Germany - Imperial and Prussia: Order Pour-le-Mérite, a very fine quality original wartime manufactured piece, non maker marked but also certainly by Godet of Berlin, silver-gilt and enamel, the rim of one arm silver marked ‘925’ and believed to date from circa 1916-1917.
The Maltese cross measures 52.1 x 54 mm, and is 2.8mm thick, and weighs 31.1 grams. The four open-beaked eagles have been carefully hand-etched with beautiful cross-hatching on their breasts. The decoration is suspended from a loop typical to Godet made pieces on the upper arm via a re-fitted silver double looped spange, and the cross dates from circa 1916. The ribbon has been added. Rare.
Condition: the heavy gilding is good, though now faded in places from wear and polishing on the highlights, some evidence of wear to the cross at various points as consistent with a cross worn by a recipient, the enamel has some flaking to the arms on the reverse also consistent to a worn piece, overall Very Fine.
The Pour le Mérite was founded in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia. It was named in French, which was the leading international language and the favoured language at Frederick's court. The French name was retained, despite the rising tide of nationalism and increasing hostility between French and Germans during the 19th century, and ironically many of its recipients were honoured for acts performed in wars against France. The insignia of the military award was a blue-enamelled Maltese cross with golden eagles between the arms (which is based on the symbol of the Johanniter Order) and the Prussian royal cypher and the words Pour le Mérite ("For Merit" in French) written in gold letters on the body of the cross. The ribbon was black with edge stripes of silver-white. The order consisted of only one class, both civil and military, until 1810.
In January 1810, during the Napoleonic wars, King Frederick William III decreed that the award could be presented only to serving military officers. In March 1813, the king added an additional distinction, a spray of gilt oak leaves attached above the cross. Award of the oak leaves originally indicated extraordinary achievement in battle, and was usually reserved for high-ranking officers.
The original regulations called for the capture or successful defence of a fortification, or victory in a battle. By World War 1, the oak leaves often indicated a second or higher award of the Pour le Mérite, though in most cases the recipients were still high-ranking officers (usually distinguished field commanders fitting the criteria above; the few lower ranking recipients of the oak leaves were mainly general staff officers responsible for planning a victorious battle or campaign). In early 1918, it was proposed to award the oak leaves to Germany's top flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, but he was deemed ineligible under a strict reading of the regulations. Instead, Prussia awarded von Richthofen a slightly less prestigious honour, the Order of the Red Eagle, 3rd Class with Crown and Swords. This was still a high honour, as the 3rd Class was normally awarded to colonels and lieutenant colonels, and von Richthofen's award was one of only two of the 3rd Class with Crown and Swords during World War I.
In 1866, a special military Grand Cross class of the award was established. This grade of the award was given to those who, through their actions, caused the retreat or destruction of an army. There were only five awards of the Grand Cross: to King Wilhelm I in 1866, to Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia (later Emperor Frederick III) and Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia in 1873, to Tsar Alexander II of Russia n 1878, and to Helmuth Graf von Moltke in 1879.
The Pour le Mérite gained international fame during World War I. Although it could be awarded to any military officer, its most famous recipients were the pilots of the German Army Air Service, whose exploits were celebrated in wartime propaganda. In aerial warfare, a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft. Aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were the first airmen to receive the award, on January 12, 1916. It was awarded to Germany's highest-scoring ace, Manfred von Richthofen, in January 1917, Although it has been reported that because of Immelmann's renown among his fellow pilots and the nation at large, the Pour le Mérite became known, due to its color and Immelmann's first name, as the "Blue Max," that has not been confirmed.
The number of aerial victories necessary to receive the award continued to increase during the war; by early 1917, it generally required destroying 16 enemy airplanes, and by war's end the approximate figure was 30. However, other aviation recipients included zeppelin commanders, bomber and observation aircrews, and at least one balloon observer.
Recipients of the "Blue Max" were required to wear the award whenever in uniform. Although many of its famous recipients were junior officers, especially pilots, more than a third of all awards in World War I went to generals and admirals. Senior officer awards tended to be more for outstanding leadership in combat than for individual acts of bravery.
Junior officers (army captains and lieutenants and their navy equivalents) accounted for only about a fourth of all awards. Several famous lieutenant-ranked U-boat commanders, including Lothar von Arnold de la Periere in U-35, Walther Schwieger in U-20, Otto Hersing in U-21 and Otto Weddigen, received the Pour le Mérite. The last new member admitted to the military class of the order was flying ace Theo Osterkamp, on 2 September 1918.
The military class of the Pour le Mérite became extinct as a result of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication as king of Prussia and German Emperor on 9 November 1918. This marked the end of the Prussian monarchy and it was never awarded thereafter; however the honour continued to be recognized for, and worn by, previous recipients.