Having written recently on the joy of researching British First World War medals it seems like a good idea to consider what medals a German soldier from the same conflict might have been awarded. This article is based on a group of four which, unusually, come with some original documentation and photographs which can help us understand these medals. Unlike British medals of the period there is no name on these so we will always need some additional documentation if a history is to be unravelled
Not surprisingly we see fewer German groups of medals in the UK than British medals. In general they are less well understood. German medals are similar to ours, they are for taking part in the conflict, length of service and acts of valour and meritorious service. One of the major differences is that German medals are often awarded in different classes for different ranks and with variations for combatants and non-combatants. There are also regional variations in medals, Germany was fighting as an Empire during the Great War so there are Prussian awards, Bavarian awards and so on.
The medals in this group of four are all regularly encountered medals. They are:
The Bavarian Military Medal with swords and crown. This is the most regularly encountered award for bravery, for enlisted men rather than officers, it was to reward extraordinary merit by non-commissioned officers, soldiers and lower ranking officials. First awarded in 1866 there was a silver and gold version for worthier actions. The obverse has a crowned ‘L’ for King Ludwig II, the reverse a Bavarian lion and 1866. The Merit award was revised a number of times, this will be the post 1913 example, the swords are for a wartime award, the lack of enamel to the centre tells us it is one of the later awards, and being bronze it will be the third class award as would befit the rank of the recipient, the Crown recognises either a second award or for greater merit. The ribbon is for soldiers rather than officials. So typically with continental award rather than English ones, many variants to the same medal. This was Bavaria’s main award for bravery and merit, there being something like 73,000 of them with swords and crown, 290,000 without the crown.
One of the reasons I bought this group is because it was accompanied by documentation which can add so much to the history. Amongst this were the award certificates for three of the medals. This (and the translation is my own) says: His Majesty the King. Has on the 3rd of September 1918 graciously awarded to Unteroffizier … Johann Griesbacher, The Military-Decoration 3rd Class with swords …. 20 September 1918.
The Iron Cross is perhaps the most recognisable of all military awards. This is a second class award, the first class award had no ribbon and was a separate badge on a pin. This was a Prussian award created by King Frederick William III of Prussia in 1813. The reverse is a reference to this first award with the initials FW for the King, the date 1914 on the front tells us it is a First World War example with a W for Wilhelm II. When not wearing medals a ribbon was worn through the second button hole in the soldier’s tunic. The Iron Cross was awarded to Officers and Men alike, given that it is a well known and highly respected award for bravery in battle there were a remarkable 5,196,000 second class awards and something like 218,000 first class awards.
The Award Certificate for the Iron Cross is easier to read being typed rather than hand written, this tells us it was awarded to Kanonier Johann Griesbacher Der 2. Batterie des Bayer. Ersatz-Feld-Artillerie-Regiment, on 18 August 1917.
The third medal is a long service award, a Bavarian Cross within the legend ‘Treue Dienst Bei Der Fahne’ which translates as Loyal Service Under the Colours, the reverse with a central IX for 9 years within ‘Dienstauszeichnung III. Classe’ for Service Award 3rd Class. This is for nine years service, II class would be for 12 years and 1st class for 15.
The final medal, the 1914-1918 cross is often referred to as the Honour Cross of the World War also as the Hindenburg Cross. This is a much later award created by the President of the German Republic in 1934 to commemorate the service of the German people during the First World War. The presence of the swords on this medal confirms that it was awarded to a soldier who took part in the fighting. A regularly encountered award there were over eight million of these awarded.
Awarded on behalf of the Fuhrer and Reichs Chancellor Field Marshall Von Hindenburg in 1934 to commemorate the Wold War of 1914/18. The mounting suggests that this medal was added to the bar after the original mounting of the first three. This would make sense given the date of the award, and also suggests an old soldier or veteran who took pride in his awards.
The group is nicely mounted in the German manner with decoratively laid ribbons, two medals for bravery or conduct in the field, one for long service and one commemorating the conflict. Quite similar to our own awards for the conflict in many ways. A nice representative set of four medals in suitably ‘as worn’ condition which suggests they were worn by the recipient after the war with pride. Soldiers react differently to their medals, famously some threw them away, some didn’t have them mounted, others wore them whenever the occasions arose and were proud of the part they played in the conflict.
Johann Griesbacher held the rank of Unteroffizier which equates to our rank of Corporal and the description Kanonier refers to a role in the artillery. In this case number 2 battery of the Field Artillery Regiment. His Military Pass book is in a reddish pink as was appropriate for an Artillery unit, it includes entries from 1913 – 1919. It is difficult to read but we can see that he was from Egglham, a small Bavarian town or village north east of Munich near the current borders with Czechia and Austria. He was born on the 11th September 1894. The partially colourised photograph in the back of the book shows the young Johann presumably aged 19 or 20 in his dress uniform with sword and Pickelhaube to one side. I wonder how often he got to wear such a smart uniform.
Two additional photographs show him during the war with colleagues. One has him with a friend, perhaps also from Egglham, two young, fresh faced soldiers as unsuspecting as the young men they were sent to fight.
The second shows a group of four men which may include him in a relaxed moment, their uniforms looking much more ‘lived in’.
I am not sure that I can deduce much more from these medals. I will work on getting the information in his Military Record book translated however the mixture of the gothic script and handwriting make this a challenging task.
If there is anything you can add it would be lovely to hear from you.