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The 1914 German Iron Cross

A highly romanticized view of the Kaiser bestowing a battlefield award.

Contributed by
Ralph Reiley (Reileys@worldnet.att.net)

The 1914 German Iron Cross

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In the history of military decorations, few are as simple or striking as the Prussian Eiserne Kreuz (Iron Cross). The award was created in 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 Prussia was defeated by Napoleon, and entered into unwilling subservience to the French. Following Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in December of 1812, the Prussian army, forcibly allied with the French, found an opportunity to change sides, and allied themselves with Russia against France. On March 20, 1813, a new medal was instituted to commemorate the start of the war against Napoleon.

The new medal was designed by noted architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. It was a simple blackened iron cross, with continuous silver trim around the edge. One face had a simple oak leaf sprig in the center, with 1813 on the lower arm, and the Royal Cipher "FW" and a crown in the upper arm, the other face was blank. Until 1838, the blank face was the official front side of the medal, when the practice of wearing the medal with the face bearing the oak leaves outward was approved.

Three grades of the medal were instituted, the Grosskreuz (Grand Cross) for senior commanders; and the 1 Klasse (1st Class), and 2 Klasse (2nd Class), for individual merit in combat. The size of the 1st and 2nd class awards was about 42mm, and examples range from 28-42mm. The 1st class medal had loops welded to the rear side, so it could be sewn to the tunic. The 2nd class medal was suspended by a ribbon ring attached to an eye welded to the top of the medal. The ribbon was black with two white edge stripes, the state colors of Prussia. A non-combatant version was also issued, it's ribbon was white with two black edge strips. The Grand Cross was a larger version of the award, about 62mm in size. It was worn at the neck and suspended by a wider version of the 2nd class ribbon. Little change would be made to these medals during the following 100 years.

The Iron Cross was intended to be awarded only in times of war. During times of war it was intended to replace other traditional awards as the Rote Adlerorden (Order of the Red Eagle) or the Pour le Mèrite (known as the Blue Max during W.W.1). In practice, all other medals were issued as well as the Iron Cross. One Star to the Grand Cross was awarded to Generalfeldmarschall Blücher, for his part in the victory at Waterloo. This medal, also called the Blücherstern (Blücher Star), was set in the center of a large silver starburst, and it was worn on the chest, over the heart. The Prussians, as well as other European states, had a long tradition of issuing awards in several grades, or class, depending on the military rank and social standing of the recipient.

After Waterloo, in 1815, the Iron Cross would not be awarded again until 1871, just after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. On July 19, 1870 the Iron Cross was instituted, but no medals were issued until after the end of the war. The 1870 Iron Cross was altered to commemorate the recent victory over France. The original medal face, with the 1813 date was retained, but it became the reverse side. The front of the 1870 medal had a crown in the upper arm, the Royal Cipher "W" in the center, and 1870 in the lower arm. The Grand Cross was awarded to nine individuals in 1870, including one for Kaiser Wilhelm I. The Star to the Grand Cross of 1870 was not issued.

In August of 1914, Germany was at war with France once again. On August 5, 1914, the Iron Cross was instituted. It's design was identical to the 1870 medal, with the date changed from 1870 to 1914. The Grand Cross of 1914 was awarded to Kaiser Wilhelm II, Generalfeldmarshall von Hidenburg, General Ludendorf, Generalfeldmarshall Prince Leopold of Bavaria, and Generalfeldmarshall von Mackensen. During the Spring Offensive of 1918, the Kaiser awarded von Hindenburg the only Star to the Grand Cross of 1914.

The Iron Cross of 1914, 2nd Class

The construction of the medal is a blackened iron center, with silver trim around the edge, about 42mm (1 5/8") in size. Early war examples are usually marked with the '800' or '900' silver hallmark on the ribbon suspension ring. Ribbon widths vary from 25 to 30mm. As the war progressed, and silver and iron became more scarce, silver plated trim around an alloy center was used. Late in the war, solid brass, one piece medals were cast. A precise count of the number of medals awarded is impossible to verify today, as the Prussian Army records were destroyed in the bombing of W.W.II. The best estimate is somewhere between 1.5 and 5 million.

During the award ceremony, the ribbon, with medal attached, would be placed through the 2nd button hole below the collar of the tunic. The medal was usually sent home, and only the ribbon was worn in the field. In 1915, the infantry tunic was simplified, concealing the front buttons. The ribbon was sometimes sewn to the tunic, on the button fly where the button hole would have been. Later on a bar was made out of the ribbon, and worn on the chest, over the heart along with various other wartime ribbon bars.. Austrian recipients of the medal often folded the ribbon into a triangular shape, to match the standard Austrian award ribbon.

