Sometimes a picture
postcard has an extraordinary story behind it and one particular humorous card
from the Great War was no exception. Titled "THE TRUTH AT LAST." it was
probably released in September/October 1914.
It is a black and white drawing, but said to be "The only authentic Photo of the Russians passing through." The drawing depicted a dark and shuttered railway train hurtling through the night and by writing certain humorous phrases into ‘speech bubbles’ the artist suggested that Russian speaking people were aboard the train. Published by ‘the Photochrome.’ Company’ in its ‘GRANO SERIES’,
The card was an interpretation of what can only be described as an extraordinary rumour, which spread across Britain during the first weeks of the Great War. At first, they were spread entirely by word of mouth, but then on 8th September The Times helped to spread them even wider, and at the same time give them a certain air of credibility. Reporter Michael MacDonagh wrote, "There is being circulated everywhere a story that an immense force of Russian soldiers – a little short of a million, it is said – have passed, or are still passing, through England on their way to France."
The rumour began on 27th August 1914, because of a 17-hour delay on the London to Liverpool train service. The reason for the hold-up was said to have been caused by the transportation by rail of Russian troops, who had landed in Scotland and, under conditions of the utmost secrecy were being moved by train to the Channel ports. From there they were destined to cross to France and fight alongside the Allies.
As the tale spread,
more and more people ‘knew’ someone who had seen Russian troops in transit. For
instance, someone knew a railway porter in Edinburgh who had swept snow from
the railway carriages there, at several stations there were reports of strange-looking men seen with snow on their boots. In Perthshire, Lady Baden-Powell heard that
the Russians were coming and promptly rushed to the station to catch a glimpse
MacDonagh reported, "This great news is vouched by people likely to be well informed, but it is being kept secret by the authorities – not a word of it is allowed in the newspapers – until all the Russians have arrived at the Western Front."
In Carisle, Russian voices were heard calling out from railway carriages asking for bottles of vodka, and in Durham, roubles were found in station slot machines. Soon many towns in Britain had their own version of "the Russians passing through" story. At York, a marine engineer said he had travelled with them in the 193rd trainload to pass through the city on its way south. "So extraordinary has been the ambiguity of the rumours" said the Daily News, "that they are almost more amazing if they are false, than if they are true."
The Press Bureau
allowed the rumours to flourish for a short time, possibly in the hope that the
Germans would believe them. Then on 15th September, an official denial of the
stories appeared. Did Germany believe that a million Russians were about to
reinforce the Allies? – Probably not. However, the tales would have helped to
boost public morale in Britain and they needed to. The B.E.F. had just suffered
its first encounter with the German forces at Mons, and its subsequent retreat
along with the French Army was still in Progress.
There were attempts to find the origin of the Russian rumour and many suggestions offered but none were convincing. According to MacDonogh, a wholesaler in London received a telegram from Russia stating that "Two hundred thousand Russians are being dispatched from Archangle." – the message referred not to troops, but to eggs. Another explanation was that Russians were "Scotsmen trying to explain in their uncouth speech that they were from Ross-shire." A French officer on the Western Front was also blamed; he had allegedly gone around asking, "Where are ze rations."
MacDonogh later admitted, "Like everybody else, I kept the ball rolling, and the only excuse that can be offered is that it was a case of the wish being father to the thought."