Junior officer ensigns insignia

Two ranks corresponded to officer candidates, i.e. Fahnriche in the Imperial German army, that of Portepeefähnrich (later just Fähnrich) and Degenfähnrich. Moreover an article won’t be complete without mentioning junior grade of aspirants – Fahnenjunker.

1. Fahnenjunker

Every physically fit German lad aspiring to be an officer had two options to achieve his goal (or at least to have a try): either enter military school as a cadet or skip that initial stage and apply for the rank of Fahnenjunker between 17 and 23. In this case he had to present a certificate of secondary education and successfully pass ensign exams (Fähnrichsexamen). It asked for a general knowledge in many topics such as languages (including Latin), geography, mathematics, geometry, history, German literature as well as basic military related issues. That exam can be considered as a light version of the so called Abitur that was usually done after the 13th class and represented in Germany the general degree for admission to a university.

In the meantime it was a burden for his parents as they had to support their son financially throughout the whole process of his military service and related studies. Assuming candidate met all these requirements he was then enlisted as a Fahnenjunker bearing the lowest grade and wearing uniform of other ranks.

Until January 01, 1899 rank of Fahnenjunker was called in a French manner as some officers ranks were – “Avantageur” or “Aspirant”.

2. Portepeefähnrich

Fähnrich was actually the first ensign rank available for a candidate after completion of six months of military service and passing exams. Initially this rank was called “Portepeefähnrich” but military reform of 1899 eliminated all French loanwords thus “germanizing” military system of the Second Reich. That was the year when Sekondelieutenant became Leutnant and Premierlieutenant was changed to Oberleutnant. The word Fähnrich itself derives from an older German military title, Fahnenträger.

The new status allowed young man to wear ensign uniform and ranked him just above Sergeant. Since that everybody recognized him as a serious officer aspirant but in fact he had no command authority. Moreover Fähnrich wore uniform of Unteroffizier and was not authorized to fix distinctive NCO buttons to the collar of his tunic. Nevertheless Fähnriche were granted to carry officer’s sword knot on the bayonet and wear officers’ cockade on cap and spiked helmet.

During his military service ensign had to accomplish one year at the military school but this could be omitted if he had chosen military career after one year of studies in civil institutions like technical university, mining or forestry academy.

Having passed intermediate examination Fähnrich was promoted to the rank of Degenfähnrich thus moving from the category of “characterized ensigns” (charakterisierter Fähnrich) to that of “patented ensigns” (patentierter Fähnrich).

3. Degenfähnrich

Promotion to the rank of Degenfähnrich that translated roughly as “ensign with a sword” or “rapier ensign” was a clear sign of proximity towards cherished epaulettes.

Rank of Degenfähnrich was equated to that of Vize-Feldwebel but ensigns still wore uniform of Unteroffizier. Several elements of officers’ uniform and equipment were allowed though and ensigns wore Überrock, carried officers’ overcoats and haversacks as well as sabers with officer’s sword knot and pistols. Like Fähnriche, Degenfähnrich had officers’ cockade on cap and spiked helmet.

Upon completion of training within six months of military service the final examination took place. During time of peace it was up to the officers regimental assembly to decide whether particular Degenfähnrich deserved promotion to the rank of Leutnant. Those declared unfit were discharged carrying a rank of Fähnrich der Reserve. Lucky ones were granted right to wear officers’ uniform but still with NCO shoulder straps. Long cherished epaulettes and shoulder boards were issued as soon as a corresponding Royal decree had been signed.