13 October 2018

 Russian World War 1 - Marcus Sherwood-Jenkins 

My thanks to Geoff Hanney for compiling this report in my absence - it sounds as though it was a truly fascinating display showing unique material the likes of which we are unlikely to see in such quantity and detail.

1st Part

The scene was set to make people aware of the actual scale of the size of Russia. It can take 14 days to travel by rail from the Baltic in the west to Vladivostok in the east, both in 1914 and actually the same today. Even today there are areas of virgin forest the size of France. The temperature ranges from freezing in the north to desert heat in the south. 

The Bolsheviks for political reasons played on all the good things in the previous regimes record during the war and some of this propaganda is only just starting to be seen for what it was.  The Russian army on number of occasions was forced to go on the offensive earlier than Army command wanted to due to pressure from their Allies to take pressure off the western front by pulling German troops to the Eastern front. This caused additional difficulties and casualties on the Russian front.  

We were shown a couple of letters from American’s who were travelling in Russia and France just before the war, around the time the war broke out; just before they had been in Crimea at same time as the Russian Royal Family and they got asked to have tea with them. Then they were in France when the first air raid on Paris took place and the war broke out. This was an interesting view of the storm breaking across Europe at the time.  We were shown some items about the boy soldiers (some as young as 11), who were in the main orphans from the areas around the front line. These had been taken in by the regiment who looked after them and dressed them in uniforms.  In the main they did not fight but were in the support roles in the rear areas of the front.  There were also items showing the change of name of the capital St Petersburg to Petrograd in 1914 as the former was seen to be a too German name. 

There were also a number of pamphlets and items about national anthems of the Allied nations. The tune we use for British National Anthem was the same as the Russian one at the time although the words were different.  We were shown a range of wonderfully printed Illustrated Soldier Stationary, but due to war economy these only lasted until 1915.  Like the Western front where, particularly the French, produced war damage postcards the Russian did the same and we were shown some examples.  Due the German and Austria advances early in the war there were lots of refugees. An example in the St. Petersburg area there were some 250,000 refugees in 1914.  There were covers from the units involved in the advance into Galicia (Austria) in 1915. There were also covers showing the effects of the war on the mail on routes etc.  In 1916, The French put pressure on the Tsar for an offensive on the Eastern Front to take pressure off Verdun, as it would make the Germans send reserves to the east. This forced the Russian’s to launch the Brusilov offensive with little preparation which initially went well but soon stalled. There were items displayed on this offensive. 

Currency Coupons were issued as the people were hoarding small value coins for their metal content. These coupons were in the form of stamps, which came without gum. We were shown examples of these coupons as well as some used postally. There was an item that had been privately rouletted, examples of which came from the Fabergé collection.  There were examples of Birch Bark Cards, which were done due the shortage of paper.  In many cases they were used after a big battle for the soldiers to let their families know that they were OK and were frequently simply an address and signature.  Also shown was cover about the Lake Naroch Battles (18th March 1916 to 6th April 1916) where the Russian’s lost over 100,000 men in this one action - compare this against the British losses at the Somme battles of some 60,000 men. 

There was a cover on the army re-organisation after the February 1917 Revolution.  Examples of Money transfers, Petitions and Field Post Cards were also shown.  The October 1917 Revolution which took Russia out of the war was initiated by reserve troops who were being moved the front, which they did not want to do. The active troops were not really involved in the revolutionary movement.  Shown was a Contract with fiscal stamps for the conversion of a house to a Post Office giving details on the changes required and the rent of the building.  There was a section on the Women’s Battalion (of Death) which was formed and commanded by Yasha Bochkareva in 1917.  Russia had history for wives of the fallen to be allowed to Petition the Tsar to take their husbands place in the ranks to allow them seek vengeance on the enemies of Russia. There was postcard from Yasha Bochkareva which to date is the only one known and a rare Flag Day Jetton for the Women’s Battalion.  Also shown was the use of stamp bisects due to shortages of stamps of the right value. Several examples of these were displayed, some of which originally came from Fabergé collection.  This included a piece which had a bisect stamp cancelled by British Field Post Office canceller ‘D4’ with British Censor dated 14th June 1915. This probably came from a Russian Liaison Officer and the reason it had a stamp was that the Russian Post Office required one. 

