Eisernes Kreuz

Iron Cross

Iron Cross, by far the most famous and striking Prussian military decoration, was instituted on March 10, 1813 by the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm III (03.08.1770-07.06.1840) as an award for bravery in the field during the Wars of Liberation (Befreiungskriege, or Freiheitskriege), nationwide armed struggle of Germans against the French occupation. Decoration with traditional Prussian orders, Pour le Mérite and Rother Adler-Orden, was temporarily suspended for the course of military campaign.

The very first design of the Iron Cross was elaborated as far back as five years before its official institution. Two famous Prussian reformist generals, Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (12.11.1755 – 28.06.1813) and August Wilhelm Antonius Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau (27.10.1760 – 23.08.1831) contributed much to the work, but the draft was declined twice by the King, being submitted for his consideration in 1808 and 1811. The final design of the Iron Cross based on the concept suggested by Friedrich Wilhelm III himself, was developed by the Prussian neoclassical architect and artist Karl Friedrich Schinkel (13.03.1781 – 09.10.1841).

EK illustration 1Institution of the Iron Cross was timed to coincide with the birthday of the then late Queen consort of Prussia Louise (Luise Auguste Wilhelmine Amalie Herzogin zu Mecklenburg, 10.03.1776 – 19.07.1810), a celebrated public personality in her own right and an ardent inspirer of the Wars of Liberation.

Initially Eisernes Kreuz had a quite simple shape of an equilateral black enameled Teutonic cross pattée made of iron. However, shortly after its introduction it turned out that the new award merged into dark blue background of Prussian tunics and therefore was nearly unnoticeable. Amendment was done by adding continuous silver trim around the edge.

Austere design of the new decoration was emphasized by the absence of traditional features of Prussian awards, such as eagle, crown or swords. Shape and range of colours of the Iron Cross would be never changed during further reinstitutions.

Eisernes Kreuz became the first European military decoration issued for bravery in the field regardless of military rank or social estate of the hero. Thus the egalitarian nature of the Iron Cross was accentuated and it emerged as a symbol of unity of the whole Prussia during struggle for its independence and sovereignty.

Institutional decree particularly stipulated that “The mighty national spirit that reached unprecedented achievements in times of current great distress that had set the very future of our Fatherland at stake deserves condign attention and immortalization in full measure. This steadfast spirit that prevented people from resigning themselves faint-heartedly and made them overcome insurmountable evil of the iron times of oppression by selfless labour, and exceptional courage that is filling every heart nowadays are guided merely by belief in God and heartfelt loyalty to the King and the Fatherland. Therefore we decided to reward merits that would be rendered during the incipient war, either on battlefield or at the home front, but related to the great struggle for freedom and independence of our Fatherland, and to grant this great honor throughout the current campaign”. 

Decoration with the Iron Cross started from the lowest class to the highest, with an exception of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross that was reserved for senior generals of the Prussian Army who held decisive victories.

Eisernes Kreuz was a combat decoration for a specific military campaigned and therefore was reinstituted every time Kingdom of Prussia or later German Empire fought a war. That clause was specifically stressed by changing dates situated at the lower arm of the cross on its obverse. Incidentally the date of its institution, “1813” was kept unchanged on reverse of the Iron Cross 2nd class. Iron Cross was awarded during time of war only and decorations stopped during peacetime. It’s worth mentioning here that Eisernes Kreuz wasn’t awarded during both Schleswig Wars (24.03.1848-02.07.1850 and 01.02-30.10.1864) and the Austro-Prussian War (17.06-26.07.1866) that were regarded by Prussia as civil wars. Thus, four models of the Iron Cross existed, viz. 1813, 1870, 1914 and 1939 as well as “denazified” model issued in 1957.

 

Iron Cross, Model 1813

EK 1813

1813 Iron Cross was instituted was instituted on March 10, 1813 by the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm III in three classes: Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (Großkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes), Iron Cross 1st class (Eisernes Kreuz 1.Klasse) and Iron Cross 2nd class (Eisernes Kreuz 2.Klasse). Initial concept of introducing the fourth class of the Iron Cross in the shape of a circular silver-framed iron medal was declined.

