Czech Army in Siberia : The Trans-Siberian Railway

The struggle for Czech independence lasted many centuries. A key reverse in this struggle came in 1620 when the Bohemians and Czechs became embroiled in the Thirty Years War and were defeated by the Austrian army at the Battle of the White Mountain (Bílá Hora). There followed a process of assimilaton of the area by the Hapsburgs, although, crucially, the Czechs managed to retain their language and culture.

It would be 300 years before the dream was realized but it was only achieved as a result of a World War which brought the destruction of four great empires and their ruling houses, Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian. Austria had aligned itself with Germany and Turkey, whilst the British, French and Russians formed the 'Allied' side. Some Czechs left their homeland and, along with other Czechs already living outside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, joined in the allied war effort - in the hope of the establishment of a Czech-Slovak state by the allies, should they be victorious.

There were additional Czechs added to allied ranks as the Great War (1914-1918) progressed. The Austrian army had conscripted large numbers of Czechs, most of whom shared the dream of their compatriots of an independent state. When captured by the allies, many of them volunteered to fight the Austrians and Germans. Czech battalions were established in France, Italy and Russia, although in Russia the inclusion of ‘prisoners-of-war’ was not approved until after the abdication of the Czar. As their numbers grew, they were formed into legions but in Russia, with the collapse of the Provisional Government and the Bolshevik take-over of power, the Czech Legion was never deployed. The new Soviet government quickly made peace with Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, leaving the Czech Legion in Russia isolated.

stamps Czech Army in Siberia 50c Orlik armoured train

At the same time, the allies were being lobbied intensely by Czechs in exile, united under the banner of the ‘Czech National Committee’, and there were strong signs that they would be rewarded by the creation of a Czech and Slovak state at the end of the war. The Czech leader, Masaryk (later the first president of Czechoslovakia), was in Russia in 1917 during the chaos of the Revolution and resolved, after consultation with the allies who were still engaged in bitter fighting on the Western Front, to transfer the Russian Legion to France and to join in the war effort there.

The Legion at this point was in the Ukraine. The war barred any route westwards to France and it was decided that the Russian Legion should make its way via Vladivostok and ship to France. The only route was by the vitally strategic Trans-Siberian Railway. The Legion, now numbering between 70,000 and 100,000 men with all the equipment an army of that size carries, set off to the East in the Spring of 1918 but ran into one obstacle after another. Local Bolsheviks, in particular, for whom the Trans-Siberian was also a vital artery, regularly confronted Czech troops and the Legion’s commanders decided that their only recourse was to seize the Railway and fight their way out.

The Czech army drifted into an alliance with the White Russians in the area, who were fighting the Bolsheviks, and Czech troops who had reached Vladivostok even retraced their steps to help protect the Railway and take the battle to the Bolsheviks. When the war in Europe came to an end in November 1918, the Czech Army was still in Siberia. Back home, in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, views varied between getting them home quickly and having them fight an all-out war against Bolshevism. The commanders on the ground decided to withdraw their support for the White Russian cause and to marshal their forces along the line of the Railway, protecting their position until allied ships could reach Vladivostok and get them home.

Czech Army in Siberia armoured train
Image: Armoured train in Siberia.

The White Russians were defeated in the Summer of 1919 but the Czechs continued to hold the Railway until their eventual withdrawal and departure from Vladivostok in April 1920 and it was in this latter period that the postage stamps were issued.

The Czechs ran a very efficient railway, carried goods, produced daily newspapers and carried mails, initially for their own troops and later for the civilian population. This was, effectively, a Field Post and the Trans-Siberian was the link between their units along the line of the Railway, linking in particular Vladivostok with the political centre at Omsk. There were three principal issues of stamps for carriage of mails on the Railway and, where this was possible, delivery beyond. In this article, we are only examining the Second Issue, which is pictorial. We plan to cover the rest of this short-lived issuing authority in a later article. Stamps of the Czech Legion (or Army) in Siberia are listed in all four major catalogues.

The Pictorial Issue: This was produced in Siberia by the Czech Army, principally for use on the Trans-Siberian and shows three views, a church at Irkutsk (25 kopeks), the armoured train 'Orlik' (50 kopeks) and a sentry (1 Rouble).

The stamps were produced by lithography and each design was copied six times for the printing plates. The sheet layouts vary due to the 1R being a larger stamp; the 25k and 50k are in sheets of 120 (10x12) and the One Rouble is printed in sheets of 105 (15x7). Interpanneau pairs exist and are very rare. Stamps from the margins of the sheets perforated 11.5 are imperforate on the outer edge(s).

For comments on gum, see notes below the listing.

stamps Czech Army in Siberia 1919 Imperforate

December 1919: Imperforate with gum (Irkutsk gum date; later for other gums):
25k Scarlet : Irkutsk Church [ . ]
50k Green : Armoured Train [ . ]
1 R Dark Red-brown * : Sentry [ . ]

* Later 1R printings are said to exist in both Red-Brown and Dark Red-Brown. We have not seen the Irkutsk issue in Red-Brown but it may exist.