Russia also sent a regiment to fight on the Western Front and we were shown postcards of the Russians on this front which are reasonably common, along with mail mainly to France.  As the Bolsheviks saw these troops as suspect the majority of the mail sent home was destroyed so not to have incriminating evidence.  We were then shown POW items of Russian’s captured by the Germans and Austrians. There were requests for comforts and cheques to draw money for more luxury items.  Most of these items still had their contents with the cover. The last item was a POW cover to the Tsar with the letter enclosed.

2nd Part

This part centred on the charity work to support the war effort both in Russia and Britain. These charities were supported by the Great and Good the same as in Britain at the time.  Shown was the ‘Cross of St. George’ medal, this came in 4 Classes and 1st class was same as the British Victory Cross.  It was explained that this was used symbolically by a number of the charity organisations especially the ribbon colours of black and gold (orange). The Bolsheviks initially kept the ribbon colours for their top medal so troops who had won it under old regime. 

St. Petersburg was the first place to issue charity Labels and then had to change them when it was re-named Petrograd - examples of the label were shown, as well as on the covers.  Also displayed was an example of Government published lists of the official charities in a newspaper to try a stop fraud.  There were Soldier Kopeck (same as penny) labels in the form of a whole sheet and a booklet as well same example on covers and National Charity Stamps issued as stamps with examples of these used on covers.  As part of the advertising for the charities they produced postcards with one of those shown a Photo Postcard of the ‘Petrograd Women War Relief Committee’ with the ladies sitting around a table.  In Britain there were several flag days run on behalf of the Russians and a few items from these flag days were shown including a ribbon to show the person was an official collector for the charity, as well as a ribbon with missing colour error. Depending on how much you donated you either got a pin flag, postcard or silk flag.  Like most things people collected items from these charity organisations and in Russia one of these collectors was the Tsar’s son and it was said he took this collection with him into exile. A few years after his death his collection came on the market at an auction in Bromley, Kent; the buyer was mentioned in the newspaper and had collection stolen, although it was later recovered.  Lists of postcards from different charities were published in Russian newspapers to allow collectors to know what was available and a few of these were shown in the display. 

Displayed were items from towns like Tashkent and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna War Charity (1916) labels which included colour trials, single colour versions in sheets of 6 and singles of the multi-coloured versions plus a perforated single colour sheet. Also shown were items for the Artisans Society of Petrograd and the Book for Soldiers Charities.  There was a postcard showing an orphanage in Viatka which had been built with the money collected, which was in addition to a hospital train. 

In 1915 the Germans used gas against Russia troops, which was a year earlier than on the Western Front and in 1916 the town of Lipetsk produced labels for gas masks for the troops.  Examples of War Bonds issued by the government to pay for the war were shown, including advertisements to buy them.  There existed a number of different types of war bond coupons which changed in size over time to reduce the amount paper required. The war bonds became null and void when the Bolsheviks came to power.  Examples were shown of postman strike mail (1918) labels in sheets to show that the volunteer postman had been paid directly for items.  A small amount of philatelic correspondence from both during and afterwards was shown, with one item highlighted with the comment that said ‘Neither War nor revolution stops the Philatelist’!  A 1916 Red Cross Calendar for charity was also shown.  

Part 3

This part was about unit cachets, a subject that had yet to be researched in detail and a great deal is not known. Unit cachets appear to exist from division down to company level.  We started with the Tsar Guards cachet, armoured cars, despatch riders, motorised units and a motorised depot battalion unit cachet, as well as an exploitation (Shock Troops) cachet. The Russians had seen the advantages of motorisation before the western armies.  A picture postcard of Petr Nikolaevich Nesterov, the 1st Aviation Hero of the Imperial Russian Air Corps, was shown. He died on 26th August 1914 when he rammed a German bomber with his aircraft.  A postcard of the little-known Imperial Naval Airship Dragon was shown - this looked British due to the flag of the Russian navy being very similar to Union Jack.  There were covers, photographs and cards of the Imperial Russian Air Service illustrating the planes of units like the 10th Air Battalion of the Air Force in 1918. 

