Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr was instituted on August 16, 1833 by the Decree of Friedrich Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia who ruled from November 16, 1797 until June 07, 1840. Institutional document (“Urkunde über die Stiftung eines Verdienst-Ehrenzeichens für Rettung aus Gefahr”) was of retrospective nature being dated February 01 as it was “that very day His Majesty the King have decided to enhance the status of the lifesaving decoration”. According to the institutional document, “silver medal is to be awarded for exceptionally heroic deeds and thus it represents the highest degree of personal recognition”. The medal was awarded to any person (not only Prussian subject, by the way) who through personal danger had saved another person.
It should be noted that portable Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr was regarded as the highest class of the lifesaving decoration, its lower class being non-portable Commemorative Medal for Saving from Danger (Erinnerungsmedaille für Rettung aus Gefahr) instituted on September 23, 1833.
Obverse with raised border showed bust of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III facing left and circumscribed “Friedrich Wilhelm III King of Prussia” (“Friedrich Wilhelm III Koenig von Preussen”) in capital letters. Small five-point star was minted at the top of the legend as a separation symbol.
Reverse with raised border had inscription “For Saving from Danger” (“Für Rettung aus Gefahr”) in capital letters running in four horizontal lines encircled with wide oak leaves wreath.
Circular medals measuring 25 mm in diameter and weighing 8,44 g were manufactured of silver and were worn suspended from 28-19 mm wide silk orange (later yellow) ribbon with two white vertical stripes toward each edge. Female awardees wore Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr on traditional women bow.
Approximately 1,900 medals were struck at the Berlin-based company of Gottfried Bernhard Loos, most of which have been remelted after 1865 as unissued. The very first decoration took place on March 25, 1833: medal was presented to the farmer Stickler from the village of Strisewitz (now Strzyżewice in eastern Poland). Here’s the list of the first ten holders of the portable lifesaving decoration: aforementioned farmer Stickler (March 25); Sekondelieutenant Carls, accountant of the 1st Jäger Abtheilung (April 06); knife maker apprentice Eckardt from the town of Halle (April 25); Grenadier Lemcke of Erste Garderegiment zu Fuß (September 23); Grenadier Bendler of Erste Garderegiment zu Fuß (September 23); Wachtmeister Bartsch of the 11.Husaren-Regiment (September 24); Gefreiter Kühn of the 6.Infanterie-Regiment (September 24); Unteroffizier Neumann of the 19.Landwehr-Regiment (September 24); frontier observer Bergner from the village of Morsleben (September 24); Ulan Kunich of the 6.Ulanen-Regiment (October 09).
The following list gives the statistical data of decoration with the Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr during the first thirty years of its existence, since its institution and up to 1863: 1833 – 28 subjects, 1834 – 57, 1835 – 38, 1836 – 53, 1837 – 55, 1838 – 47, 1839 – 68, 1840 – 37, 1841 – 51, 1842 – 54, 1843 – 41, 1844 – 41, 1845 – 62, 1846 – 60, 1847 – 52, 1848 – 57, 1849 – 69, 1850 – 81, 1851 – 61, 1852 – 65, 1853 – 43, 1854 – no medals were awarded, 1855 – 54, 1856 – 60, 1857 – 87, 1858 – 55, 1859 – 72, 1860 – 74, 1861 – 73, 1862 – 62.
As a rule, medals were awarded to subjects who have attained the age of 18 years. Matters of decoration of those under that age were considered by the King of Prussia personally. Thus, the monarch bestowed Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr on the 16 years-old dressmaker Johanna Habild who rescued a drowning man.
One of the most prominent holders of the Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr was the Iron Chancellor to be, and, at that point in history, humble Sekondelieutenant of the 9.Landwehr-Regiment Otto Leopold von Bismarck. He was decorated with the Honorary Medal of Merit for Saving from Danger on December 13, 1842 for saving Landwehr trooper Hildebrandt from drowning at risk to his own life on June 24, 1842.
Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr had to be returned to the Prussian authorities after demise of its holder.
Apart from officially minted medals, privately manufactured pieces made of silver or silvered bronze were available for purchase by awardees. At least six varieties are known to exist, differing in minor details. Those pieces measured 24,3-25,8 mm in diameter and weighed 7,41-9,05 g.
Design of the M1865 medal was nearly identical to that of the 1833 model except for two features of obverse: the word “King” was minted in new orthography, i.e. “König” instead of “Koenig”, and five-point star gave way to а stylized cross made of five dots.
Circular medals measuring 25,85 mm in diameter and weighing 8,31 g were manufactured of silver by the Berlin-based Loos company. Apart from that, several other manufacturers minted Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr that were privately purchased by awardees as copies.
Approximately 750 decorations were minted in 1865-1875, most of which have been remelted. Medal was to be returned to the Kingdom authorities after demise of its holder.
Design of the M1875 medal was nearly identical to that of the previous model except for the one feature of obverse: it had stylized pentapetalous flower made of six dots (including one in the centre) as a separation symbol minted at the very top.
Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr was manufactured by the Berlin-based company of Gottfried Bernhard Loos until 1881, when Karl Hermann Bitter (27.02.1813-12.09.1885), Prussian Finance Minister, issued a decree granting Royal Mint with an exclusive right to mint that decoration. According to the instruction of the Prussian State Ministry dated November 07, 1881, production of lifesaving medals, both portable (Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr) and non-portable (Erinnerungsmedaille für Rettung aus Gefahr) ones had been transferred to the Royal Mint.
Approximately 4,800 pieces were minted in 1875-1907. Circular medals measuring 25 mm in diameter and weighing 7,97 g were manufactured of silver.
Come 1902, name of the decoration has been changed to the “Lifesaving Medal on Band” (“Rettungsmedaille am Bande”).
Statute stipulated that medal was to be returned to the Kingdom authorities after demise of its holder. However, since 1906 relatives were allowed to keep the award as a token of remembrance upon compensation of production costs.
Obverse of the M1907 medal was nearly identical to that of the 1875 model except for the one feature: it was minted using new die stamp of its reverse elaborated by the medallist Otto Schultz (16.12.1848-13.08.1911).
Circular medals measuring 25 mm in diameter and weighing 8,52 g were manufactured of silver. Approximately 2,800 decorations were minted in 1907-1918, 760 of which have been remelted as non-issued pieces.
In 1918-1919 some holders of the medal who had disappointed in monarchy preferred to wear their decoration with reverse facing outside. Certain awardees who purchased copies of medals from private manufacturers ordered those medals to have non-regulation gilt surface.
Come 1919, requirement of return of medals by relatives of deceased awardees was withdrawn.
Total number of portable Prussian lifesaving medals awarded since 1833 until 1919, both Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr and Rettungsmedaille am Bande, is said to be 9,055 pieces.
Additionally it is noteworthy that those who either carried out exceptionally complicated lifesaving operations or performed several feats, could have been awarded with Order of the Red Eagle (Roter Adlerorden), Order of the Crown (Königliche Kronen-Orden) or General Honor Decoration (Allgemeines Ehrenzeichen), 1st or 2nd classes suspended from the ribbon of the Lifesaving medal (Verdienst-Ehrenzeichen für Rettung aus Gefahr / Rettungsmedaille am Bande).
No original examples are known to be hallmarked, the only hallmarks known are for privately purchased copies or a hallmark on the ring if it has been replaced.