Dozens of books have been written on this topic and many of these are great reference sources. My goal with this brief introduction is to impart at least one factoid regarding this prestigious, long living decoration that you didn't know before.
It has always been awarded for bravery and over the 132 years of its official existence (1813-1945). The only known exception to that rule was the very first recipient who was Louise who was the wife of Friedrich Wilhelm III who instituted the award. In this case it was done after she passed away. Over the years, the award was broadened and it was awarded in many classes. This blog will deal with the initial 1813 and 1870 basic versions of the award.
The 1813 version came in the 2nd and 1st class. Unofficial sources indicate nearly 17,000 2nd class and approximately 690 1st class examples were awarded during the period referred to as "The Wars for Liberation". However, original examples of the 1813 style iron cross, (see pic)
are virtually unobtainium. The first style of the 1813 Iron Cross 1st Class was stitched in ribbon to the left uniform breast. Then in June 1813, the 2nd form was created in cast iron with silver borders, and 8 loops on the reverse, to be sewn to the left uniform breast. This is part of the reason it's called the "iron cross".
The award was then issued on special occasions until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 when this conflict resulted in a huge number of 1st and 2nd class iron crosses being award. The difference between the 2nd class and the 1st class are numerous. The 2nd class award has the date of the original institution of the award on the reverse (1813) and the date (1870) on the obverse with the (W) for Wilhelm I and the royal crown. It has a suspension ring and a black and white ribbon for the colors of Prussia.
Soldiers who received the 2nd class award would cut a portion of the ribbon off and inset that in the second button hole of their tunic. The award itself was only worn on special occasions and that would be on a medal bar on their dress tunic. This tradition continued for the later 1914, 1939 and 1957 versions of the 2nd class.
The first class version of the 1870 iron cross (eisernes kreuz) had a pin on the back. The obverse was identical to the obverse on the second class version with the crown, the W for Wilhelm I and the date 1870. The first class version was worn on the center of the left breast pocket of the tunic.
Original examples of the 1st and 2nd class 1870 version can be maker marked on the ring (of the 2nd class) or the back of the 1st class either on the pin or under the catch. Examples of private purchase examples with higher silver content, like 800, have been observed. Several different makers produced this decoration.
The following reference is one of the best on the topic of the iron cross, including the earlier examples I've discussed here.
The Iron Time: A History of the Iron Cross by Stephen Thomas Previtera
In the upcoming weeks, I shall discuss the other versions of the Iron Cross including the 1914, 1939 and 1957 styles.
Until next time,