Date? : Imperforate without gum, issued at Prague:
25k Scarlet : Irkutsk Church [ . ]
50k Green : Armoured Train [ . ]
1 R Red-brown ** : Sentry [ . ]
- ditto - Dark Red-Brown ** [ . ]

The existence of both shades of the 1R needs corroboration.

stamps Czech Army in Siberia 1919 Perf. 11.5

December 1919: Perf. 11.5 (with outer edges of sheet imperf). With gum (Dec.1919 for Irkutsk gum; later for other gums):
25k Scarlet : Irkutsk Church [ . ]
50k Green : Armoured Train [ . ]
1 R Red-brown : Sentry [ . ]
- ditto - Dark Red-Brown [ . ]

stamps Czech Army in Siberia 1919 Perf. 13.5

c.1920/21 : Perforated 13.5 with gum (issued in Prague).
25k Scarlet : Irkutsk Church [ . ]
50k Green : Armoured Train [ . ]
- ditto - Deeper Green [ . ]
1 R Red-brown : Sentry [ . ]
- ditto - Dark Red-Brown [ . ]

Note: This Perf 13.5 issue also exists with Irkutsk gum and is rare thus.

Gum : Much has been written about the gum on this issue. We are not totally convinced about the accuracy of the currently accepted wisdom on this subject. Either some or all of the paper used for printing these stamps was supplied to the printer ungummed. This could, perhaps, have resulted in the stamps being gummed at more than just the places usually named. S.G. says Irkutsk and Prague, Michel says Irkutsk and Vladivostok, Scott & Yvert do not provide such detail.

There seems to be a huge variation in the gum, from the very scarce yellow crackled gum of Irkutsk, though the streaky yellowish gum (perhaps at Vladivostok?) to a clearer, smoother, whiter gum (Prague?). However, given the age of the stamps and their strange and varied travels, we have not attempted to distinguish stamps beyond the simple gummed or ungummed in the classification above, but one should point out that a premium certainly applies to stamps with the Irkutsk gum.

Used Stamps : All genuinely used stamps can only come from the gummed imperforate issue and the Perf 11.5 issue, made at Irkutsk. Other issues are found ‘used’, either cancelled-to-order or by favour, and these account for the majority of the used stamps on the market. Many different cancellations exist but we have insufficient information to describe them.

Multiples : These are very scarce with blocks of 4 carrying a significant premium. Blocks/6 showing all six types of the setting are rare and highly sought-after in all of the different issues. The differences are very small and outside the scope of this article. However, for those interested, we show in tabulated form below the sheet set-up of the six types for the various values. Note that in order to make the sheets up to the required number, the final column (25k and 50k) or the final row (One Rouble), were made up from segments of the settings.

Sheet Setting: 25k Church at Irkutsk. Sheets of 120 (10x12)
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 2
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 5
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 6
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 2
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 5
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4

Sheet Setting: 50k Armoured Train 'Orlik'. Sheets of 120 (10x12)
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 6
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 2
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 5
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 2
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 5
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 6
.

Sheet Setting: 1R : Sentry on Duty. sheets of 105 (15x7)
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 4 5 6
.

Colour Trials :
stamps Czech Army in Siberia 1919 50k proof

We have very little information on colour trials, shown above (left) alongside a normal stamp. Such colour trials are very scarce. We list the one that we have seen.

50k Armoured Trains in Yellow-Olive [ . ]

.

Interpanneau Pairs :
Stamps may be found se-tenant across a wide gutter and are very scarce. Image by permission of Cherrystone Auctions.
timbres-poste Czech Army Legion in Siberia Russian Revolution Trans-Siberian Railway postage stamps First World War

.

Czech Army in Siberia - Pictorial Issue surcharged.
In addition, the three pictorial values exist with a surcharge 'balícky do vlasti', which translates from Slovak as Home Packages. Whether to or from home is not explicitly stated, but it is most likely that they were intended for packages from home to soldiers at the front. If so, the stamps would logically have been produced (or perhaps only proof overprints produced) in Prague, by overprinting remainders of the set shortly before the troops finally left Siberia. The stamps were certainly not issued. We are able to provide a scan of one of the values, the armoured train, courtesy again of Cherrystone Auctions:

timbres-poste Czech Army Legion in Siberia Russian Revolution Trans-Siberian Railway postage stamps First World War

Balícky do vlasti surcharges, all very scarce
50k / 25k Church - unissued [ . ]
50k /50k Armoured Train - unissued [ . ]
50k / 1R Sentry - unissued [ . ]

.

World War I : Czech Army in Siberia - Pictorial Issue : Unadopted Essays.

Five unadopted essays of pictorial designs exist, the sentry design being very close to that of the issued 1R. All five come in five different colours. Our scans show the five designs in green, followed by one example of each of the other four colours used. Also shown is a typical uncut strip from the printed sheets. The essays are all denominated 1 Rouble, except for the design with the smaller train which has a 'face value' of 50 kopeks.

timbres-poste Czech Army Legion in Siberia Russian Revolution Trans-Siberian Railway postage stamps First World War

timbres-poste Czech Army Legion in Siberia Russian Revolution Trans-Siberian Railway postage stamps First World War

Unadopted Essays Green Blue Violet Brown Red
Small Train [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ]
Large Train [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ]
Camp Fire [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ]
Kneeling (horiz.) [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ]
Sentry [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ] [ . . ]
.

These unadopted essays are normally printed on white paper but we have also seen a set printed in brown on grey-brownish paper, in which the design is less sharp and the colours less bright. We are uncertain as to their status.

  • Return to Listing of all Railway Articles (with links). Note: You may already have an open tab