Approximate number of decorations with the Iron Cross of different classes is as follows: 16,000 2nd class crosses on combatant ribbon, including 6,000 “inherited” pieces (see below); 375 2nd class crosses on non-combatant ribbon; 650 1st class crosses; seven Grand Crosses of the Iron Cross. There’s also an indication that approximately 16,938 Iron Crosses 2nd class were awarded for the Wars of Liberation.

1813 Iron Cross 2nd class

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An obverse was blank and void of any design or lettering, other than the silver frame. Initials of Friedrich Wilhelm III (“FW”) topped with the royal crown were situated on the upper arm of the cross on its reverse, the date “1813” was placed on the lower arm, and three oak leaves were situated in the centre. Since holders of the decoration preferred to wear it reverse outside (that was by far more elegant), an official approval was issued on April 19, 1838 authorizing such manner of wearing.

Iron Cross 2nd class was worn on the left side of the tunic suspended from a 40 mm wide silk ribbon of Prussian colours. It had two versions that differed in type of ribbon, for combatants (am Kämpferband) and for non-combatants (am Nichtkämpferband). The former wore it on black ribbon with two white stripes at its edges, while the latter had the colors reversed.

Iron Cross 2nd class measured 39-42 mm. Privately purchased duplicates for wearing on mounted parade bars were slightly smaller and measured 33-34 mm.

Major (later Generalleutnant) Karl August Ferdinand von Borcke (18.02.1776-15.12.1830) who served with the Pomeranian Infantry Regiment Nr.1 became the first recipient of the Iron Cross 2nd class for combatants for his deployment in the battle at Lüneburg (April 21, 1813). It is said that the Military governor of Berlin General von Elseg was the first holder of the Iron Cross 2nd class for non-combatants.

By July 1815 17,000-17,300 pieces of Iron Cross 2nd class were issued. List of recipients comprised of nine generals, 44 staff officers, 371 subaltern officers, 1,168 NCOs, 440 corporals (Gefreite) and more than 10,000 other ranks. The King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm III himself was made a holder of the Iron Cross 2nd class as well.

Interesting to know that one Cross was even presented to a woman, Sophie Dorothea Friederike Krüger (08.10.1789-31.05.1848), who served with the 4th company, 1st battalion of the Kolberger-Regiment under the name of Auguste Krüger. Having been promoted to NCO she was also awarded with the Cross of Saint George for her bravery during the Battle of Dennewitz on September 06, 1813.

Cost savings policy adopted by Friedrich Wilhelm III affected Prussian award system as well and led to a Royal Decree of March 12, 1814 that discontinued decoration with the Iron Cross, 2nd class and introduced the principle of succession of award. According to new regulations, distinguished soldiers nominated for decoration during the Wars of Liberation were able to receive an award only after the demise of one of its current holders and return of a cross to the General Order Committee (General-Ordens-Kommission) by the latter’s relatives. Moreover, Iron Cross should have be kept within particular unit and be passed on from one officer to another and from one soldier to another. Those regulations resulted in introduction of special queue lists in Prussian Army regiments. It’s worth mentioning here that such uneasiness was felt by lower ranks mostly as officers had an opportunity to purchase decorations at their own expenses. However, justice was restored in 1837 when Friedrich Wilhelm III ordered to distribute crosses to survived veterans in conjunction with the 25th jubilee of the Wars of Liberation.

On August 03, 1841 the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm IV (15.10.1795-02.01.1861) approved a special yearly payment worth Thalers 50 to 36 selected officers and NCOs, holders of the Iron Cross 2nd class.

1813 Iron Cross 1st class

Initially Iron Cross 1st class had a cloth version only in shape of two stitched stripes of silk ribbon (black with white stripes) and was sewn on the left side of a tunic. Deemed extremely impractical, it was replaced with a silver-framed iron cross on June 16, 1813 following a Royal Decree of Friedrich Wilhelm III. Eisernes Kreuz 1.Klasse was worn on the left side of a tunic slightly below the heart and below medals. Most sources indicate that the Iron Cross 2nd class was required to be awarded prior to the first class, as described in the Royal Decree, but there is some evidence that this was not strictly followed. 

An obverse was blank and void of any design or lettering, other than the silver frame. Early type awards had one (and later two) loops welded onto each arm of the cross on its reverse for sewing onto the uniform. Many recipients had converted their awards to pin-backs by the mid-1800s. Late pieces were manufactured with pin and catching hook.

