Pour le Mérite, Grand Cross (1866-1918)
Image courtesy of „Handbuch der Ritter- und Verdienstorden aller Kulturstaaten der Welt", Maximillian Gritzner
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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.
In 1794, there were 694 living knights.
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
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. 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.
In 1844, a surmounting crown could be added to the crosses of Order recipients that had been members for a minimum of 50 years.
In 1842, King Frederick William IV established a separate civil class, the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Art. The Award included three sections: natural science, humanities and fine arts.
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.
The Award gained international fame during the First World War, with its most famous recipients being the pilots of the German Army Air Service. 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.
One of the most famous recipients of the award was flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron.
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.
The Grand Cross was awarded five times, as mentioned above. It is much larger than the cross, at 60-67mm, and has a large central medallion featuring the left facing portait of Friedrich the Great.
The Grand Cross with oak leaves was awarded twice, to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, and Prince Friedrich Carl of Prussia. The cross and star were made by court goldsmith Johann Georg Hossauer, and manufactured by Sy & Wagner.
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