Pour le Mérite, Cross (Civil Division, 1842)
Image courtesy of "Histoire, Costumes, Decorations de tous Les Ordres De Chevalerie et Marques D’Honneur” by Par Auguste Wahlen
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The Pour le Mérite was established by King Friedrich II of Prussia in 1740 and it was conferred as both a military and civil honour. King Freidrich wanted a genuine, universally recognized Order of Merit to secure a sense of state and an expansive political program.
The Order was unofficially introduced, without documentation. Ernst Philippe Collivaux was commissioned to produce the early crosses which were based on the Order of Générosité. However a royal crown was atop the 12’clock arm. The king’s adjutant general Colonel Hans Christof Friecrich von Hacke was the first recipient of the award, in June 1740. The awards of the Pour le Mérite were announced for the first time during the Holland Campaign in the Berlin newspaper in 1787.
The Order was named in French, as during the time, French was the leading international language and the fashionable language at Friedrich’s court.
Following the formation of the federally organized German Empire, Prussian Honours essentially assumed the status of Imperial awards, despite the fact that honours of numerous other German states continued to be issued.
During the reign of Fredrich II (1740-1786), the PLM was awarded sparingly, mostly during the periods of war. The First Silesian War (1740-1742) witnessed approximately 150 awards; the Second Silesian War (1744-1745) totalled roughly 70 awards; the Seven Years War (1759-1763) saw approximately 320 awards; and finally, the War of Bavarian Succession (1778-1779), saw approximately 80 awards. Another 97 PLMs do not show records, and two officers mistakenly received the award twice. Records during this time were not very precise. In 1794, there were 694 living knights.
Friedrich Wilhelm II (1786-1797) awarded the Pour le Mérite liberally, even for insignificant events. Between 1792-1795, the Rhine campaign and Poland interactions resulted in the PLM being awarded 788 times, including five double awards. He was the only king that delegated awarding rights to General Field Marshal von Möllendorf, who was in command of Rhine. He awarded 26 PLMs to individuals in the field.
During the War of 1806-1807, King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1797-1840) awarded 590 PLMs, of which 243 went to Russians, and one with diamonds was awarded to Colonel Gorgoly.
In January 1810, King Friedrich Wilhelm III declared that the award could only be conferred upon actively serving military officers. Prior to this date, it was awarded for both military and political/civil ventures.
In the campaign of Napoleon’s Great Army of 1812 (of which Prussia provided a contingent), 144 awards of the PLM were made. During the Napoleonic Wars, recipients were made to purchase their own decorations, resulting in varying degrees of quality of manufacture.
In March 1813, surmounting oak leaves were added as an additional distinction, which indicated extraordinary merit in battle. This honour was usually reserved for high-ranking officials. The ribbon for the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves has an additional silver stripe down the middle (three stripes in total).
In the Wars of Liberation, 1,663 were awarded, of which 1,586 were awarded and 1,470 of those were to Russians. A total of 77 Prussian officers received the PLM, 76 of which with oak leaves. There were 60 double and two triple awards made in 1814.
By the First World War, the oak leaves came to indicate that an individual had received a second or higher Pour le Mérite award. However, the recipients were still usually high-ranking officers.
By 1817, it was no longer permitted to wear both decorations (with and without swords) at the same time.
In 1832, it was decided that the Gold letters in the inscription would no longer be gold, but instead inlaid in metal. However, the first font changes from italics to Antiqua can be seen around 1777/1778 by goldsmith Daniel Baudesson.
Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1840-1861) only awarded the PLM 105 times, and he also added the swords to the Order of the Red Eagle, therefore preserving the rarity and reputation of the Pour le Mérite. In 1842, he established a separate civil class, the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Art. The Award included three sections: natural science, humanities and fine arts. A different Order entry in MedalBook is dedicated to the civil decoration.
In 1844, a surmounting crown could be added to the crosses of Order recipients that had been members for a minimum of 50 years. Around the mid 19th century, the light blue colour was changed to a darker blue.
During the events of 1848-1849, only 28 PLMs were awarded while 430 Red Eagles were awarded. The king also broke an old house rule and awarded four princes of the house: Prince Wilhelm, Prince Waldemar, Prince Friedrich Karl and Prince Wilhelm (later German Emperor Wilhelm I).
