Encyclopedia - The Pour le Merite Medal

The Pour le Merite medal Although it may sound incongruous Germany's highest military medal awarded during World War One was the decidedly French sounding Pour le Merite (also known the as 'The Blue Max').

The award dates back to 1667 when, in the German state of Brandenburg, the Ordre de la Generosite - the Order of Generosity - was created by Frederick William I.  Given that French was the language of the royal court the naming of the merit award would have appeared a natural choice.

The award's name was subsequently modified in June 1740 to Pour le Merite by Frederick the Great.  Frederick planned to issue the new award to subjects performing with particular merit in the coming conflict with Silesia.

Until January 1810 the award could (and was) awarded to civilians in additional to military personnel.  Frederick William III however decreed that henceforth the award could only be presented to serving military personnel, although a civil class for arts and science was initiated in 1842.

Following the death of his wife, Queen Louise, Frederick determined to create the 'Oakleaves' in her honour.  The Oakleaves (which was formally documented in 1813) was available for presentation to Pour le Merite holders in the event of additional extraordinary achievements.

The Pour le Merite, along with all other imperial orders, was similarly abolished along with Kaiser Wilhelm II's abdication on 9 November 1918.  Once again however a civil class of the award was re-introduced in February 1922.

Curiously, receipt of the Pour le Merite need not only be a once-only honour.  Some recipients were awarded the medal on two and even three separate occasions - although on the other hand the unfortunate Count Franz Florentin Valory received his award some 21 years after the events actually cited.

During the Great War of 1914-18 the award gained its greatest fame.  It was awarded to commanders operating on all fronts and in all forms of warfare.  In the aerial war a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft.  Max Immelmann was thus the first airman to receive the award, after which it became known - on account of its colour and its recipient - as the Blue Max among his fellow pilots.

The qualifying total was subsequently revised to 16.  Although the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, readily qualified for the award he was not however - and to Erich Ludendorff's surprise - awarded the supplementary Oakleaves.

The last surviving recipient of the military Pour le Merite - Ernst Junger - died in 1998.

Click here for information on recipients of the Pour le Merite since its inception.

A respirator was a gas mask in which air was inhaled through a metal box of chemicals.

- Did you know?

A to Z