1813 Iron Crosses 1st class measured 41-42 mm and weighed 16,5 g. The silver content varied slightly within the 800-900 range.

Major (later Generalleutnant) Karl Ludwig Friedrich von Hellwig (18.01.1775-26.06.1845) became the first recipient of the Iron Cross 1st class in April 1813 for combat merits during the battle of Wanfried.

On August 03, 1841 the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm IV (15.10.1795-02.01.1861) approved a special yearly payment to some of the officers and NCOs, holders of the Iron Cross 1st class.

1813 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Design of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross was similar to that of the Iron Cross 2nd class but it was bigger in size, measured 63 mm and was worn as a neck award on wide ribbon. It was reserved for senior generals of the Prussian Army only. The following personalities were made recipients of the Grand Cross: commander of the Army of Silesia General der Kavallerie Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt (31.08.1813); commander of the III Army Corps General der Infanterie Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow, Graf von Dennewitz (15.09.1813); commander of the Northern Army Crown-Prince of Sweden Karl Johan, a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, later Karl XIV Johan of Sweden (autumn 1813); commander of the IV Army Corps  General der Infanterie Bogislav Friedrich Emanuel Graf Tauentzien von Wittenberg (26.01.1814); commander of the I Army Corps General der Infanterie Johann David Ludwig Graf Yorck von Wartenburg (31.03.1814).

It is said that Friedrich Wilhelm III signed an award document for the Grand Cross to the Russian General of Infantry Alexander Ivanovich Count Osterman-Tolstoy (1770 or 1772-11.02.1857) for his heroic deeds during the Battle of Kulm (August 29-30, 1813). However, no entry of his name in the official list of the Grand Cross holders was found later.

1813 Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Stern zum Großkreuz, being the highest class of the Iron Cross wasn’t intended to be awarded for bravery, but it was bestowed upon the most successful General at the end of the war. It was instituted on July 26, 1815 and had a shape of a 84 mm multi-rayed eight-pointed gold star with a superimposed Iron Cross badge, worn on the left side of a tunic. Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt (16.12.1742-12.09.1819) was the only recipient of Stern zum Großkreuz, so it was nicknamed “Blücher Star” (Blücherstern).

 

Iron Cross, Model 1870

EK 1870

Iron Cross was reinstituted on July 19, 1870 by the King of Prussia Wilhelm I (22.03.1797-09.03.1888) on the first day the Franco-Prussian War broke out. It was reintroduced in three classes: Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (Großkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes), Iron Cross 1st class (Eisernes Kreuz 1.Klasse) and Iron Cross 2nd class (Eisernes Kreuz 2.Klasse). It’s worth mentioning here that the date of reinstitution of the Iron Cross concurred with the 60th anniversary of demise of the Queen consort of Prussia Louise (10.03.1776-19.07.1810), whose birthday coincided with the original institution of a decoration in 1813.

However, decoration with Iron Crosses started only two years after the Franco-Prussian War ended, and all the award documents bore the date January 19, 1873. Even though Iron Cross wasn’t supposed to be bestowed on foreigners, it was widely issued to subjects of various German states.

Approximate number of decorations with the Iron Cross of different classes is as follows: 43,000 2nd class crosses on combatant ribbon; 3,000 2nd class crosses on non-combatant ribbon; 1,300 1st class crosses; nine Grand Crosses of the Iron Cross.

Iron Cross, Model 1870 were produced in the German Empire until 1918, the last decoration being made between June 30, 1917 and July 16, 1918. Post-WWI production continued in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. Due to such a wide timeframe 1870 Iron Crosses differed in size and design.

1870 Iron Cross 2nd class

An obverse of the 1870 Iron Cross 2nd class had a Prussian royal crown situated on the upper arm of the cross, cipher of the King Wilhelm I (“W”) in its centre and the date of reinstitution of the order (“1870”) on the lower arm. A reverse of the 1870 model was similar to that of the 1813 model, i.e. it had initials of Friedrich Wilhelm III (“FW”) topped with the royal crown on the upper arm of the cross, the date “1813” on the lower arm, and three oak leaves in the centre.

Iron Cross 2nd class had two versions that differed in type of ribbon: for bravery in the field (am Kämpferband) and for non-combatants (am Nichtkämpferband). The former wore it on black ribbon with two white stripes at its edges, while the latter (military doctors, engineers, logistics personnel, etc.) had the colors reversed.