In 1915, Belgium sent an Armoured Car Company (about 500 strong) which landed at Archangel and was then transported to Petrograd where it was reviewed by the Tsar. It went to the Ukraine Front where they stayed until mid-1917 when the Russians left the war.  It started to be moved onto the Trans-Siberian railway when the Civil War broke out and finally got to Vladivostok in 1920. From Vladivostok it was shipped to San Francisco then by rail to New York and then by boat to Boulogne, France. It finally reached Belgium in 1921. The items illustrated this unit’s whole journey and mail is rare. Mail had to go via Archangel, Sweden or Vladivostok so took a long time to transit to and from the unit. 

Dunsterforce was small British Armoured Car force which operated in southern Russia.  We were shown a couple of items of mail from this force which came out of Russia via Persia.  A couple of YMCA envelopes which were sent via Siberia, showed limited routes out of the country.  There were active units which were at the front and reserve units which were in the rear or garrisons etc.  We were shown a card advertising a British Field Ambulance unit along with items about British Red Cross nurses serving in Russia which included a leave pass and photo of the hospital.  

Hospital Train cachets were shown, with some of those from Russia Zemstva Union (Town sponsored units) as well as those from charity groups. These trains were quite advanced for the time as they had steam baths and had live fish for meals.  There were postcards showing the operating theatres, internal views of Zemstva Hospital, along with a cachet for the units. There were cachets shown for the Tsarskoe Selo Military Hospital, Military Hospital at Minsk and 301st Field Hospital, as well as Convalescent Companies. The treatment in Russia for what was called shell shock was the most advanced of all the countries in World War 1 and was done at a special hospital - displayed were items related to this treatment.  With all the horses in the army there were veterinary units there was section on these which included an item with the cachet for 34th Division Horse Hospital.  Lastly for this section there was an item of secret military mail from 1915. 

Part 4

POW items were shown which explained the censorship of this type of mail going out of Russia. Like earlier items these had the contents included in the display, which included requests for comforts and cheques to draw money for more luxury items.  Censorship was initially only on mail going to foreign destinations. The early mail was re-sealed using wax along with a censor cachet, but this was found too time consuming so moved to labels. Internal mail was added to be censored a little later in 1914. Early on there were not enough censors for the volume of work and this delayed the mail, which caused some concern at the time. 

The changes in censorship were explained by using a case study on Petrograd which showed all the changes in methods and different types of cachet used over the war.  As we moved towards and into the revolutionary period paper became scarce so people started re-using paper, as the majority of paper mills were in Finland which had declared independence from Russia and was not supplying paper to the new regime. Some of the more interesting items in this area included a cover incoming from China, a censored envelope posted in the Russia Post Office in Cheefoo, China on 6th July 1917 and an item from Tsarkoe Selo Hospital (formerly the Tsar Summer Palace) 

There was a section on mute cancels used during the war as part of censorship to try and stop people working out where item had come from; it was decreed that postmarks were not state the location. This did not work as well as expected as companies tended to put their address on the outside of an envelope and it also made it difficult for the post office to work out if the right rates had been applied.  There was whole number of items which were used as cancellers, such as corks, washers, keys, roller cancellers and revenue cancellers. Examples of these were displayed and it was noted that a revenue canceller was used at Warsaw, which was part of Russia at this time.  No official records exist of what was used and where although a book had recently been published which listed what was currently known and where used.  Marcus had brought along maps to show where particular mute cancellers had been used which helped to understand where in Russia some of these items had come from.  By the 1916 these mute cancellers had disappeared.

The last items shown were POW items: one was a German Red Cross envelope sent back to Germany in 1917 and another was a POW postcard to Austria. 

© Forces Postal History Society 2018