When the First World War started in August 1914, Lithuania had been under Russian czarist rule, as a part of the Russian Empire, since the final partition of the Lithuanian – Polish Union in 1795. One of the consequences was the obligation of the new subjects (male) to serve in the Russian army, the nature and duration of military service being dependent on the laws of the specific period. Prior to WWI military service for males in the Russian Empire was not universal, so the required numbers were made up by almost random enlisting of recruits for compulsory military service lasting 25 years. (This harsh practice – ruining a person’s life -provides a major explanation why, in Lithuania, many young men took the risk to flee and emigrate, their frequent aim being mainly North or South America.)
The number of Lithuanians drafted into the Russian army, before and during the First World War, can only be a rough estimate. Some indication is provided by a population census carried out in independent Lithuania in 1923. It recorded 64,628 males who, while in Russian uniform, had survived the battles and/or captivity and 11,178 males who did not survive. As a rule, their opponents and possible captors were Germans. There is no other more comprehensive statistical evidence, as Russian military authorities normally did not record a soldier’s nationality or ethnicity, though some army units were indeed formed and named after a specific geographic region.
Although Lithuanian recruits were engaged on various fronts, it seems that the majority served in the Russian First Army (led by Rennenkampf) and Second Army (led by Samsonov), both of which, in the early part of the war, broke into East Prussia (Ostpreussen). As a result of the Russian Second Army’s encirclement and destruction in August 1914 in the battle of Tannenberg, and other defeats, Russian losses in manpower were immense. Indeed, by early November 1914 Germans had captured 450,000 Russian soldiers who had to be accommodated in a number of POW establishments. Thus a considerable number of ethnic Lithuanians finished up in German Prisoner of War (POW) camps as well.
WWI map showing intersection of Lithuania and East Prussia (click to enlarge).
In line with the Geneva Convention the Germans allowed their war 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 central post office (Kriegsgefangenenbriefstelle = war prisoners mail point) was set up and attached to Berlin Post Office No 24, with the number of its employees rising gradually from 4 to 165. The office developed a gigantic card system which eventually contained 2,526,000 names.
One of the numerous Lithuanian war prisoners made use of this arrangement to write to his brother Izidorius on the other side of the Atlantic. Though in Russian transcription he gives his name as Osip Sadovski, his Lithuanian name was Juozapas Sadauskis. Throughout the battles he had managed to keep the address of a contact with his brother Izidorius who had migrated to Argentina and was living in Buenos Aires. So as a war prisoner he used a formal postcard provided by the camp, wrote a permissible message and addressed it to a Lithuanian society (Draugija) active there, that is, Lietuvių Draugija DIEGAS, Para… Isidor Stackus, Casilla de Torres 59, Buenos Aires, Rep. Argentina.
To the war prisoner’s dismay, the card came back with a handwritten note in red ink in the Lithuanian language, from the Draugija and confirmed by its seal, advising that “your brother I. Staškus committed suicide on August 3 of this year. Secretary…” The tragic element enshrined in the postcard is that the brother Izidorius killed himself while the postcard was actually on its way, between July and mid-August 1915. In Lithuanian, the Society’s secretary’s note read: – “Tamstos minimas brolis I. Staškus nusižudė 3 Rugpjučio š.m. Sekretorius [signature illegible]”
The postcard also carries a local postal instruction in Spanish re-directing the item back to the sender in Halbe-Alemania which was the locality of the prisoners-of war camp as pre-printed on the formular postcard.
Front of a POW postcard from Germany to Argentina and return.
While the returned postcard is a doubly tragic tragic item from WWI, its journey tells a great deal about the surprising reliability of postal communication in the period of a global war. The journey’s stages:
- The Lithuanian Juozapas Sadauskis in Russian uniform was held in a POW camp, Barrack 12, at Halbe, south-west of Berlin, (P.S. The locality Halbe acquired a ghastly name after WW2 as a mass cemetery for some 30,000 German soldiers and protection-seeking civilians who perished with the German Ninth Army in its last fight against encircling Soviets in late April 1945.)
- The postcard was written in pencil in Lithuanian and dated July 12, 1915.
- According to German regulations, the postcard was held back at the POW camp for at least 10 days and the retention was confirmed by a one-liner cachet ” F.a. – 5. AUG 1915 [ = Frist abgelaufen…]”. For a more detailed explanation of cachets stating “F.a.” see this author’s article.
- According to regulations, the postcard was checked by the POW camp censor and marked “Gepruft… Prufungsstelle Halbe”. The next stage was the POW central P.O. in Berlin which allocated further means of postal transport, that is, by ship to South America.
- The postcard arrived and was duly date-stamped in Buenos Aires 15 SEP 1915. Considering that it could only travel by ship, the duration of some 40 days between the postal sorting point in Berlin and the destination Argentina was reasonable.
- In Buenos Aires, he card was properly delivered to the address of the Lithuanian Society DIEGAS. The “Diegas” had been formed in 1908 by Lithuanian immigrants of the time and encouraged social and artistic activities, assisted in obtaining and circulating Lithuanian-language papers printed in Europe, and cared for mutual self-help. The “Diegas” functioned until roughly the end of the war and eventually dissolved into several groupings.
- By the time the undelivered postcard was returned to Germany, the Lithuanian war prisoner Juozapas Sadauskis had been transferred to a different POW camp, Burgdorf near Cottbus, 120 km southeast of Berlin. Re-addressing must have been done in the Berlin sorting facility or in Halbe.
- It is worth noting that an ordinary POW postcard was handled with care and normal postal practices. The return dates of the postcard to POW captivity and to the changed location are not shown but the war prisoner did certainly get his postcard back.
- The sender Juozapas Sadauskis kept the postcard, after the war’s end brought it back to Lithuania and pasted it into his photos or souvenirs album.
Back of the postcard.
As the postcard was eventually removed from the album, most of the text is hardly legible. Although the message is in Lithuanian, the German censor at Halbe either did not object or, more likely, was too busy to pay any attention. Indeed, the message contains mainly greetings and wishes. And, of course, that he is alive, safe and sound. That much was permissible.