King Wilhelm I (1861-1888) awarded 44 in the 1864 campaign against Denmark, 121 in the Prussian-Austrian Conflict, and 96 in the 1870-1871, including 51 with oak leaves. The only posthumous award of the Pour le Mérite took place during his reign, when in June 1864, it was awarded to Major von Beeren of the 4th Guard Grenadier regiment.
In 1866, King Wilhelm I of Prussia (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig) added the Grand Cross with Grand Cross Breast Star as an Order grade. The Grand Cross was only awarded to five recipients, King William I of Prussia, Crown Prince Frederick William and Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. In 1873, oak leaves to the Grand Cross were implemented.
In 1878, it was decreed that foreign recipients of the Orders were not eligible for surmounting oak leaves.
Under Wilhelm II (1888-1918), the first cooperative award took place to the crew of a gunboat during the Boxer Uprising in 1901-1902. The “Iltis” had an important role in the Battle of Taku Forts. A facsimile of the award was added into the ship’s flagstaff and the emblem on the bow.
The Award gained international fame during the First World War, with its most famous recipients being the pilots of the German Army Air Service. A total of 685 PLMs were awarded, 423 in the western front and 68 in the eastern theatre of war. This is a relatively small number in comparison with the nearly 46,000 active officers and 226,000 reserve soldiers as possible recipients. A stipulation was made in 1916, that the Knight’s Cross with swords of the House Order of Hohenzollern had to be awarded prior to the PLM, in order to keep the PLM numbers low and the prestige intact.
In early 1917, a pilot needed to have destroyed 17 enemy air crafts, and by the end of the war that number rose to 30. The first two recipients were aces Max Immelmann and Oswalk Boelcke, who received the award on January 12, 1916. Immelmann, a renowned pilot, brought great awareness to the award and it often became referred to as the “Blue Max” thereafter.
One of the most famous recipients of the award was flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron. Over one third of the awardees during the War were generals and admirals. Recipients were required to wear the award whenever in full uniform.
In 1918, following the end of the First World War, the state sponsorship of the Order ended. The military class of the order was abolished; however, the civil class remained, with members re-establishing the order as a separate organization, with new rules and a new nomination procedure. During the Weimar Republic, a total of 40 new recipients were appointed to the order, one of them being Albert Einstein in 1923. The last one was conferred in 1933, and soon after the Third Reich repressed the order and expelled its Jewish members as “enemies of the state”.
After 1952, a civil class was reestablished and individuals are still admitted into membership. German author Ernst Jünger was the last living recipient of the military class award, prior to his death in 1998.
The Order was awarded 5,750 times in its lifespan.
Common manufacturers of the Order Cross in gold include: Daniel Collivaux and Ernest Philipp Collivaux (1740-1757), Baudesson et fils, Berlin (1787-1817), Wagner & Sohns, Friedländer, and Godet.
Early crosses are often crude in their construction, presenting thick light blue enamel with small white dots outlining the crown. The suspension loop was made of thin gold wire. In 1800, the center of the cross became larger, but the same general design was retained. The size of the cross increased to 51mm from tip to tip. In 1915, the suspension loop changed from an open wire suspension to a solid pie-shaped one. In November, 1916, silver gilt crosses were implemented. Crosses that were made during the First World War are often flatter.
Oak leaves were produced by the royal jeweller and took the form of three oakleaves grouped together in an oval. The first ones were created in Gold with a convex front and concave reverse, with a suspension piece to connect to both the PLM and the neck ribbon. Later, they were modified to be slightly larger and simplified. Silver gilt oakleaves were also introduced in 1916. On December 17, 1817, it was decreed that the ribbon would have an additional middle silver stripe.
The crown was originally crafted in gold by the royal jeweller, Houssauer. It measured 17mm x 14mm, was three dimensional with open spaces between the crown’s arches and had a strong wire loop. The reverse finish was identical to the obverse, and it was suspended from the ribbon.
During the First World War, Wagner made silver gilt decorations, which always shows the 938 content mark. Godet & Sohn made PLMs before and after 1918. Silver gilt pieces made before 1918 have the mark “J.G.u.S 938”.
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