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Decorations and Awards: Awards of the ‘Pour le Merite’ to Prussian General Officers 1792-1815

By Stephen Millar

The origins of Prussia’s ‘Pour le Merite’ date back to 8 May 1667 [1] with the founding of the ‘l’Ordre de la Generosite’ by Friedrich-Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg (1620-1688). Originally a fairly simple decoration, by 1685 it had become a sky-blue enamel Maltese cross.

On 9 June 1740, the newly-crowned of Prussia [2] King Friedrich II (also known as ‘Frederick the Great’) converted the ‘l’Ordre de la Generosite’ into the ‘Pour le Merite’. The new order was both a military and civilian award (French writer Francois-Marie-Arouet de Voltaire received the Pour le Merite in 1750). It is interesting to note that if a receipient of the previous ‘l’Ordre de la Generosite’ later received the ‘Pour le Merite’, he was required to return his earlier award [3].

Very few senior officers emerged unscathed from the disastrous Jena-Auerstadt Campaign. Sources indicate that only two Prussian officers were awarded the ‘Pour le Merite’ in 1806: Leutnant [later Major] Ferdinand-Baptista von Schill (1776-1809) an officer of Dragoon Regiment ‘Konigin’ Nr. 5 wounded at Auerstadt and the future Generalleutnant August-Friedrich-Ludwig, Freiherr von Wrangel (1774-1851). A third individual, Alexei Kulesch – probably a Russian officer – also received the ‘Pour le Merite’ that year.

There were no awards of the ‘Pour le Merite’ from 1808 to 1811. It was during this ‘middle Napoleonic’ period [18.01.1810], that King Friedrich-Wilhelm III changed the ‘Pour le Merite’ into an exclusively-military award [4]. Three years later [10.03.1813] he decreed gold oak leaves could be added to the ‘Pour le Merite’ to recognize exceptional achievements or merit.

While not as exclusive an award as the Order of the Black Eagle [5] the ‘Pour le Merite’ was still considered one of the highest honours available for serving Prussian – and foreign – officers. Unlike other decorations, the ‘Pour le Merite’ with (or without) Oak leaves could be awarded more than once to the same officer. Generalmajor Johann-Karl-Josef von Schon (1765-1818) was awarded the ‘Pour le Merite’ with Oak leaves twice: 31.05.1814 and 02.10.1815. Two Russian officers, Sacher Sergieieovich Shusherin and Peter Andreieovich Sass were each awarded the ‘Pour le Merite’ three times during the Napoleonic Wars [6].

The Oak leaves could also be awarded separately: Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm von Funck (1774-1830) won his original ‘Pour le Merite’ in 1812 but received his Oak leaves on 03.11.1815. The Oak leaves were rarely awarded; only 40 were given out from 1813 to 1815.

After the Allied armies occupied Paris in March 1814, Friedrich-Wilhelm III liberally-awarded the ‘Pour le Merite’; large numbers of Russian officers were given the decoration on 11 April and on 13-18 October (the first anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig). During his 43-year reign, he made 2,454 awards of the ‘Pour le Merite’ (44 awards with Oak leaves).

The following chronological/alphabetical list of ‘Pour le Merite’ recepients does not include those general officers who were awarded it prior to 1792 (as examples, Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard-Lieberecht von Blucher, Generalleutnant Johann-Ernst, Graf von Kunheim and General der Infanterie Julius-August-Reinhold von Grawert all received the ‘Pour le Merite’ in 1789). Also note that each officer’s rank is the final grade reached during his military career and not the grade held at the time of his award.

From 1740 to 1918, a total of 5,430 individuals received the ‘Pour le Merite’, including five recipients of the Grand Cross (established in 1866 and last awarded in 1879) and two royal recipients Grand Gross with Oak leaves).


[1] Several sources give the founding date as 12 May 1740.

[2] The Electorate of Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

[3] The ‘Pour le Merite’ did not receive the informal title ‘Blue Max’ until the First World War, when it was awarded to the German pilot Max Immelmann [02.01.1916].

[4] A civilian ‘arts and science’ class of the ‘Pour le Merite’ was established by King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 31.05.1842 and awarded until 1918. The decoration was reinstated 31.05.1952 by West German President Theodor Heuss.

[5] The Order of the Black Eagle (Schwartzer-Adler-Orden) was Prussia’s highest order of chivalry. Founded in 1701 by King Friedrich I, it was only awarded to royalty and heads of state.

[6] Shusherin was given the ‘Pour le Merite’ on 08.12.1813, 08.05.1814 and 13-18.10.1814; Sass was given the decoration on 08.05.1814, 29.05.1814 and 13-18.10.1814. There is also a single award of the ‘Pour le Merite’ to an unknown Russian lieutenant on 11.12.1813 and awards to two unknown British officers on 07-22.06.1814.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005