Iron Cross 2nd class was worn either mounted on the bar or as a ribbon placed through the second buttonhole below the collar of the tunic. As a rule only the ribbon was worn in the field.

1870 Iron Cross 1st class

Iron Cross 1st class was worn attached by a wide pin on the lower left side of the tunic. Some privately purchased pieces had two loops welded onto each arm of the cross on its reverse for sewing onto the uniform. Most commonly duplicate crosses of the first class had a salient shape.

Iron Crosses 1st and 2nd class measured 41-43 mm. Smaller sized privately purchased versions, so-called Prinzengroße crosses became widely popular at the end of the XIX century. Those black enameled silver pieces for casual wearing measured three quarters of an original cross. Frock coat miniatures up to 1/10 of the original size were manufactured as well.

1870 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Design of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross was similar to that of the Iron Cross 2nd class but it was bigger in size, measured 60 mm approximately and was worn as a neck award on wide ribbon. It was reserved for senior generals of the Prussian Army only. The following personalities were made recipients of the Grand Cross: chief of staff of the Prussian Army Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke (22.03.1871); Commander of the I Army General der Infanterie August Karl Friedrich Christian von Goeben (22.03.1871); Commander of the II Army Generalfeldmarschall Prinz Friedrich Karl Nikolaus von Preußen (22.03.1871); Commander of the IV Army Generalfeldmarschall Crown Prince Albert Friedrich August Anton von Sachsen, later King of Saxony (22.03.1871); commander of XIV Army Corps General der Infanterie Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Leopold August Graf von Werder (22.03.1871); commander of the Army of the South Generalfeldmarschall Edwin Karl Rochus Freiherr von Manteuffel (22.03.1871); commander of the III Army Generalfeldmarschall Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl von Preußen, later Emperor Friedrich III (22.03.1871); German Emperor Wilhelm and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm I as a Supreme Commander in Chief who conferred an award on himself at the request of his generals upon return of German troops to Berlin (16.06.1871); commander of XIII Army Corps Generalobesrt Friedrich Franz II, Großherzog von Mecklenburg-Schwerin (04.12.1871).

Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross for the Franco-Prussian War was never awarded.

Silver Oak Leaves Clasp (Bandspange “Silberne Eichenblätter “25”)

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Commemorative clasp to the 1870 Iron Cross 2nd class was instituted by the King of Prussia Wilhelm II on August 18, 1895 in conjunction with the 25th jubilee of the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Initially the clasp had to be worn by all the holders of Iron Cross who participated in the Silver Jubilee and Grand Parade held in the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin on August 26, 1895. Later on clasp was available for private purchase by all surviving holders of the 1870 Iron Cross 2nd class.

The clasp had a shape of three vertical oak leaves with the number “25” superimposed on the middle one. The badge measured 26x18 mm approximately and was made of German silver or silver. It was attached either to a ribbon close to the suspension ring by prongs or to the suspension ring. Regulations stipulated that clasp should have been worn as close as possible to the Iron Cross. A variant of Silver Oak Leaves Clasp for wearing in the tunic buttonhole was manufactured as well.

 

Iron Cross, Model 1914

EK 1914

Iron Cross was reinstituted for the second time on August 05, 1914 by the King of Prussia Wilhelm II with the outbreak of the Great War. Once again it came in three classes: Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (Großkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes), Iron Cross 1st class (Eisernes Kreuz 1.Klasse) and Iron Cross 2nd class (Eisernes Kreuz 2.Klasse). Approximate number of decorations with the Iron Cross of different classes is as follows: 5,200,000 2nd class crosses on combatant ribbon; 13,000 2nd class crosses on non-combatant ribbon; 218,000 1st class crosses; five Grand Crosses of the Iron Cross.

Those who were qualified for the decoration but never received it for various reasons, had an opportunity to get their award even after the Great War ended. Thus, post-WWI Iron Crosses, Model 1914 were manufactured in the Weimar Republic until March 07, 1925 and the Third Reich until the end of the WWII. Production in limited quantities was renewed in the West Germany after 1957.

