At the start of First World War (August 1, 1914), the bulk of the German forces (the first seven Armies) were assigned to the Western Front to confront the French and the British. The defence of Germany’s East, that is East Prussia (Ostpreussen) was entrusted to the single remaining German Eighth Army, in the expectation that it would take some time for the presumably slow-moving Russians to undertake any decisive offensives.
But the Second Russian Army, led by Samsonov and moving up from north Poland, soon overwhelmed German defences and created a situation so perilous that the Germans contemplated giving up most of East Prussia. Their predicament was reversed when their Eighth Army was handed over to von Hindenburg with Ludendorff as chief of staff. With the help of some formations brought up blitz-like from the Western Front, the new commanders quickly devised new tactics which resulted in the encirclement and total defeat of Samsonov’s Russians. The famous victory went down in military history as the (second) Battle of Tannenberg. After further moves and countermoves, the Germans cleared East Prussia of the remaining Russian forces (First Russian Army led by Rennenkampf) as well.
Map of Tannenberg (click to enlarge)
One of the by-products of these battles was the unprecedented bag of war prisoners. As early as November 1914 the count was 450,000 housed in a number of prisoner-of-war (POW) camps. Sticking to the Geneva Convention the Germans allowed the prisoners to send and/or receive brief communications, small packets and limited money transfers (except registered items, as registration would have created severe problems with different languages and scripts). To bring more speed into the handling of prisoners’ mail, a special office (Kriegsgefangenenbriefstelle = war prisoners mail point) was set up and attached to Berlin Post Office No 24, with its employees rising from 4 to 165. The office developed a gigantic card system which eventually contained 2,526,000 names. Russian prisoners were especially numerous, with the surname Ivanov alone having 9,000 entries.
Assistance was provided by some neutral countries. As noted in the Geneva Convention, belligerent countries could make arrangements with countries of their choice to help convey their prisoners’ mail. Germany had signed an agreement to this effect with Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, whereas Russia worked mainly through Denmark, though as the war continued and more countries got involved, the number of postal intermediaries varied as well. On the whole, the quantity of prisoners’ mail was astounding: by the end of the war Germany had processed 82 millions letters/postcards, 2 millions money orders, half a million packets, 1 million enquiries re packets, 2,300 items of insured mail .
The great influx of Russian prisoners and their anxious desire to immediately write home sparked off an additional type of censorship. The mail of fresh prisoners sometimes described their recent experiences, localities, encounter with the enemy and its structures – that is, information which was of military value to the “other side”. For this reason, a special sort of German censorship was introduced. An order from Reich’s War Ministry, dated November 11, 1914 went out to relevant commanders and POW camp supervisors instructing that prisoners’ mail be suspended for 10 days after the item’s submission. As Russian prisoners often did not date their mail and so the “10 days” was not easy to determine, their mail was retained by the camps’ authorities who confirmed the 10 days passage by stamping the items with the prescribed abbreviation “F.a.” (= “Frist abgelaufen = required period has passed”). Customary censoring was marked by a separate cachet.
As there was hardly any formal identification in the Russian army by nationalities, so for the Germans, too, such prisoners were in general “Russians”. Thus there is no separate record of captive Lithuanians. Their origin or nationality can only be reconstructed from the home address given to the camp supervisors or from the stated destination on their mail. It must be noted that in many cases the addressing was in fact done by the German camp staff, as most Russian prisoners were only familiar with their Cyrillic script. Also, the destination was often supplemented by further directions if the area was already under German rule and subject to new administrative divisions. The resultant complexity is obvious on the postcard (a personal photograph) shown below.
The cachet "F.a." indicates that the prescribed 10 days suspension period has expired.
Circular camp's seal: Kommandantur Cellelager Briefstempel
Censor's three-liner: Gepruft Postprufungsstelle Cellelager
Sender [in pencil by camp's German staff]: Kasimir Stogis, Celle-lager (Provinz Hannover) Deutschland, Z 223 [= barrack no.]
Addressee [in pencil by camp's German staff]: Deutsche Zivilverwaltung, Gouvernement Kowno, Kreis Ponewesch, Gemeinde Kibure, Agatta Stogis
209 [in red crayon]: as civilian post office of Kowno had not yet opened, the card went to Feldpoststation 209 stationed in Kowno
Detailed destination in blue pencil was added on arrival in Kaunas, Lithuania, as the destination was now stated according to the new German administrative division: [village] Kibury, Kreis Johaniszkiely [= Joniškėlis]
For this postcard the sender made use of a personal photo taken by a commercial “Photochemisches Laboratorium” in Hannover, which may or may not have been part of the POW camp’s establishment.
POW postcard made of a personal photo
The large influx of Russian prisoners led to some relaxation of procedures. The following two postcards from the large Russian POW camp at Berger-Damm do show the cachet “F.a.” and several others including the censor’s cachet but the destination is left in Russian, untranscribed and giving the old czarist administrative subdivisions. As the cards were addressed to Kaunas guberniya, the camp’s administration simply added “Gouv[ernement] Kowno” presumably leaving to local officials to sort out the rest. The first postcard is addressed to Vilkomir (=Ukmergė) shire, the second to Novo-Aleksandrovsk (=Zarasai) shire.
Two postcards from the large Russian POW camp at Berger-Damm
Neither the Russian Army nor the German POW camps separated out the Lithuanians. But concern for their fate or wellbeing was deeply felt inside Lithuania. Desire to help the Lithuanian war prisoners became a substantial part of the endeavours of a promptly formed welfare society/committee “Lietuvių Draugija Nukentėjusiems dėl Karo Šelpti”. To make contact with Lithuanians in German captivity the Society/Committee delegated its representatives in Switzerland and especially in Copenhagen (Denmark was the main intermediary of the Russian government). Relatives of Lithuanian POWs in Germany could initiate their enquiries via Copenhagen where their anxieties were passed on to German authorities. And vice versa, Lithuanian prisoners in German camps could try to contact their nearest via Copenhagen.
The item below shows the abbreviation “F.a” in the dispatch seal of Stargard POW camp in Pomerania on a preprinted reply envelope addressed to the above Draugija’s Lithuanian representative in Copenhagen. The contents probably contained whatever information (or mail?) the camp’s administration could covey. The circular seal also shows that the postal item has undergone German customary censorship. The address reads: To the Lithuanian Central Committee, Plenipotentiary in Copenhagen, P.O. Box 214, Copenhagen, Denmark.
A reply envelope addressed to POW welfare committee in Denmark