Article by Heino Prunsvelt, a longtime collector and researcher of German orders and awards, more that 20-year member of DGO*. (Translation from Estonian CL)


This year marks the 210th anniversary since the founding of the Iron Cross, one of the most famous military honours in history. King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia established it on 10 March 1813. On 20 March 1813 the newspaper Schlesische Priviliegerte Zeitung published its description and statute. In the same paper, Friedrich Wilhelm III publishes appeals to his people “An mein Volk” and the army “An mein Kriegsheer”.

King Friedrich Wilhelm III

Schlesische privilegirte Zeitung No 3420 March 1813

The Iron Cross was created as a badge of valour for the Wars of Liberation faught against Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. Ironically created following the same principles as the French Legion of Honor, founded by Napoleon in 1802, the Iron Cross was one of the first honours that adhered to democratic principles: the status, social origin, or military rank of the recipient did not affect the awarding. Iron Crosses were presented equally to both the soldier and the general. It was only a matter of personal bravery or successful command of troops in battles.

The king chose the birthday of his late wife, Queen Luise, who was born on 10 March 1776, as the official date of the Iron Cross’s foundation. The king awarded the first Iron Cross posthumously to his beloved Luise. This Cross was placed at her bust in the room where she passed away in 1810 in Hohenzieritz Castle.

Queen Luise of Prussia

Karl Friedrich Schinkel and his design of the Iron Cross

According to the statute, the Prussian Iron Cross was divided into three classes: 2nd, 1st Class, and Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. The badges for the 2nd and 1st classes were the same size, that of the Grand Cross was larger.

The Iron Cross, 1st class was worn on the left side of the recipient’s uniform. The Iron Cross 2nd Class, and the larger Grand Cross, were suspended from ribbons:  the 2nd Class from a ribbon on the chest and the Grand Cross from a neck ribbon. The Grand Cross was awarded only to generals and marshals for successfully leading troops in battle. A certificate of award accompanied the badges.

The first insignia designs were sketched by the king himself. It was a pâté cross, with a square with cut corners in the center. The square contained the monogram of his royal highness FWR – Friedrich Wilhelmus Rex, surmounted by the Prussian crown. Oak leaves adourned the four arms of the cross. Between the arms were the numbers 1813 – the year the Iron Cross was established. However, the famous Prussian architect and painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who gave the award its the final shape. Schinkel was in the service of the King of Prussia from 1810 until 1841. He modeled the Iron Cross on the insignia of the Teutonic Order, which was founded in 1190. This symbol of the black cross was worn by the knights of the order on their white coats. In his design, the obverse of the Iron Cross was pure. Three oak leaves were depicted in the centre of the reverse, above the leaves were the king’s initials FW with a Prussian crown and the foundation year 1813 below.

It was originally planned that the cross would be entirely iron and black in colour. But after the sixth awarding it became clear that the Cross “disapeared” on the Prussien soldiers’ dark uniforms, as they were also black. To address this issue several experiments were made until a suitable solution was found and the Iron Cross got its silver frame. In the middle of April, four cross prototypes were ready. Production issues were resolved, 300 Iron Crosses completed by the beginning of May.

A black painted iron cross between two silver frames soldered together. A small round loop with a larger ring for a ribbon was attached to the top edge of the silver frame of the 2nd Class Iron Cross. The ribbon was black and white, i.e. Prussian colours. Two narrower white lines at the edges of the black ribbon. A The badge of the 2nd Class cost 2.5 thalers, which was a considerable amount of money at the time. 1st Class already five thalers. Iron Crosses were also awarded for civil merits, for example, to paramedics and surgeons. In the case of an award to a civilian, the Iron Cross of the 2nd Class was also worn at the end of a black and white ribbon, but different from the Military Merit Cross, the colors of the ribbon were reverted. There were two black lines on the edges of the white ribbon.

