The German Iron Cross is probably the most iconic award in the world. As part of the same coalition an exchange agreement between Germany and Austro-Hungaria was made for their armies. Were the German award system is the same for all ranks this is not the case in the Austro-Hungarian (AH) award system were there are specific medals for officers and different medals for the nco ranks. For the Germans the Iron Cross was the most general medal for gallantry so a good basis for exchange. But this would not fit the AH system. Therefore the choice was made to make the German Iron Cross only available to the officers in the AH army. The 2nd class for troop officers and the 1st class only for high ranking officers which can be seen in the extreme low amounts awarded. This only began to change slightly in the last year of the war.
For the ranks below officer a different solution had to be found. This came in the form of the Prussian Warriors Merit Medal (Krieger Verdienstmedaille) that always had been intended for foreign soldiers of ranks below officer. It was worn on the same ribbon as the Iron Cross which made the distinction between officers and men a bit more tolerable.
The Iron Cross could be awarded to the lowest rank of officer (Fahnrich) and also to Officer replacements. Most officers that became an officer during the war had gone through the nco ranks as part of their officers training and often had been awarded medals for the nco ranks in that period. As soon as they were officers they would be eligable to receive the German Iron Cross. So in mixed groups (officers that had been a nco before) both officers and nco medals can be found. This often leeds to the misunderstanding that the German Iron Cross could be awarded the nco’s as well in the AH army which is not the case.
The award criteria for gallantry medals are very different in each country as is the structure of the army and the processes to award medals. So a comparison of “level” is not possible. But a comparison of relative numbers of awards should be possible.
To do this I have taken some data from online sources and combined those. I have taken the number of men mobilized between 1914 and 1918. Further I have taken the number of awards per class and compared these with the number of mobilized men. Both as an percentage and as 1 decoration awarded per how many mobilized men.
There are several reasons why this comparison is not “fair”. The AH Bravery Medals were aimed at the men below the rank of officer. No other gallantry medals could be given to them. The German Iron Cross in the German army was open to all ranks. Next to this there were many other awards for gallantry/bravery from the different states within Imperial Germany. Those facts are not taken in account – it is a simple, straightforward comparison of numbers only!
Nevertheless I have made the comparison in numbers and found to my surprise that the total relative amount of Iron Crosses is way bigger than that of Bravery Medals. Even the “unpopular” Bronze Bravery Medal is relatively rarer than an Iron Cross 2nd Class. And the Silver Bravery Medal 1st class can be compared to the Iron Class 1st class in relative amounts.
The last part of the statistics show the numbers I have taken from the reference below and state the amount of German Iron Crosses (IC) and Prussian Warriors Merit Medals (WMM) that were awarded to members of the Austro-Hungarian army.
All pictures are from my own collection.
Reference: Steiner, J.C. (2010) Heldenwerk 1914-1918. Vienna, Austria
Part one can be found here: The Austro-Hungarian Bravery medals in WW1 – part 1: History and Medals
And for part three follow this link: The Austro-Hungarian Bravery medals in WW1 – part 3: paperwork
And background of a Golden Bravery Medal winner: Vitéz Horvath Janos winner of the Golden Medal for Bravery, WW1 Austro-Hungarian Army