Feature Articles - Spain During the First World War

Spanish King Alfonso XIII The larger of two countries on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, Spain was staunchly neutral in the years leading up to the Great War and remained so throughout.

It was considered one of the most important neutral countries in Europe by 1915 as it was a significant source of goods for France, the other allies, and South America.

Spain's economy had been slowly evolving from an agriculture-based system to one centred around industry for roughly forty years prior to 1914.  World War One greatly benefited Spanish industry and exporting.  The two areas most affected by the war were Valencian citrus production and steel manufacturing.

Further, Spain's gold reserves more than tripled as the war raged, and as a result, the government paid down a significant portion of its national debt.  During the war there was a great deal of internal political strife among the various political parties and labour unions which resulted in a series of major workers' strikes.  The increasing frequency and hostility created by this unrest forced several prime ministers and their cabinets to resign, and those who did not quit were voted out of office.

As a neutral country, Spain saw no direct military action in the war.  It did, however, intern a small German force in its northwest African colony of Spanish Guinea in November 1915 and intervene in embattled areas to aid prisoners of war.  The Spanish crown, under Alfonso XIII, contributed a great deal to improving the treatment of prisoners and non-combatants throughout the conflict.  At his own expense, Alfonso maintained a staff of forty who helped him serve as an intermediary between prisoners and their families.  His efforts led to the end of reprisals against French POWs in Germany.

Thanks in large part to his intervention, Germany commuted eight death sentences held by women and twenty held by men.  Alfonso also took up the case of the civil population of Lille, which had been devastated by the German Army during its invasion of Belgium.

What's more, Spain's king vigorously protested the German Navy's use of submarines.  By war's end, Spain had lost 140,000 tons of shipping to the U-boats.  Even though committed to neutrality, Spain played a valuable role in easing the suffering caused by World War One.

Article contributed by William P. McEvoy

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Payne, Stanley G. A History of Spain and Portugal: In Two Volumes. (2). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

Petrie, Sir Charles. The History of Spain: Part II From the Death of Phillip II to 1945. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952.

Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.

The USA suffered 57,476 fatal army casualties during the war.

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