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Aníbal Augusto Milhais (nickname "Soldier Millions") (July 9, 1895 – June 3, 1970) was the most decorated Portuguese soldier of World War I and the only Portuguese soldier awarded with the highest national honour, the Ordem de Torre e Espada do Valor, Lealdade e Mérito (Military Order of the Tower and of the Sword, of Valour, Loyalty and Merit) on the battlefield instead of the usual public ceremony in Lisbon.[1]

Contents

Origin

Milhais was a farmer, born on July 9, 1895 in the small village of Valongo in a remote area of Portugal.[1] On July 30, 1915 he was drafted into the Infantry of Bragança. In 1917 he was mobilized to join the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. He arrived in France in the same year, as a member of the Trás os Montes brigade from the 2nd Infantry Division of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. The 2nd Infantry Division was deployed to the front line.[1]

In the war

Badge, collar and star of the order

The Portuguese soldiers often volunteered to infiltrate enemy lines and raid trenches even if the casualties on both sides were extremely high.[1] Three German divisions had been rotated in the sector facing the 2nd Division in the last nine months before April 1918. The division saw no major battles, but suffered many casualties and extreme fatigue among the front line soldiers through the consecutive night raids.[1] The Portuguese participation in World War I took place in Flanders (northeast France), on April 9, 1918.[1][2] The battle is known in Portugal as "The Battle of La Lys" - the first day of Ludendorff's Lys Offensive, otherwise known as "Operation Georgette", and as "Battle of Estaires" in official British history.[3] Milhais found himself in the midst of the battle of La Lys, in the field of Isberg, covering the withdrawal of Portuguese and Scottish soldiers.[2] Within a few hours 1,938 men were killed, 5,198 wounded and about seven thousand taken prisoners. Despite the disaster, many Portuguese soldiers showed extraordinary bravery, including Anibal Augusto Milhais, known as Soldier Millions.[2] Private Anibal Milhais was in charge of one of their Lewis guns on 9 April 1918. During "Operation Georgette", when the German Army attacked his division, Milhais stood up with his Lewis machine gun and defeated, almost single handedly, two German assaults by laying down intense fire. He managed to cover the retreat of Portuguese and Scots alike despite coming under heavy attack himself.[1] He fired in all directions and stayed at his post until he ran out of ammunition. His bravery under severe circumstances managed to convince the Germans that they were up against a fortified unit rather than just one Portuguese peasant with a machine gun.[1] Finally, the Germans decided to go around and Milhais found himself alone in the rear of the enemy lines where he stayed for three days almost without eating or drinking.[1]

On the third day, Milhais, still carrying his Lewis, rescued a Scottish major from a swamp and the two reached Allied lines. Milhais was warmly welcomed but did not say anything about his experiences. It was through the officer he had helped reporting the story to the British HQ and several other testimonies that his deeds become known.[1]

A few months later, Milhais again held back the Germans, standing alone with his Lewis gun and allowing a Belgium unit to retreat safely to a secondary trench without casualties. Both the British observers present in the scene and the Belgium commander included his action in their reports.[1] Milhais was awarded with the highest distinction of the Portuguese: the Order of the Sword and Tower and with the French Legion d´Honneur delivered on the battlefield before 15,000 allied soldiers.[1] The bravery of Milhais in the battle of La Lys earned him the 4th Class of the Order of Tower and Sword of Value, Loyalty and Merit, the highest Portuguese decoration. The degree of "Knight of the Order of Military Tower and Sword" was created by Afonso V, later annulled, and later restored by King John VI, to reward "the value, the Loyalty and Merit".[2]

On July 15, 1918 the Order of Service of the Battalion published a praise, given by Major Ferreira do Amaral, which described his action as having been worth a million men and so the nickname that he has become known by.[4]

After the war

On February 2, 1919 he returned to his homeland and married Teresa de Jesus and had nine children with her.[4] Unfortunately, after the war ended, the Portuguese economy was near bankruptcy and Milhais faced difficulties to provide for his family. The Portuguese government promised to help but instead of an allowance, named the village where he was born after him.[1] On July 8, 1924 the Parliament named the town of Valongo, officially Valongo of Milhais. Now the rather shy Milhais was living in the village of Valongo of Milhais, more famous than ever, but as poor as before.[1] He received many decorations and public praise. But the highly decorated soldier could not provide for his family. In 1928, he immigrated to Brazil in an attempt to improve his financial standing. The Portuguese community in Brazil received him as a hero. When the Portuguese living there realized that Milhais was in Brazil by need, the community gathered funds to send him back to Portugal with enough money to provide for his family.[1] The Portuguese thought it a national indignity and were angry that the military had forced such a degrading life on Milhais.[4]

On August 5, 1928 he returned to Portugal and back to agriculture, to restart his life. He started to receive a small pension from the State, on the Order of the Tower and Sword.[4] Even so, it was enough to live as a national hero. He died on June 3, 1970 in the village named after him.[4]

Legacy

A permanent exhibition remembering his achievements can be seen in the Military Museum in the city of Porto.[1] Furthermore, a statue in his honor was erected in his hometown as a national tribute and as a symbol for Portugal.[4]

References

Further reading

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