss came not from gunfire, but from the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, which claimed the lives of around 160 mariners heading to the Gibraltar to join troops. But by the time the stricken ship arrived at the British enclave on the Spanish coast, the war was effectively over.

Warship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, WW1

WWI warship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Fundación Histarmar

Historians believe Brazil could have had a bigger role in the war had the contingent of mariners arrived earlier, but instead the naturally neutral, pacifistic country turned its attention to peace talks, in which it played a recognised role alongside U.S. President Thomas Wilson.

Brazil also helped found the predecessor to the United Nations, the League of Nations, of which Brazil was initially a non-permanent member; the country later withdrew its membership after failing to gain a permanent seat — a situation similar to the one in which it finds itself today with the United Nations.

Despite Brazil’s limited role in the conflict, historians see WWI was an event which helped the Latin American nation grow.

Roles in peace talks and negotiations over the nascent League of Nations boosted Brazil in terms of its international standing and involvement in global diplomacy. A hundred years later, this is still a work in progress although its clout on the international stage has grown.

Lessons learnt

The Brazilian army drew on the experience it had acquired during WWI, and the preparatory military mission sent to France led the first tanks arriving in Brazil. A French taskforce was later drafted in to train Brazilian troops further.

“The First World War led to Brazil improving and learning, leaving it ready to send a much larger expeditionary force of 25,000 men in the later stages of the Second World War,” says Col. Caminha. The Brazilian army grew from around 18,000 soldiers in 1917 to some 175,000 by 1944, after the post-WWI introduction of mandatory conscription and the support of the United States.

Brazil Declaration of War WW1

Brazil Declaration of War WW1 – Brazilian president Venceslau Brás (left), foreign minister Nilo Peçanha (standing), president of Minas Gerais, Delfim Moreira (right). Photo: Fundación Histarmar

It also led eventually to the birth of the Brazilian Air Force, which began service in 1942.

However, it was the economy that stood to gain most from the conflict, despite setbacks to its coffee exports at the time.

“In the short term, Brazil suffered from reduced coffee sales and from the loss of its ships to German torpedoes, although it ended up keeping the German ships seized in Brazilian ports and receiving compensation from the Germans for the produce that had been held in European ports and the ships that had been destroyed,” Professor Bueno noted.

“However, more significantly, the war ended up boosting sales of meat and fish, and was a catalyst that forced Brazil to reduce its reliance on others and giving rise to domestic industries. It was just a start, but it was something. Paradoxically, economically speaking WWI was actually positive for Brazil.”

The war showed that Brazil had the potential to become more, and a century later it has grown. However, Brazil is still trying to prove itself as a global player, with its position as seventh largest global economy continuing to belie the relatively diminutive size of both its diplomatic and military clout.

3 thoughts on “Brazil: The only Latin American nation to fight in World War I

  1. Nice article, but the statement:
    “the only South American country to do so, and the only Latin nation subsequently to play a military role in the conflict.”
    As far as I know, Portugal is also a Latin nation and had a much more significative participation in WW1 – check the facts.

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