Crown Prince Wilhelm at an Iron Cross award ceremony for the 1st Company, Bavarian Infantry Leib Regt. (Bavarian King's Guard Regt.), at Verdun, 7-Jul-1916; Note the Officer at the left with the box of medals in their envelopes.

Various Iron Cross Ribbon Bars

A. Late War ribbon bar with Iron Cross 2nd Class, and the Bavarian Verdienst Cross, 3rd Class.

B. Post War mini Lapel ribbon bar with Iron Cross 2nd Class, and 1914-1918 Cross with swords, all veterans received this medal, those who served on the front lines received the crossed swords. This medal is also called the Hindenburg Cross, due to its creation during von Hindenburg's tenure as President of the German Republic.

C. Post War mini Lapel ribbon bar with Iron Cross 2nd Class, and the Bavarian Verdienst Cross.

D. Smaller version of a Post War mini Lapel ribbon bar with Iron Cross 2nd Class, and 1914-1918 Cross with swords.

The Iron Cross of 1914, 1st Class

The construction of the medal is a blackened or lacquered iron center set in a silver frame. The reverse side is plain silver, with a silver pin on a vertical hinge. It is about 42mm (1 3/4") in size. The medal is worn on the left side, about 2" above the belt. From 1915 on, private purchase medals were produced, some were flat like the issue medal, and others were slightly vaulted, and had a screw post and washer/wing nut fastener on them, or other type of elaborate fitting. Officers normally had several uniforms, and if they could afford the expense, they would purchase official jeweler's copies of all their medals and awards, one set for each uniform they owned. The 2nd class medal was generally shipped in a simple envelope, while the 1st class medal, and other higher awards, came in a small case, often lined with silk or velvet. Officers often kept their issue medals in these cases, and only wore them on their dress uniforms or for special occasions, wearing the jeweler's copies at other times.

As silver and iron became scarce, medals were produced with silver plated trim and alloy centers. Some late war medals were produced as one piece castings. As the war progressed, the quality of both 1st and 2nd class medals declined. Generally one had to have previously been awarded the 2nd class medal, before the 1st class medal was awarded. There were a few cases where the 1st class medal was awarded first. The total number issued will never be known, estimates vary from 80,000 to 250,000. This medal was mainly issued to officers, although it was not uncommon for enlisted men to receive it.

Generaloberst von Einem and, the official method
of wearing the 2nd class and 1st class Iron Cross

Two methods for folding the ribbon by Austrian
soldiers who received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class

The Iron Cross, 2nd Class with Noncombatant ribbon

The Grand Cross of 1914 with ribbon

General von Kluck (with overcoat) and his staff,
all displaying various ways to display the 1st and 2nd Class Iron Cross

Closing Note

The Iron Cross is a very popular item for collectors. This has lead to the increase in the value of original medals, which has lead to reproductions being made available in this country. This is mainly a problem for the W.W.2 collector, where demand is high and good quality reproductions are often sold as originals. W.W.1 medals are not in the same demand, so the sale of good quality reproductions is not quite as profitable. In Germany high quality reproductions of Imperial medals and ribbons are still being made. They are sold as reproductions, and for far less than originals. The German market for medals is mainly to replace a father's, grandfather's, or other ancestors medals, since medals were very popular mementos to 'liberate' by soldiers of victorious armies. Iron is not used for the center of reproduction medals, so a simple test with a magnet will determine the genuine article from the dreck. This is not a absolute test, as late war medals also used alloy centers. Novice collectors are reminded that knowledge is power, and one should take the time to take a long hard look and learn before parting with hard earned cash to an unscrupulous dealer.

For Further Reading

  1. The Iron Cross, A History 1813-1957, Gordon Williamson, Published by Blandford Press, 1984
  2. Heraldry and Regalia of War, Edited by Bernard Fitzsimons, published by Purnell's History of the World Wars, 1973
  3. History of the German Army, 1648-Present, Keith Simpson, published by Bison Books, Ltd., 1987
  4. 1962 Reprint of Handbuch der Ritter-Und Verdienstorden, by Maximilian Gritzner, published by Akademische Druck - U. Verlagsanstalt, 1893

© 1997 Ralph Reiley - All rights reserved