As the preeminent German state, Prussia provided its awards to all subjects of the German Empire. Thus, the awards of Prussia came to be thought of as the standard "German" decorations of the First World War. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the Iron Cross.
- Order of
the Black Eagle, was the highest chivalric order in Prussia.
Founded in 1701 by Friedrich I, the Black Eagle Order was not
awarded for merit in the same sense as the Pour le Mérite,
but was a "Collar" order with very limited membership,
granted by the King of Prussia.
The Black Eagle figures into the Great War very little, since it was granted only to royalty and high heads of state, such as Kaiser Wilhelm, his sons, and Field Marshall von Hindenburg. We include it here for two reasons: (1) You may see it worn at the neck in formal pose photographs of the men named above, and wonder if it was a variant of the Pour le Mérite (it isn't), and (2) The strong similarity of the design with the more familiar Pour le Mérite (Prussia's highest gallantry award) can easily be seen.
- Iron Cross. Originally created in 1813 by King Fredrick III during Prussia's period of 'blood and iron' -- their struggle for survival against Napoleon. The award was to supersede all other bravery awards and only during times of war. The Iron Cross was re-issued during the Franco-Prussina war (1870-71). The 1914 Iron Cross was established in three classes: second class, first class (shown above), and Grand Cross. The Grand Cross was of the same design, but physically larger and worn at the neck. In 1916, the grand cross was augmented with a breast star, which was bestowed upon only one recipient - Field Marshall Von Hindenburg. The second class and Grand Cross are suspended from a black and white ribbon, while the first class is a pinback badge worn on the left side of the uniform. The second class cross was usually only worn in dress uniform - at all other times it was represented by its ribbon looped through the second buttonhole of the tunic. There were approximately 218,000 awards of the first class during WWI, and over 5,000,000 of the second class. There were only five recipients of the Grand Cross, including Hindenburg, and of course, the Kaiser himself.
- Pour le Mérite. The "Blue Max" is among the most famous decorations of all time. It was Prussia's highest military award, given not for individual acts of gallantry, but for repeated and continual gallantry in action. Although the Pour le Mérite has a civilian version (still awarded to this day), it is almost considered to be an entirely different decoration. The award could be made with a golden oak leaves device on the suspension ring - a distinction added for exceptional merit, usually to recipients of high rank. There was also a Grand Cross of the order, but it was not used during World War I. There were 1,687 awarded during the First World War, 122 with oak leaves. The Pour le Mérite was different than many bravery awards in that it could not be awarded posthumously. The recipient needed to be alive. Many German servicemen died while the paperwork for their Blue Max was being considered and as such were never 'credited' with the award even though they might have been had they lived. Also, unlike other awards, the Pour le Mérite was to be worn whenever the recipient was in uniform and not just on dress occasions. For that reason, many Blue Max crosses show signs of considerable wear and tear.
- Royal Hohenzollern
House Order, as its name implies, was not so much a Prussian
order as an order of the Prussian ruling family, the Hohenzollerns.
Nonetheless, this order earned an important place in the heirarchy
of Prussian military awards of the First World War. The knight's
cross of this order became a bridge to the considerable gap between
the Iron Cross, first class, and the Pour le Merite for recognizing
heroism., while the Crown Order and Red Eagle (logical choices)
remained fairly exclusive.
There was also a "member's cross" of the order which was available to non-commissioned officers, but was rarely awarded. When awarded for duty in a combat unit or for combat operations, the decoration had swords between the arms of the cross. There were over 8,000 awards made during World War I, the vast majority of them knight's crosses.
- Order of
the Red Eagle. In the 1700s, the Order of the Brandenburger
Red Eagle, passed in the Prussian Orders system, eventually settling
just below the Pour le Mérite in prestige. Prior to the
First World War, the Order of the Red Eagle (with Grand Cross,
& 4 classes ) was awarded to recognize valor in combat or
excellence in military leadership. It was, as with the Order of
the Crown and other Prussian orders, both a military and a civil
award, with the addition of crossed swords to indicate a military
The 1st Class badge differed from the lower classes in that it was a white enameled maltese cross with red and gold eagles between the arms. The lower classes' badge was the flat-ended St. George style cross, without eagles.
During World War I, award of the Red Eagle Order was limited somewhat in order to preserve its prestige. The 3rd and 4th classas were awarded only 116 times. (Click here to see a 4th Class cross, w/o swords and with the order's peacetime ribbon). Manfred von Richtofen, the famed "Red Baron," received the third class of the order with both crown and swords- an unusually high honor for a mere captain, even if he was a hero and a baron.
There was also a medal of the order, which could be awarded to enlisted men and non-commissioned officers.
- Order of the Crown. Instituted in 1861, the Order of the Crown was Prussia's lowest ranking order of chivalry, although it still held considerable status. As with most European orders of the time, it could only be awarded to commissioned officers (or civilians of approximately equivalent status), but there was a medal associated with the order which could be earned by non- commissioned officers and enlisted men. This order was not frequently awarded for combat actions during the war, although awards "with swords" were made in great numbers to military personnel, for general merit. Shown above is the 4th class badge, with gilt cross arms. The higher grades had white enamel arms.
- The Prussian Pilot's Badge. While the Pilot's Badge was more of skills insignia and not strictly an awardIt was not automatic that a new pilot would be issued his badge upon completion of flight training. During the war, a man was expected to have completed some actual combat flying before his Pilot's Badge would be awarded. Many pilots flew active combat missions without having been 'awarded' their Pilot's Badge.
- The Prussian Observers Badge, like the Pilot's Badge described above, the Observer's Badge was not strictly an achievement award. Observers training was longer and more rigorous than pilot training, so the Observer's Badge carried a status somewhat akin to an achievement award. It features an enameled Prussian "signal flag" in the center, surrounded by a red border, and fixed to abackground piece with a "starburst" design with a spray of laurels and oakleaves. The Prussian crown surmounts the design. German aviation obervers were almost always officers while during the early war years, pilot were frequently enlisted personnnel and ordered where to go and how to fly by the officer. The Kingdom of Bavaria had a coresponding badge for its own observers and is not shown here.
- German Army Wound Badge. During the summer of 1918, almost 4 years after the start of the war, the German Army authorized the design and distribution of an official badge that could be worn by those military personnel wounded during the war. The badge came in three grades "black" for 1 or 2 wounds, "silver" for 3-5, and in "gold" for those that permanently crippled or disfigured or having been wounded more than 5 or more times. The Army design features a "Stahlhelm" or steel helmet in the center, surrounded by a spray of oakleaves. The Navy authorized a similar design at the same time, but with a large fouled anchor in the center instead of a helmet.
- Merit Cross for War Aid (Das Verdienstkreuz
für Kriegshilfe). War metal cross with on the obverse medallion
the intertwined letters WR (Wilhelm Rex, Wilhelm King of Prussia).
The reverse medallion bears the text:
"FÜR / KRIEGS- / HILFSDIENST".
The cross was awarded to men and women, irrespective of rank or status, for special merit connected with patriotic war aid. It was instituted by King Wilhelm II of Prussia on 15 December 1916. The first recipient (after the King himself) was Field Marshall von Hindenburg.
Many of the medals pictured on this page are from the collection of Les Peters.