1914 Iron Cross 2nd class

EK illustration 2An obverse of the 1914 Iron Cross 2nd class had a Prussian royal crown situated on the upper arm of the cross, cipher of the King Wilhelm II (“W”) in its centre and the date of reinstitution of the order (“1914”) on the lower arm. A reverse of the 1914 model was similar to that of the 1813 model, i.e. it had initials of Friedrich Wilhelm III (“FW”) topped with the royal crown on the upper arm of the cross, the date “1813” on the lower arm, and three oak leaves in the centre.

Iron Cross 2nd class had two versions that differed in type of ribbon: for bravery in the field (am Kämpferband) and for non-combatants (am Nichtkämpferband). The former wore it on black ribbon with two white stripes at its edges, while the latter (military doctors, engineers, logistics personnel, etc.) had the colors reversed.

As the Iron Cross 2nd class turned out to be a mass decoration during the Great War, its status, once high and much esteemed, was downgraded appreciably. 

Regulations of March 16, 1915 allowed Iron Cross to be issued not only to military personnel from the German states other than Prussia, but to allied troops as well, i.e. Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire and Kingdom of Bulgaria. Such decorations took place before, but on unofficial basis.

During an award ceremony the ribbon with cross attached would be placed through the second buttonhole below the collar of a tunic. The decoration was usually sent home to relatives, and only the ribbon was worn in the field. The ribbon was sometimes sewn to the tunic with concealed front buttons, on the button fly where the buttonhole would have been. Later on a bar made out of the ribbon was worn on the left side of a breast along with other wartime ribbon bars.

Austrian recipients of the Iron Cross 2nd class folded its ribbon into a triangular shape to match the standard Austrian award ribbon.

1914 Iron Cross 1st class

Iron Cross 1st class was attached by a pin or a crew to the left breast pocket. However, it was often seen being fashionably worn at a quite low level, just 5-10 cm above a belt. Issued crosses of a flat design were attached by a pin and catching hook. Since 1915 privately purchased crosses were produced, some flat like issued pieces, and others slightly vaulted. Those crosses often had a screw with a wing nut fastener on them, or other type of elaborate fitting. Decorations worn on cuirass had twin-screw attachment.

Generally Iron Crosses measured 41-43 mm, but they differed in size drastically: from Prinzengroße pattern that measured three quarters of an original cross to oversized Übergroße pieces.

Due to overwhelming quantity of decorations, 1914 Iron Crosses differed in size, methods of manufacture and metals used. Thus, as silver and iron became scarce, crosses were produced with silver plated trim and alloy centers. Some late war crosses were even produced as one piece iron or brass castings.

1914 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Design of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross was similar to that of the Iron Cross 2nd class but it was bigger in size, measured 60 mm approximately and was worn as a neck award on wide ribbon. It was reserved for senior generals of the Prussian Army only. The following personalities were made recipients of the Grand Cross: Chief of the General Staff  Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg (09.12.1916); Emperor and Supreme Commander in Chief Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm II (11.12.1916); Supreme Commander of the occupation troops in Romania Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen (09.01.1917); Supreme Commander of the German forces on the Eastern Front Generalfeldmarschall Prinz Leopold von Bayern (04.03.1918); Quartermaster General General der Infanterie Erich Ludendorff (24.03.1918).

1914 Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Stern zum Großkreuz, being the highest class of the Iron Cross wasn’t intended to be awarded for bravery, but it was bestowed upon the most successful General at the end of the war. It was instituted on March 03, 1918 and had a shape of a multi-rayed eight-pointed gold star with a superimposed Iron Cross badge, worn on the left side of a tunic. Generalfeldmarschall Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (02.10.1847-02.08.1934) was the only recipient of Stern zum Großkreuz for the successful offensive on the Western Front on March 21, 1918, so the decoration was nicknamed “Hindenburg Star” (Hindenburgstern).

Wiederholungsspange für 1870/71 mit Jahreszahl 1914

According to the Order of June 04, 1915 holders of the 1870 Iron Cross 2nd class who were qualified for decoration with the 1914 Iron Cross 2nd class, were issued with a special bar (Spange) instead of a cross.

The badge had a shape of a rectangular silver bar measuring 33-35x7,5 mm with a miniature of a 1914 Iron Cross (12,5х12,5 mm) as its integral part in the centre, slightly extending above and below the horizontal edges. The clasp was attached to a ribbon of a 1870 Iron Cross 2nd class by prongs, pin, or was of a slip-on type. It was worn above Silver Oak Leaves Clasp.

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