World Stamps

The Austrian semipostal stamps that raised money for war widows and orphans

May 2, 2021, 11 PM

By William B. Hughes 

This year marks roughly the middle of the four-year-long (2014-18) centennial of World War I. 

Of the stamps issued during the war years, I believe the most interesting are the semipostal stamps. Of particular note is a set of five stamps (Scott B3-B7) issued in May 1915 by Austria.

The surtaxes from the sale of these stamps went to a fund for aiding war widows and orphans. These stamps, each of which depicts a branch of the Austrian armed forces, were the last to be issued by the Austrian monarchy.

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The 3-heller+1h violet-brown stamp (Scott B3) shows infantry standing on the “firing step.” 

Much of the fighting in WWI was conducted from trenches. 

The firing step was a narrow step cut into the wall of the trench some two or three feet from the trench floor. 

The purpose of the firing step, which ran along the entire trench, was to enable each occupant of the trench to peer over the side of the trench in the direction of the enemy line.

The floor of the trench was lower than the firing step so that men could pass along the trench without exposing their heads to enemy fire. During a pre-dawn or dusk maneuverer called stand-to (short for “stand to arms”), each occupant of the trench was expected to man the firing step with rifle loaded and bayonet fixed. 

The green 5h+2h stamp (Scott B4) shows cavalry charging. World War I was the last conflict in which horses played a significant role. The advent of the machine gun, the tank, and static trench warfare greatly reduced the effectiveness of cavalry. 

The cavalry was the most traditional and conservative component of the Austrian armed forces, with some of the regiments founded in the 17th century. 

Brown Ribbon semipostal stamp   Off to the races: the Brown Ribbon semipostal stamps of Germany: From 1936 to 1944, during the Third Reich era, a semipostal stamp was issued each year to support the Brown Ribbon, an annual horse race held near Munich.

During the early months of the war, the Austrians had a major problem with their military saddles. 

A poor design caused them to rub the skin off the back of any horse that had not been gradually exposed to the equipment. Half of all Austrian cavalry horses were disabled after only a few weeks into the war.

The 10h+2h deep rose stamp (Scott B5) depicts a siege gun of the artillery forces. 

The static trench warfare of WWI promoted the use of large guns to reduce enemy strongpoints. 

As early as 1906, the Austro-Hungarian high command had contracted with Skoda-Werke in Pilsen (in what is now the Czech Republic) to develop a gun capable of penetrating concrete fortresses.

In 1911, after extensive testing in the mountains of Tyrol, the minister of war placed an order for 24 of the new weapons. The war’s largest and most powerful siege gun, produced by the German firm of Krupp, was a 42-centimeter howitzer nick-named “Big Bertha.” 

The 20h+3h Prussian blue stamp (Scott B6) depicts a battleship.

As of August 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Kaiserliche und Koenigliche Kriegsmarine (Imperial and Royal War Navy) had a fleet of nine battleships that spent the entire war within the Adriatic Sea. They saw little action, but their presence tied up the Italian Navy and the French Navy as well as units of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean for the duration of the war. 

The 35h+3h ultramarine stamp (Scott B7) depicts a biplane.

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The Kaiserliche und Koenigliche Luftfahrtruppen (Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops) had 147 operational aircraft by the end of 1914. Luftfahrtruppen strength peaked at only 550 aircraft during the war, despite having four fronts to cover.

The wartime losses of Austria’s air force amounted to 20 percent of its naval fliers killed in action or by accident, and 38 percent of its army aviators.

The armed forces semipostal stamps were in fact not the first to be issued. In 1914, with the outbreak of the war, Austria had issued its first-ever semipostal stamps on Oct. 4. 

The two stamps, which portrayed the Emperor Franz Josef, were sold for 2h over face value with the surtax also going to aid wartime widows and orphans. 

In addition to semipostal stamps, other means were used to raise money for the war widows and orphan fund. For example, an exhibition of war pictures (kriegsbilder) by painter Eduard Adrian Dussek was held in 1918 to benefit the Austrian Military Widows and Orphans Fund and the homes for soldiers blinded in the war. 

Also in 1918, a concert was held for the benefit of the widows and orphans of Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed in WWI. 

A poster announcing the concert lists the emperor and empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as patrons of the concert, which was organized with the support of the Ministry of War.

In the early years of WWI, the United States maintained a neutral position. This made it possible for Austro-Hungarian immigrants to openly support the armed forces of their homeland.

In March 1916, a charity bazaar to raise funds for the widows and orphans of Germany, soldiers of Austria-Hungary, and their allied soldiers was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

There was no doubt that a special fund for widows and orphans was needed. In June 1915, in the first Battle of Isonzo, Italian troops attacked Austrian defenses. Three additional battles were fought through the end of 1915, resulting in 165,000 total casualties for the Austrians.

By the end of the war, Austria-Hungary had an estimated 1,200,000 killed. Including the wounded, missing, and prisoners, Austria-Hungary had casualties of a staggering 90 percent of the forces mobilized.