Grand Cross

I Class

II Class

The 1st Class was originally worn on a cross made of two black and white ribbon sections sewn together. As such, it was worn on the chest until the crosses in the silver frame were adopted. The obverse of the 1st class badge was clean, and the reverse had either loops or a vertical pin to fasten to the chest. 

Major Karl August Ferdinand von Borcke of the 1st Pomeranian Infantry Regiment was the first to be awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class on 2 April 1813. He received it for the capture of the heavily fortified Lüneburg Fort. In this unit, five more officers, eight non-commissioned officers, and two privates received the Iron Cross, becoming its first soldier recipients. Later, Major von Borcke received the Iron Cross 1st Class for the Battle of Katzach. Commander of the 9th Hussar Regiment, Oberstleutnant Rudolf Friedrich von Hellwig, who distinguished himself in the Battle of Wanfried, became the first to receive the Iron Cross 1st class on 17 April 1813. On 3 March 1814 Unteroffizier Frederike Krüger became the first woman to be awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In the ranks of the 9th Kolberg Infantry Regiment, she went under the name August Lübke and wore men’s clothes. She also received the Prussian War Memorial Medal and the Russian Order of St George. The first Iron Cross 2nd Class for Non-Military Merits was awarded to the War Governor of Berlin, General Anton Wilhelm von Esloeg.  16,813 2nd class Iron Crosses were issued during the Wars of Liberation, among them 371 Civil Merit Crosses.

The first recipients of the 2nd class Iron Cross preferred to wear their badges backwards, i.e. with the image on top and the smooth surface on the back, inadvertantly the reverse had become the obverse. This is why, already in June 1813, the king gave the order to wear the badge in this way from that moment on. However, the design of the 1st Class Iron Crosses was still not changed, their front side remained smooth. The founder of the Iron Cross, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, himself only wore the 2nd Class Iron Cross. His sons, the future Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and the future Prussian King and German Emperor Wilhelm I, also received the 2nd Class Iron Cross. Since the princes wear smaller 2nd Class Iron Crosses on their chests, these miniature crosses are nicknamed Prinzengrosse. Like the King of Prussia, the Russian Emperor Alexander I wears only the 2nd class Iron Cross.

Along with the Iron Cross of the 2nd and 1st Class, the King of Prussia also established the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. This class was awarded to five Military Leaders in the Wars of Liberation: 31 August 1813 – Generalfeldmarshal Gebhard Lebrecht Blücher Fürst von Wahlstatt for the victories at Katzbach; 15 September 1813 – General of Infantry Friedrich Wilhelm Bülow Graf von Dennewitz for the victorious Battle of Dennewitz; September  1813 – Swedish Crown Prince Marshal Karl Johann, for leading the Northern Army at the Battle of Grossbeere; 26 January 1814 – General of Infantry Friedrich Emanuel Bogislav Tauentzien Graf von Wittenberg, for the capture of Wittenberg Fortress; 31 March 1814 – Field Marshal Johann David Ludwig York Graf von Wartenburg, for the campaign in France.

Generalfeldmarshal Gebhard Lebrecht Blücher Fürst von Wahlstatt and the Iron Cross  with the Golden Rays

After the Battle of Waterloo on 26 July 1815, Friedrich Wilhelm III established the special highest degree of the Iron Cross – the Iron cross with the Golden Rays to recognize the contribution of the Prussian forces led by Generalfeldmarschall Blücher von Wahlstatt in the great victory of the coalition forces at Waterloo. It was called Blücherstern – “Blücher’s Star,” after the first bearer of this high honour.

From 1813 to 1815:

2nd Class was awarded – ca 16 000 times,

1st Class – 668 times,

Grand Cross – 5 times,

Iron Cross with the Golden Rays – 1 time.

Altogether during the Wars of Liberation, the Iron Cross was awarded ca 17 000 times.

The Iron Cross was reestablished three more times:

in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War,

in 1914 during World War I and

in 1939 during World War II.